Friday, November 8, 2013

Brutalized Landscapes: Wayne Larsen on AY Jackson and the Great War (2/2)

Continued from previous post.

Wayne Larsen's A.Y. Young (Toronto: Dundurn, 2009) is a biography of a Canadian war artist who experienced the Great War as a private in the ranks before being picked up by the Canadian War Memorials Fund.  His work for Lord Beaverbrook's organization produced some of the most iconic depictions of battlescapes on record.  After Second Ypres, Jackson accepted the war would not be over quickly, and enlisted in the 60th Battalion.

That A.Y. Jackson was on the cusp of renown when he joined the army, is reflected in the reportage of the Montreal Gazette of June 29th, 1915.

(W.W.I - 1914 - 1918) Lieut.-Col. Gascoigne,
 O.C. 60th Battalion. May, 1917. 
Canada. Dept. of National Defence
/Library and Archives Canada/
When the first five hundred men of the 60th Battalion, under Lieut.Col. F.A. Gascoigne, entrain at the Windsor street station tomorrow night for Valcartier, the force will have on its strength Private A.Y. Jackson, artist, and associate of the Royal Canadian Academy...Mr. Jackson a few years ago traveled through Belgium, sketched its landscapes and its historic monuments, and in that time of peace and prosperity saw the cities that have since been devastated by the Germans - Bruges, Brussels, Antwerp, Liege and Namur. Now he is anxious to battle on that soil in the common cause." (Quoted in Larsen, p. 72)

Jackson arrived in Le Havre, France in February 1916, and would see four months of action before being wounded. Fifteen years after the fact, he recalled a surreal day in the trenches:
I was just thinking back to another June 3rd crawling along a trench in Sanctuary Wood, and an aeroplane circling overhead like a big hawk, signalling to the artillery who were trying to blow us up. It was a day of glorious sunshine and only man was vile, in general, individually they were magnificent. I thought a cup of cocoa in a dressing station was an undreamed of luxury. (Quoted in Larsen, p. 73) 
A little over a week later, Jackson was wounded in the Battle of Mount Sorrel. After his recovery, when training at Shoreham, England, in the summer of 1917, he received the news that Tom Thomson had drowned.  The event was shrouded in mystery, and has since been the subject of much historical speculation.

It was in the summer of 1917 that Jackson's fortunes as a common soldier changed. While digging a latrine in Shoreham, he was approached by a member of the Canadian War Memorials Fund, who told Jackson of the opportunity to work for Lord Beaverbrook as an official painter. After he proved that he had the skills for the job, he was promoted to Lieutenant, which was a source of some embarrassment. As Larsen wrote, "Whereas Private Jackson had avoided saluting officers by taking alternate routes down quiet side streets, Lieutenant Jackson now had to keep to the busy main roads to avoid being saluted." (Larsen, p. 80)

AY Jackson. Gas Attack, Lievin. 1918. Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum. 19710261-0179

Later that year, when he made his way to Flanders, he again felt embarrassed traveling around in a staff car, while the poor bloody infantry slogged on through the endless muck. Soldiers were generally cold to him until they learned that he had been wounded in combat. Larsen suggests that something in the changed nature of warfare, the estrangement of artillery, chlorine gas, night attacks, and tunnels, meant that old depictions of battle no longer sufficed. Jackson's memory supports this: 
When the War Records of World War I were organized, the artists started off thinking in terms of the kind of war art popularized by the Graphic and the Illustrated London News. It gave one the feeling of something left over from previous wars, the old stock poses, the same old debris lying around like still life, and smoke drifting whenever the composition gave trouble.

The machine gun had destroyed the old death and glory picture which depended on a mass of cavalry or infantry hurtling forward with the shot-riddled flag clutched in the striken hero's hand. There pictures were mostly painted by artists who had no first-hand information and it was not long before we realized how ineffective they were. (Cited in Larsen, p. 81)

Portrait of t Robert Shankland, 
The Victoria Cross, 1917.
 Canadian War Museum. 
Beaverbrook Collection of
 War Art Photo Credit 

While Jackson did paint a portrait of Victoria Cross recipient, most of his work, the largest of any war artist, were depictions of landscapes decimated by battle. "He knew that by painting what would have otherwise been peaceful landscapes, now battered beyond recognition by the modern war machine, he could instil in the viewer a sense of devastation that could be measured in human terms." (Larsen, p. 81).

A Copse Evening. AY Jackson, 1918.

The winter of 1917-18 was spent in his London studio, and it was on his return to the battlefields in the spring of 1918 when he painted A Copse, Evening, one of his best known works of the war. The German spring offensive pushed the artists off the continent, and curiously, Jackson did not return to capture Canadian advances during the Hundred Days campaign. Jackson was instead ordered back to Canada to prepare to join Canadian troops to Siberia.

It is here that Larsen leaves the reader wanting more.  Why did Jackson go back to Canada at this time instead of heading back to the front as the British pressed forward in 1918?  The Canadian Siberian Expeditionary force, was sent to aid the White Russians against their revolutionary foe, in hopes to allow Russia to fight the Germans in the east. The expedition sailed in October of 1918, yet Larsen notes that on the 11th of November, Jackson was on Sainte-Catherine Street, Montreal when he heard the church bells ringing to announce the end of the war. So when Larsen writes, "of course the trip to Siberia was automatically cancelled", part of the story is missing. (Larsen, p. 86)

Personnel of the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force
 with truck Date(s)ca. Jan. - May 1919PlaceVladivostok, Russia. 
Credit: Raymond Gibson / Library and Archives Canada / C-091749
Troops were still sent to Siberia in December 1918, in fact, some of them mutinied in Victoria before sailing. Was the action no longer considered part of the First World War and thus no longer justified commemoration under the Canadian War Memorials Fund? Was no other artist available to go with the expedition other than Jackson? London to Vladivostok is a long journey, was no one closer that could have done the job?

Larsen can't answer every question about Jackson's motivations and attitudes towards the war, especially in a full length biography of which 1914-1918 is but one small component.  He does relay an amusing anecdote about Jackson and the Siberian Intervention. He notes that in preparation for the trip, Jackson purchased twenty tubes of white paint so that he would have enough to capture all the snow. With his trip cancelled, he had more white paint than he would need for years. He joked that it was this stash of white paint that prompted him to become a painter of snowy landscapes in the following years, "as I had to find some use for it." (Larsen, p. 86)

A.Y. Jackson’s In Jasper Park, 1924. A Y Jackson's painting In Jasper Park. Thomson Collection at The Art Gallery of Ontario Photo Courtesy of the Estate of the late Dr. Naomi Jackson Groves Westbridge Fine Art

In the years following the First World War, Jackson painted troopships in Halifax before being officially discharged. He would soon become affiliated with the Group of Seven, working to promote a distinct Canadian way of art.  Some argue that the war altered his style to shift from early-modernist impressionist styles to more post-impressionist expressions of landscapes.  Some of Jackson's work is available for viewing at the Glenbow Museum's Transformations exhibit, which examines the development of Jackson's nationalism and its relation to the Great War.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Distant Trumpets: Wayne Larsen on AY Jackson and the approach of the Great War (1/2)

Wayne Larsen's A.Y. Jackson: The Life of a Landscape Painter (Toronto: Dundurn, 2009), is a handsome book which offers a biography of one of Canada's most renowned artists, illustrated richly by the painter's works. It provides an excellent primer to an ongoing exhibition at the Glenbow Museum (Calgary) featuring Jackson's work alongside the landscapes of Otto Dix, and emphasizing the various conceptions of nationalism affected by the Great War.  Jackson is a quintessentially Canadian painter, but Larsen makes it clear that the future Group of Seven member, was indebted to European impressionists in his pre-war works.

Larsen argues that Jackson's most important role was that of promoter of Canadian art, and his post-war resolve to continue to support the Group of Seven's desires to form a dynamic national style. Larsen notes that it was the core Group of Seven members' discovery of Jackson's The Edge of the Maple Wood in a 1911 exhibition in Toronto, which connected the artist to these influential painters. This was the first time that Jackson applied his Parisian training to Quebec subjects, depicting a sunny day in the Eastern Townships. (Larsen, p. 5-7)
The Edge of the Maple Wood (1910) A.Y. Jackson Canadian, 1882 - 1974 oil on canvas
54.6 x 65.4 cm Purchased 1937 National Gallery of Canada (no. 4298)
Courtesy of the Estate of the late Dr. Naomi Jackson Groves

Sweetsburg, Quebec (1910)
 Courtesy of the Estate of the late Dr. Naomi Jackson Groves
54 x 64.1 cmoil on canvasBequest of Dr. J.M. MacCallum,
 Toronto, 1944National Gallery of Canada (no. 4730)
Jackson had traveled to France and had studied at the Academie Julian in September 1907, but  art dealers and collectors were little impressed by Jackson's works upon his return. As he would later write, it was European art which was in demand: "Dutch pictures became a symbol of social position and wealth...The houses bulged with cows, old women peeling potatoes, and windmills." (Cited in Larsen, p. 33). Another work which applied impressionist style to Canadian subjects was Sweetsburg, Quebec (1910). The depiction of mud in front of a dilapidated barn suggests that decaying, barren, and muddy landscapes were a part of Jackson's work before the Great War.

Autumn in PicardyA.Y. Jackson1912
Courtesy of the Estate of the late Dr. Naomi Jackson Groves
21.2 x 27 cm oil on wood
Gift of members of the Arts & Letters Club, Toronto, 1914
National Gallery of Canada (no. 6529r)
By 1913, after a further sojourn to Europe, Jackson had taken the plunge and moved to Toronto, where he was championed by Lawren Harris and and JEH MacDonald. As the inheritor to the Massey-Harris farm implements fortune, Harris had the time, energy, and money to commit himself to art, which he did with great zeal. In 1913, Harris was in the process of building a major new studio space to foster Canadian artists, scheming to introduce Jackson's works to the National Gallery. Without asking the Gallery whether it would like Jackson's work, Harris pooled money from members of the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto to give Jackson's Autumn in Picardy to the Gallery. He then proceeded to advertise the fact to the press, putting National Gallery director Eric Brown in a difficult position. While the stunt finally came off, it was hardly necessary, as the Gallery had already accepted Jackson's The Drive as well as Sand Dunes at Cucq.

The pre-war years were a time that Jackson began to gain some notoriety for applying Impressionist techniques to Canadian landscapes, yet he still had his traditionalist academic detractors. It was at this time that Toronto Star critic HF Gadsby coined the term "The Hot Mush School", in reference to these new artists, noting "all their pictures look pretty much alike, the net result being more like a gargle or gob of porridge than a work of art." (Larsen, p. 57-61).

Tom Thomson Algonquin Lake, 1914.
Credit: Franklin Carmichael
/ Library and Archives Canada / e007914169
In 1914, Jackson was in the Rocky Mountains, on a commission by Canadian National Railways to paint the mountains for hotel lobbies. Very few of these paintings would survive, as Jackson threw many of them into the fire when he learned that the company went bankrupt. Jackson was his own sharpest critic, and destroyed many of his own paintings over the years.  One day when he returned from hiking the mountains to a small mountain construction camp, he learned that Canada was a war. (Larsen, p. 66-67) Jackson did not rush home to join a regiment, however, instead heading to Alqonquin Park to join Tom Thomson.

Larsen suggests that Jackson did not sign up in the Canadian services believing, like many, that the war would end very quickly. (Larsen, p.69) It was the Spring of 1915, when the painter learned of the Canadians being gassed at the Second Battle of Ypres, that he realized the grave nature of the conflict. He wrote, "At the railway station one morning I heard the first news of the Battle of Saint-Julien. I knew then that all the wishful thinking about the war being of short duration was over." (Cited in Larsen, p. 71)

In addition to Larsen's book, the National Gallery of Canada has a large range of Jackson's paintings online, for those wishing to examine his earlier works.  Many of his sketches from his time in Paris exist, and a sense of his early European influences are clear.  Soon after the shock of Second Ypres, the landscape painter would cross the Atlantic himself, and was wounded on service before finding his role as Canadian war artist and promoter of a national school of art.

For more on Jackson and the Great War, see the following post.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Alexander Young Jackson, the Group of Seven, and the First World War

Many historians have claimed that the First World War was a transformative period, ushering in a new modern era of bureaucracy and state control. For Canadian historians, the dominant narrative surrounding the war, has been that of colony to nation. In art history, this nationalist tone rings true as well, for it was during the Great War that key nationalist artists who would later become known as the Group of Seven developed their skills and were broadly publicized through patriotic efforts linked to the conflict.
Group of Seven, 1920. From left to right: Frederick Varley, A. Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, Fairley, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, and J. E. H. MacDonald. It was taken at The Arts and Letters Club of Toronto. Photo: Arthur Goss.

Four future Group of Seven artists were officially commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund to depict the war. On the homefront, Arthur Lismer and Frank Johnston depicted Canadian efforts, and overseas, AY Jackson and Frederick Varley captured the battlefields of Europe. Unofficially, a fifth member, JEH MacDonald, lent his hand to the war effort by producing illustrations for honour rolls, posters, and other patriotic impressions.

The Group of Seven are the quintessential Canadian visual artists, known for depicting a stark Canadian wilderness which some argue bears the mark of military experience. As Colleen Sharpe, (curator of a previous exhibition at Calgary's Military Museums on the emergent Group of Seven and war), wrote in 2009, "The iconic features of the Group of Seven's art - disturbed ground, prominent rocks, muddy colours and skeletal tree trunks - have not been widely acknowledged as originating in the landscape of the First World War, yet it seems no accident of chronology that these men painted many of their seminal art works directly following the war."(Colleen Sharpe, "Artists and Soldiers", in Art in the Service of War: The Emergent Group of Seven (2009), p. 3) Maria Tippett also saw a direct military connection in the formation of the Group's style, writing that "The low-keyed colours of no man's land and the trenches - muddy brown, yellow ochre, and cool grey - came to permeate the post-war canvases of Varley, Jackson, and others who had lived and painted at the front." (Maria Tippett, Art at the Service of War: Canada, Art, and the Great War (Toronto, 1984), p. 108)  She also notes that exposure to British modernists during their time in England, was a wartime connection that would bring change to Canadian art.

The Canadian War Memorials Fund was the organization which did the most to support Canadian war art during the First World War. Headed by Lord Beaverbrook, the Fund commissioned artists to create a permanent artistic record of the conflict. It prioritized the documentary aspects of art, giving artists the opportunity to explore the battlefields and sketch what they observed. The Fund supported British artists as well, but historians have argued that its major contribution was the support of artists, and the organization of critics and gallery executives, "which enabled a national school of art to fluorish." (Maria Tippett, Art at the Service of War: Canada, Art, and the Great War (Toronto, 1984), p.6.) From November 1916, the CWMF gave artists full-time officer's rank and wages to memorialize the war.

The Great War occurred at a time when artistic taste was changing. As Jackson himself wrote, the war would let Canadian art "emerge from all its tribulations. Its worst foe materialism is being walloped, and will never be quite so formidable again. And all the academic bunch are dying off, gradually very gradually ... the future will take care of us." (Tippett, p. 7) For Jackson, more traditional means of portraying battle no longer rang true. As he put it, depictions of clashes of arms, with crisp lines, and vibrant colours had, "gone underground. There was little to see. The old heroics, the death and glory stuff, were obsolete." (Tippett, p. 13)

House of Ypres
Painted by Alexander Young Jackson
Beaverbrook Collection of War Art
CWM 19710261-0189

Private A.Y. Jackson c.1915
60th Battalion, enlisted June 1915
McMichael Canadian Art Collection Archives
AY Jackon created one of the largest bodies of work of any battlefield war artist, and had served in the 60th Battalion before being committed full time as an artist. He would write that "Lawren Harris wanted me to apply for a commission and offered to defray all expenses in connection with it, but I knew nothing about soldiering and decided to start at the bottom as a private in the infantry." (Art in the Service of War, p. 4) During his time in the line, Jackson put his artistic skills to military use, by drawing diagrams and details from military maps. (Tippett, p.12) Jackson was wounded at Maple Copse near Ypres, which fortunately kept him out of the fighting in Passchendaele. The artist was no stranger to France, having spent some time studying there a decade previous to the war.

Jackson spent time convalescing in France before being sent back to England. He was taken on strength of a reserve battalion and in Shoreham Camp when he heard about the CWMF and decided to approach Lord Beaverbrook. The environment in the battalion contributed to this decision. Jackson noted there was "not enough food and too many military police" with disgruntled soldiers being "drilled and disciplined by men who had not been in France". (Tippett, p. 14) Shortly after he left the battalion a mutiny broke out in the unit.

It was the battlefield itself that inspired; the alien mudscapes, and shattered woods.  Maria Tippett wrote that, "Nothing came to symbolize the war for the artist and the combatant as much as the land upon which it was fought....Pock-marked with gaping water-filled craters, strewn with bones, metal, and all the refuse of modern warfare, the topography of the front line offered few familiar associations....The machine had superseded God's handiwork; his landscape was being reshaped by man's instruments." (Tippett, p. 58) Tippett notes that it was this violent new meaning and manifestation of the landscape that made Romantic-Realist conventions seemingly out of place. Jackson felt that his style needed to be adjusted as well: "the impressionist technique I had adopted in painting was now ineffective, visual impressions were not enough." (Tippett, p.59)

A Copse, Evening
Painted by Alexander Young Jackson
Beaverbrook Collection of War Art

These landscapes and the new techniques used to portray them were directly influential in the development of a national school of art for Canadians after the war. As Tippett writes, "After the war Jackson and his fellow artists deliberately sought to paint 'swampy, rocky, wolf-ridden, burnt and scuttled country with rivers and lakes scattered all through it.' The Group of Seven's concern to demonstrate...the 'spirit' of painting in Canada, was thus associated with a sense that this could best be done by employing methods and techniques they and their colleagues had either seen used or themselves employed to paint the war-torn landscape of the Old World." (Tippett, p. 109)

The Glenbow museum of Calgary is currently exhibiting the work of AY Jackson and Otto Dix, drawing comparisons around the idea of nation and the influence of the Great War on their art.