Exhibit juxtaposes work of two First World War artists

War: “Just as it changes people for good or bad it changes nations for good or bad it changes art too and that is something that has always happened. It’s a condition of being human and it resonates and sometimes we don’t see it” says Laura Brandon curator of the Glenbow’s latest exhibition Transformations which showcases the work of two First World War soldier-artists who fought on opposite sides of the conflict: Otto Dix (Germany) and A. Y. Jackson (Canada).

The exhibition offers viewers a chance to judge for themselves how pervasive the effect of war was on both artists as it includes works from before during and after both world wars. You might see two very different effects: after all one artist is from the winning side of the war the other from the losing side. Brandon explains that she envisaged the exhibition as creating an X with Jackson on an upward trajectory and Dix going downwards with the crux in 1933 a year artists across Canada formed the Canadian Group of Painters and when in Germany Hitler became Chancellor.

“Jackson was creating a Canadian school of art; Dix saw himself as part of an existing German tradition going back hundreds and hundreds of years” says Brandon. “Everything was torn apart for [Dix] whereas for Jackson the First World War was the possibility of a new Canada.

“What unites them is the impact of the First World War that changes what they are able to do” she adds.

The exhibition starts with both artists’ early years and moves to their haunting war art. Jackson decided not to depict the horrors of war directly and instead uses landscapes and symbolism such as the now familiar dead tree which Brandon points out was originally from British painter Paul Nash. That imagery however soon proliferated throughout the Group of Seven in Canada and this show includes examples from Franklin Carmichael Emily Carr Lawren Harris and more to show how this motif evolved during the post-war years. “Over a 10-year period what for Jackson is a way of expressing death and wartime… becomes the spirit the future and awakening of Canada” says Brandon. “It’s the same iconographic material but the meaning has changed and it’s an optimistic message.”

Dix’s war art depicts bitter realities more directly portraying dark crater-scarred fields and destitute war amputees. After the war though Dix fell out of favour and was labelled a “degenerate” artist by the Third Reich. “The First World War destroyed the Germany that Dix knew and this is reflected in all the work that follows the First World War that is critical of various German administrations but in particular the Nazi regime” says Brandon.

Dix’s post-war works in the show are mainly landscapes (a Hitler-approved subject matter) and their criticism is subtle and yet somehow omnipresent. A painting of a field has a corner of the crop dying; a village cowers under the shadow of a rainstorm; funeral processions and cemeteries appear in otherwise calm landscapes. Interestingly in one of his works you can see the paint cracking: “He’s obviously even subverting his painting materials to comment on the conditions” says Brandon. “He’s in mourning. All these works are very sad.”

Jackson whose career had been much more positive never left his wartime experience behind completely. One of the last images of the show is his experiments with designing a new flag for Canada whose imagery harkens back to a red maple he painted in 1914; the artist admits that the First World War forever remained his chief marker and influenced everything he painted since.

Top:A.Y. Jackson A Copse Evening 1918. Oil on canvas; Canadian War Museum Ottawa Ontario; Beaverbrook Collection of War Art © Canadian War Museum

Above: Otto Dix Near Langemark February 1918 1924. Etching and drypoint on laid paper; National Gallery of Canada Ottawa © Estate of Otto Dix / SODRAC (2013)