Review: Paintings offer two surprisingly peaceful views of Halifax after 1917 explosion

Once, in the 1980s, I was interviewing a man who was older than I then thought possible. He was bedridden, and needed help with the body’s expostulations, but his memory was sharp and detailed. Propped up on his hospital bed, he recalled the night the trains rolled into tiny New Glasgow, Nova Scotia — rail car after rail car, filled with the injured and the dying, as a heavy winter snow blanketed all in a chilling quiet.

It was Dec. 7, 1917, the day after the largest explosion the world had ever seen levelled much of Halifax and Dartmouth. Two thousand people were killed and almost 10,000 were injured — so many that hospitals were filling even in New Glasgow, more than 100 miles away.

It’s difficult to comprehend today what it was like on the morning of Dec. 6, when two Allied ships loaded to the brim with explosive materials collided in the harbour. There wasn’t a bigger explosion until America dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima. It must have been impossible to imagine that Halifax-Dartmouth would ever recover.

This painting, Winter Camouflage, is by Arthur Lismer. Courtesy National Gallery of Canada

But they did recover, even as the First World War continued. Two war artists — the Canadian Arthur Lismer and the Brit Harold Gilman — were dispatched to capture the cities as they stolidly got on with living, and fighting. A century later, the art they created can be seen in the exhibition Halifax Harbour 1918, at the National Gallery. It is rich in tragic irony.

The exhibition is part of the gallery’s agreeably studious series Masterpiece in Focus, in which a single painting is seen through a roomful of context. In this case there are two points of focus, Lismer’s Winter Camouflage and Gilman’s Halifax Harbour, with many of the studies and sketches the artists made along the way.

Both paintings portray unexpectedly peaceful scenes — the artists were in Halifax not to paint the explosion’s destruction, but its aftermath. What they don’t share is dimension; Lismer’s is 72 by 92 centimetres, Gilman’s is 198 x 336, or about three times as large.

Not surprisingly, Gilman’s large canvas dominates the room.  He turned his eye to a part of the city that had suffered no physical damage from the explosion, and portrayed it, as exhibition curator Anabelle Kienle Ponka says, in a “quaint, tranquil, almost pastoral way.” He avoided the war-time bustle of the harbour, and though war ships are seen, they’re easily mistaken for ordinary merchant vessels. Even the colours of earth, water and sky are soft and comforting.

“This is a glowing landscape, and he completely divorces himself from the reality of what is happening over there,” Ponka says. “It’s definitely not what we would expect a war painting to look like.”

Harold Gilman’s Halifax Harbour is part of a new Masterpiece in Focus exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada. Courtesy NGC.

The studies and sketches show how meticulous was Gilman’s process. One study still wears the fine grid he drew over it — it looks like the board for a Canadian version of the game Battleship. The wall card next to it notes Gilman’s “nearly obsessive attention to detail,” which is a faint irony. Had certain people paid more attention to detail, those two ships would never have collided.

Lismer’s Winter Camouflage shows a Canadian warship slipping “through the narrows” of Bedford Basin. It is immediately recognizable as a work of the Group of Seven, with its sparse trees and purplish snow. What’s remarkable is how the ship, with “dazzle” camouflage, fits as if it naturally grew up out of the landscape.

Next is an exquisite, painterly little study of the same scene, just a few dabs of oil paint coalescing into a earlier, comparatively primitive landscape.

There are an abundance of lithographs that Lismer produced for a broader market, set on the harbour shore or out on the North Atlantic. In The Drifter and the Big Freighter, the small boat and the larger, dazzled vessel pass in heavy seas. Admirers of Winslow Homer will appreciate how the ships lean away from each other, and the mighty heave of the waves.

Another lithograph evokes more irony. Three huge guns guard the harbour shore, alert for German U-boats. Two soldiers stand apart in the cold, winter night. It was a brilliant December morning when what laid to waste to the city was not an invisible enemy but, so to speak, friendly fire.

Halifax Harbour 1918 continues to March 27.

When you leave the exhibit, pop into the next room to see a magnificent war painting, David Bomberg’s Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunnelling Company. The heroic men work underground, with angular wooden beams holding up a cubist perspective.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.