Barker Fairley, "Canadian War Pictures", Canadian Magazine, Nov. 1919

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[ For What? ]

For What?, Fred Varley, 1918, Canadian War Museum, 19710261-0770, Varley's painting depicts a muddy, broken field, underneath a heavy sky. The foreground is dominated by a wagon filled with dead soldiers partially covered by a tarp or blanket. Beside it a trio of soldiers dig graves in a lot already filled with crosses. Varley observed, "We’d be healthier to forget [the war], & that we never can. We are forever tainted with its abortiveness & its cruel drama." Note the colour bars laid underneath the image when it was photographed. These colour bars help enable printers to correctly reproduce the colours in the image

The Canadian War Pictures have now for the most part been prepared, collected, and exhibited. They have been seen in London and New York and are now in Canada where they are to be fittingly housed as a permanent possession. […]

It is interesting to note that in point of style the collection belongs unmistakably to the second decade of the twentieth century. [...]

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Quite early in the war it was noticed by one or two acute observers that the breath-taking experiments of the years immediately preceding, the cubism and the vorticism and what not had seemed so outrageous and even inexplicable to an overwhelming majority of normal human beings, had received at least a partial justification in the actual experience of men, both in what they had before their eyes and in what they felt within themselves. This is but another instance of the connection, casual or otherwise that is so frequently found to exist between what is apparently unrelated in a given period of civilization. It is disturbing to healthy pluralistic minds but it has to be faced, and, if possible, explained.

The facts in this case are that since the opening of the twentieth century an unusualy rapid development in experimental painting took place in which the dominant characteristic was a preoccupation with abstract form. It is quite plausible to explain this movement as a natural reaction from the realistic traditions of the nineteenth century, a mere swing of the pendulum, which would correct itself in due time, and probably prove not unhealthy as a means of counteracting the deadening tradition of the “story-picture”. This explanation would have been accepted as exhaustive by the great majority of those interested anywhere from nine to five years ago. But it was noted that the results of the experiments had a quality entirely different from the formal design of traditional art. They were less abstract by a degree or two, less exclusively intellectual; the mood they expressed was less collected, less clarified; it was sufficiently tepid and confused to be called an emotion. It

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was the difference in kind between Bach and Chopin.

Then came the war and with it a partial confirmation in experience of the three-parts abstraction of the modernists, now chaotic, now geometrical. Was there some common cause behind Cubism and Prussianism, behind the morbid visions of an artist in a back-attic and the game of chess played by the military manoeuvrist on horse-back? One shrinks from any association of artistic and creative impulses with the forces of death and destruction. And yet there is an association somewhere. It may be hard to trace out and perhaps it will never be done in this particular case. It is enough to remember this organic-seeming relation between aesthetic extravagances and the forms and experience of war in considering the meaning and significance of the more advanced of the war pictures. It is not merely a matter of likes and dislikes; there is in these pictures a strain of what seems to have spread itself, however thinly, over the whole of our minds. […]

Source: Barker Fairley, "Canadian War Pictures," The Canadian Magazine LIV (November 31, 1919): 3-5, 7-11

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