For Remembrance Day, the Archives is remembering some of the Banff Centre community who have played the unique role of official War Artist.
Canada’s War Artist program started in 1917, as a way to document the war from the Canadian point of view, beyond the limitations of film, photography, and print. One of the most significant events of the war, the 1915 battle of Ypres, when Canadian soldiers’ first encountered poison gas, had not been filmed or photographed. But a British artist was able to re-create it in a painting. The Canadian War Records office recognized that visual artists could document and communicate beyond what a camera could express, and further decided they wanted to commission Canadian artists.
A.Y. Jackson was Canada’s first official War Artist, and the experience solidified his commitment to a distinctly Canadian artistic vision, expressed through Canadian landscape art (later as part of the Group of Seven). The philosophy led him to teach landscape painting to young art students at The Banff Centre throughout the 1940’s.
George Pepper had taught at The Banff Centre before he signed up as a War Artist attached to the Canadian Army in 1943. Although he had been influenced by the Group of Seven in his early career, Pepper didn’t focus on landscapes during the war, but documented the modern machinery, daily life, drama and death of the conflict. He returned to the Banff Centre to teach immediately after being demobilized, and returned regularly to teach advanced courses in Banff until his death in 1962.
War Artists during the two world wars were motivated primarily by patriotism, but Allan Harding MacKay applied for an appointment to Somalia in 1993 for a different reason: to consciously explore the role of an artist in documenting military operations. After his week embedded with the troops, he spent extensive time at The Banff Centre processing his raw video into the Somalia Yellow series, a collection of videos and prints expressing his highly personal and poetic response to the military intervention, amid the natural and social realities of Somalia.