Calling a work of art a masterpiece or a treasure is a difficult task even as we’ve embraced the opportunity to do so since at least the Middle Ages. This task of discrimination is especially difficult when it comes to evaluating works based largely on the pain and suffering of others, works like the paintings in the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
The collection (selections of which are featured here, courtesy Laura Brandon, CWM curator of war art for the last 20 years), in fact, contains not just paintings but drawings, sculptures and work in other media – some 13,000 artifacts in total – by Canadian artists as well-known as A.Y. Jackson, Alex Colville and Paraskeva Clark, plus commissions given to British artists such as Sir William Nicholson. Many were included in the CWM’s 2000-2001 exhibition Canvas of War: Military Art Treasures from the CWM 1914-1945.
How to assess let alone create art depicting the proverbial “man’s inhumanity to man”? Well, wrote the British poet Alexander Pope in 1734, “the proper study of mankind is man.” Proclaimed the Roman playwright Terence almost two centuries before Christ: “Nothing human is alien to me.”
Accept those as true – and they do seem to have the bite of truth – then there’s no reason to believe art shouldn’t be as much in the thrall of the horrors and heroism of war as Renoir was to his boating parties, Manet to his lunches on the grass and Picasso to the five prostitutes from Avignon.