National Gallery of Canada commemorates centennial of the end of World War I with a special exhibition on Halifax

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October 10, 2018 – The paintings Halifax, the largest and most ambitious work executed by British artist Harold Gilman, and Winter Camouflage, by Group of Seven co-founder Arthur Lismer, are at the heart of the new exhibition Masterpiece in Focus: Halifax Harbour 1918. The show, which marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, is presented at the National Gallery of Canada from October 12, 2018 to March 17, 2019. It is organized in partnership with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

In 1918 the Canadian War Memorials Fund (CWMF) commissioned artists Harold Gilman (1876–1919) and Arthur Lismer (1885–1969) to depict the war effort at the port of Halifax. The assignment came after the most destructive explosion of the First World War, when a freighter collided with a munitions ship in the Halifax harbour in 1917 killing nearly 2,000 people and injuring thousands more.

Featuring 35 works, including preparatory paintings and drawings, sketches, prints and photographs, Halifax Harbour 1918 explores how these two painters-turned-war-artists approached their respective missions during a critical moment in the history of Canadian landscape painting and the challenges they faced while working in Halifax in the aftermath of the tragedy. For the first time, Gilman’s monumental canvas can be viewed alongside his preparatory works.

“Harold Gilman and Arthur Lismer’s paintings for the CWMF are evocative and powerful responses to the First World War. This exhibition is an opportunity to highlight their achievements and bring these important works to the attention of a broader national and international audience,” said NGC Director and CEO Marc Mayer.

Harold Gilman chose to wipe clean the desolation, replacing the site of the catastrophe with a glowing landscape, Halifax Harbour (1918). The canvas was first shown in January 1919 as part of a Canadian War Memorials exhibition at the Burlington House in London, and later travelled to New York, Toronto, and Montreal.

British-born artist Arthur Lismer became the principal of the Victoria School of Art and Design [now the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD)] in 1916. His participation in the CWMF is due to National Gallery of Canada director Eric Brown, who submitted his name for consideration as a war artist. Upon receiving permission to draw and record the war effort around the harbour, Lismer produced numerous sketches, drawings and paintings of battleships. Winter Camouflage is as much about the wintry maritime landscape with its snow-covered pines and cobalt-blue shadows as it is about the dazzle-painted, camouflaged warships in the harbour. Brown was so impressed with Lismer’s work that he acquired it for the Gallery that year.

“This dense, one-room show allows us to highlight the way in which both Gilman and Lismer approached their shared mission,” said Anabelle Kienle Poňka, exhibition co-curator and Acting Senior Curator of European and American art. “Each artist was meticulous in executing numerous preparatory studies in order to live up to the task. These sketches are presented in juxtaposition to their later paintings and as such let us experience the artists’ creative process.”

Halifax Harbour, 1918, organized by Kienle Poňka and Gilman scholar Lily Foster, includes loans from the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, the Canadian War Museum, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the British Council, the Higgins Art Gallery & Museum in Bedford, England, and private collections. Following its run at the Gallery, the exhibition will be on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia from April 12 to September 2, 2019.