________________ CM . . . . Volume VII Number 17 . . . . April 27, 2001

cover Canvas of War: The Art of World War II.

Michael Ostroff (Director). Seaton Findlay (Writer). Neil Bregman (Producer).
Toronto, ON: Sound Venture Productions and the Canadian War Museum (Distributed by Kineticvideo.com, 511 Bloor St. West, Toronto, ON, M5S 1Y4), 2000.
46 min., 48 sec., VHS, $149.95.
ISBN 0-00-648522-7.

Subject Heading:
World War, 1939-1945, in art.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Alexander D. Gregor.

**** /4

Canada has a particularly rich tradition of wartime art, and the experience of producing art under the conditions of war has been a major shaping influence on a large number of the country's prominent artists. This hour video, produced by Sound Venture Productions, in collaboration with the Canadian War Museum, does a very effective job both of introducing that art (as it was developed during World War II), and of examining the experience of the artists involved. Although the war is its subject and a continuous backdrop to the commentary the video is not about war itself, but rather about the artist and the artistic process in a time of national and social crisis, and in a setting of moral horror and confusion. Among the major contributions of the film is its very clear illustration of the value and importance of art in explaining and interpreting events in a way that no other medium including film can do. The case is made very effectively that the artist is an essential part of a country's being able to come to understand itself, and of its citizens as individuals being able to come to understand the human and emotional dimensions of the larger social events surrounding them. (And it is interesting to note that a particularly strong and convincing political voice in support of that critical role of art was Raymond Massey, then the Canadian High Commissioner in London, and later the principal architect of the so-called Massey Royal Commission that gave birth to the Canada Council and to a number of other initiatives in support of the artistic enterprise. It is instructive to reflect how much of a nation's heritage can depend ultimately on the efforts of a single protagonist.) As a reminder of the central place and role of art in personal and community self-knowledge, the video has made a significant contribution.

      But beyond that issue of the role of art per se, the video is an instructive introduction to what this role means for the artists themselves. Clearly, genuine art is not something that can be prescribed or ordered; and what is produced (as opposed to what is exhibited, of course) is not within bureaucratic control, even in wartime. An interesting aspect of the story involves just that political dimension, where those in control of the war art program, and those participating within it, often reflect quite different views of the point and purpose of the exercise: the bureaucrats wanting heroic "poster art" or at least camera-like "realism," and the artists themselves searching out a way to express and respond to the experiences that confront them on the battlefront and the home front. The fact that they were ultimately given comparatively free artistic license speaks well of the leadership. Once the war had ended, and the need for "instrumental art" had passed, the nation was left with a rich legacy of works of the first quality and a body of art (exceeding 5000 pieces) that could continue to speak to subsequent generations of the nature and human meaning of war.

      The format employed for the video seems particularly appropriate for the subject and goals. Film footage from the war is juxtaposed to the artistic renderings; and a number of the principal artists are able to speak to their recollections, in juxtaposition to film footage of their experiences in action. Among the rich range of artists portrayed are Alex Colville, Aba Bayefsky, Bruno Bobak, Miller Brittain, and Lawren Harris each, in the way of artists, reflecting a quite different experience. Fascinating as well is the story told primarily through the stories of Pegi Nicol MacLeod and Molly Lamb Bobak of the special struggle for involvement and recognition faced by female artists, and the important ultimate contribution they made to the artistic representation of the home front the hospitals, the factories, and the everyday lives of those constantly awaiting news from the battle front.

      Although a comparatively brief production, the video makes a significant contribution, both to our understanding of an important part of our cultural heritage, and to our understanding of the place and role of art in our understanding of our own human experience. The video would be a very useful addition to any history or social studies course or art course - at the senior high level and beyond.

Highly Recommended.

Alexander D. Gregor is the Associate Dean (Graduate Programs), Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364