People & Culture

New museum exhibition celebrates women war artists 

As high-profile wars rage in Europe and the Middle East, the Canadian War Museum tackles how women perceive war. Outside the Lines: Women Artists at War opens May 24. 

  • May 24, 2024
  • 834 words
  • 4 minutes
Canadian artist Gertrude Kearns pictured in her studio in July 2020 with portraits of then Major General Jennie Carignan, 2020 (left), former US Army General David Petraeus, 2019, and artwork of Joint Task Force 2 in the centre, 2018. (Photo: Joseph Hartman)
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Not content painting flowers on teacups, Mary Riter Hamilton desperately wanted to illustrate the battles of the First World War as they raged. But the military would not allow women artists near the front. Determined and sure of what she wanted to record, Hamilton was regarded as too pushy for the patriarchy, even deemed “dangerous” by male bureaucrats from the National Gallery of Canada.

The exhibition curator calls this work "on par with anything you see from the official war artists.” (Credit: Hamilton, Mary Riter. 1919. Gun Emplacements, Farbus Wood, Vimy Ridge, Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1988-180-147, Ottawa)
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But in the wake of the Armistice, Hamilton received a commission from the Amputation Club of British Columbia to travel to Europe. She would use her time — several years, in fact — to paint a series of scarred battlefields, including Vimy Ridge, where corpses were still poking out of the mud. During this period, Hamilton often lived in extreme poverty, her health impacted by her poor living conditions.

One of Hamilton’s paintings, Gun Emplacements, Farbus Wood, Vimy Ridge, 1919, is part of the new Canadian War Museum exhibition Outside the Lines: Women Artists at War, which opens May 24. “Her work is on par with anything you see from the official war artists,” says Stacey Barker, exhibition curator. (The exhibition will run until Jan. 5, 2025 in Ottawa before embarking on a three-year national tour.)

The exhibition traces the evolution of women conflict artists dating back to 1793 when Elizabeth Simcoe sketched the Queen’s Rangers barracks in Upper Canada. Simcoe’s husband, John Simcoe, was the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada and the commander of the Queen’s Rangers during the American Revolution.

A protest against landmines inspired artist Barb Hunt to knit replicas of antipersonnel land mines. The artist noted that knitting is associated with caring, so, for her, it represents recuperation, protection and healing. (Credit: Hunt, Barb. 1998-2003. antipersonnel, knitted yarn.)
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Elizabeth Simcoe's diary and paintings provide a sense of the barracks constructed during this early Canadian era. (Credit: Simcoe, Elizabeth. 1793. Barracks at Queenston and Camp on the Mountain, Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1938-223-26, Ottawa.)
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More than 70 artworks by this group of “dangerous” women take visitors through pre-Confederation and the First World War into the Second World War when Molly Lamb Bobak became the first uniformed woman to serve as an official war artist and to be sent to the action in Europe. The painting generally considered to be Bobak’s finest is a portrait of a Black soldier, Sergeant Eva May Roy, posed at a Canadian canteen in The Netherlands and misidentified by Bobak as a private.

Ranger Sheila Kadiuk, photographed by artist Rosalie Favell during Operation Nanook, an annual sovereignty operation and manoeuvre warfare exercise conducted by the Canadian Armed Forces in the Arctic. (Credit: Favell, Rosalie. 2017. Ranger Sheila Kadjuk, Chesterfield Inlet, Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum 20230075-010, Ottawa.)
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Two more standout portraits are by Gertrude Kearns — one of a soldier suffering PTSD and another of then Major-General Jennie Carignan, the first female Canadian combat soldier to reach that rank (Carignan is now a Lieutenant-General). The portraits of these two women, painted some five decades apart, illustrate just how far the often-troubled relationship between women and the military has evolved.

In curating this exhibition, Barker hopes to shatter notions that war art is simply scenes of soldiers at battle. Thus, visitors will see such contemporary works as Barb Hunt’s installation of pink knitted landmines and Ozell Borden’s quilt, marking the centenary of the all-Black No. 2 Construction Battalion.

The curator sees the evolution of women war artists this way: Women of yesteryear painted what they saw, while contemporary artists “make a statement.”

Take Kearns, for example. She definitely makes statements and is probably the best known living war artist, man or woman, in Canada today. She has three paintings in the exhibition. One is The Dilemma of Kyle Brown: Paradox in the Beyond, 1995, showing a Canadian soldier contemplating the ramifications of his complicity, while on a peacekeeping mission, in the torture death of a Somali civilian. Not in the show is a Kearns painting depicting the actual torture of the Somali man.

Barker says there was no special reason for staging Outside the Lines now (the exhibition was in the planning stages for several years, long before the current wars in Ukraine and the Middle East began, so the exhibition does not feature any works related to those two conflicts). But the show is timely in that it comes at a juncture when various institutions are re-examining the contributions of women artists of yesteryear. Among them was the recent crowd-pleasing nationally touring exhibition Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Movement organized by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection near Toronto.

Paraskeva Clark shows women working on aircraft at a British Commonwealth Air Training Plan base in Canada. Clark painted scenes of members of the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division. (Credit: Clark, Paraskeva. 1945. Maintenance Jobs in the Hangar, Beaverbrook Collection of War Art Canadian War Museum 19710261-5678, Ottawa.)
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The contributions of Mary Riter Hamilton have certainly been re-examined. Her trove of First World War battlefield paintings are now in the possession of Library and Archives Canada, the National Gallery having refused to acquire any paintings by that “dangerous” woman. An LAC exhibition of Hamilton’s paintings, No Man’s Land, opened in 1989 at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and toured for five years across Canada and Europe. It was the “most successful” exhibition ever staged by the federal institution, says Jim Burant, a retired Library and Archives art historian.

“These works of art, much like the small panel paintings of her male compatriots in the future Group of Seven, capture the feeling of the battlefields and their aftermath with vibrancy and immediacy,” says Burant. He describes Hamilton as an accomplished artist, not “dangerous” as she was once labelled.

Outside the Lines reflects the unique perceptions of war experienced by a series of accomplished women artists. The work they undertook was dangerous, but a more accurate one-word description of the women featured in this exhibition would be “groundbreaking.”

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