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.

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