KEEPSAKES OF CONFLICT: Trench Art and Other Canadian War-Related Craft
September 15 - December 31, 2016
Reception: Friday, September 16, 2016 @ 7:30pm
Organized by the MJMAG; Guest Curated by Heather Smith
“Trench is defined as any item made by soldiers, prisoners of war and civilians, from war material directly, or any other material, as long as it and they are associated with armed conflict or its consequences.”[i]
The 100th anniversary of the First World War has been an opportunity for the Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery (MJM&AG) to examine the little-studied area of Canadian craft related to war. This traveling exhibition was organized by the MJM&AG and guest curated by Heather Smith. MJM&AG acknowledges the generous funding support provided by the Department of Canadian Heritage through the Museums Assistance Program and sponsorship by the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 59.
L’art des tranchées se définit comme le domaine qui englobe tout objet fabriqué par des soldats, des prisonniers de guerre ou des civils, à partir de matériel de guerre ou de quelque autre matériau, pourvu que l’objet et son créateur soient associés au conflit armé ou à ses conséquences. La commémoration du centenaire de la Première Guerre mondiale a offert au Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery l’occasion de se pencher sur un aspect jusqu’à présent peu étudié de l’artisanat canadien lié aux conflits armés. Cette exposition itinérante a été réalisée par le Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery, sous la direction de la commissaire Heather Smith. Nous désirons signaler la généreuse contribution du ministère du Patrimoine canadien, dans le cadre de son Programme d’aide aux musées and par la Légion Royale Canadien 59.
i. This definition comes from page 11 of Nicolas J. Saunders’ book, Trench Art: Materialities and Memories of War (Oxford: Berg, 2003). Saunders is a British archaeologist and anthropologist who has written widely on the subject of trench art. See his book for an expanded version of this definition.
Many of the objects we call trench art were once common, but are now anachronistic objects; napkin rings, buttonhooks, and letter openers or paper knives, belong to life in a different time. They are also incongruous with warfare because they suggest a life of refinement and civility. Consider being a person who endured life in a filthy, infested trench who then purchased napkins rings from a local artisan on his way home so his face would not get dirty while he ate! Perhaps the napkin ring also signifies a hopeful idea that Canadian soldiers were a refined bunch, fighting war in a proper, organized and civil way. The napkin rings and letter openers are objects that hold both the civilian’s desire for a less traumatizing war experience as well as the soldier’s desire for what a post-war, peaceful and civilized life holds.
“I collected about a ton of souvenirs but I got fed up packing them around.”i)
Official war artists were trained professionals who intentionally created artwork to help the viewer “feel” the experience of war.(ii) Although these artists were charged with the job of recording the war, the pieces that are most celebrated today are the ones where the artist transcends mere depiction to evoke a sense of the experience. Official war artists wanted the viewer to “feel” the experience of war rather than just “see” it. In contrast, most trench art was not made by someone who was attempting this deeper, psychological understanding of war. Made out of the experience of war, as opposed to being made about it, these small objects are never-the-less poignant. Shell casings, bullets, pieces of wood and stone are a tangible bit of the experience that one can hold and connect with in a way that oil paint on canvas can only hope to evoke. The material that trench art is made from was there, just as the veteran had been, and could stand in for the whole experience of war - good and bad.
i) William McLellan to Family, 30 August, 1918, accessed December 31, 2015, http:// www.canadianletters.ca.
ii) For more information about painted helmets that are common in the American military see Jane A, Kimball, Trench Art: An Illustrated History (Davis, CA: Silverpenny Press, 2004), 219.
There is an uncomfortable quality about many of these objects if one is not habituated to the use of ammunition; therefore it makes sense that the places which most often continue to use or display trench art are military messes, armouries, legions or military museums. For those outside the military, spent shell casings can create a sense of unease. For civilians, these objects represent the sacrifice of others who earned the right to own and display them, and it can feel disrespectful or inappropriate for outsiders to claim these objects as their own. However, within a military environment such as messes or armouries, their presence is more openly celebrated. New recruits spend time during basic military training polishing brass trench art and any other brass or silver objects, as a ritualized act of reverence that is a tribute to those more experienced soldiers who went before them. Within the military context where the practiced handling of firearms and ammunition ensures proper use, the brass used to make trench art signifies something entirely different than it does to the civilian public.
In the course of viewing the objects for this exhibition, it became clear that the pieces which had gone through some kind of transformation at the hand of the collector (or someone else) became trench art, and objects that had not been transformed, but simply “picked up,” were not. The impulse for making, buying and keeping trench art and the drive to collect souvenirs are connected, but the handling of the objects themselves differs. The original collector has transformed trench art in a way that the collector of a souvenir has not. It is the story or narrative associated with a souvenir that makes it meaningful, and it is the crafted change done to objects that makes them trench art.
It is likely, if able, prisoners of war on all sides of every conflict have produced various kinds of trench art. In the First World War, there were approximately 2,500 members of enemy armed forces held in Canada. During the Second World War, about 34,000 enemy soldiers of all ranks and branches of the German military were housed in camps located across Canada.
Since the Crimean War and perhaps earlier, craft making was used as a means to help wounded soldiers recover from both physical and mental trauma. Canadian soldiers in hospitals in Britain during both World Wars were encouraged to do embroidery or wickerwork. After the First World War, in order to help wounded veterans learn skills to help them reintegrate into society, the Canadian Red Cross set up VetCraft Shops across Canada. The wounded men working at these craft workshops produced a wide range of objects including furniture, wooden toys, baskets, picture frames, weavings, tin and other hammered metal wares, and many other items. They also hand cut the first red poppies used to commemorate Remembrance Day. Craft therapy continues today in Canada as a treatment for what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
During wartime, there is more leeway given to soldiers to individualize aspects of their kit. Some changes are made to improve the function of the equipment, but modifications are also tolerated for the sake of morale. Alterations to the actual uniform during wartime are generally only in areas that can be concealed or easily reverted back to their original state. There are some exceptions such as Second World War Canadian non-commissioned members’ battle dress tunics which were highly customized in the field and worn home as such in 1945. Tactical and unit/formation signs were painted on helmets by Canadian soldiers in both World Wars, but more creative imagery was not tolerated until post war[J1] .[i] The First World War belts of collected buttons and insignia could be worn under or over a tunic. Currently, Canadian service members unofficially customize their uniform by creating and collecting “morale patches” for individual deployments or missions.