Born in Scotland and now living in Maryland, the man technically known as a news illustrator has taken the art of war back to its roots, drawing for the Detroit Free Press in Iraq, The National Post in Afghanistan, the United Nations in Africa and for the Washington Post, where he was graphics editor.
His work has toured the United States, it is in the permanent collections of Washington’s Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Virginia and now it is part of a military-themed art exhibition at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.Eight artists, part of the Canadian Forces Artists Program, make up the show. They are the seventh group of military artists selected from various disciplines since the program was revived in 2001. They are known as Group 7—not to be confused with The Group of Seven.
Their work is widely varied, from Mark Thompson’s enamel-on-glass images of Kuwaiti blast shelters and underground bunkers to Nancy Cole’s Night and Day, conceptual, minimalist hand-quilted textiles representing CF-18s on deployment.There are Guy Lavigueur’s First World War-style aerial photographs of the North, taken during a training exercise and showing the effects of rapidly thawing permafrost, a result of global climate change. And Kathryn Mussellem’s portraits and documentary photographs taken aboard HMCS Calgary sailing in the Pacific.
It is Johnson’s work, primarily featuring individual soldiers, that most reflects early documentary war art, hearkening to a time when drawings served as visual reportage and preceded the photograph in newspapers and magazines.
In their heyday, they were the images of record, distilled from the grand, colourful, idealized re-creations of Napoleon’s glorious victories, Nelson and Wolfe’s heroic deaths and Washington’s stalwart crossing of the Delaware River.
Johnson’s signature work reflects the daily life of the soldier on duty. Under the artists’ program, he joined Canadian troops on deployment in Ukraine in 2015.
“If I have one guiding principle, it is that I draw what I see,” he says, echoing the advice of his mentor, Second World War artist Howard Brodie, who drew the siege around Bastogne, Belgium, and the landings at Guadalcanal in the southwest Pacific Ocean. “I don’t alter, and I don’t stage.”He therefore works fast, insinuating himself into situations and recording in his sketchbook what he can as it happens, labelling details for later reference. He rarely draws from photographs. He puts the final sketches to 18” x 24” art paper—some, even, to his children’s brown kraft paper—always within 24 hours.
In one exhibition image, reminiscent of photographer Joe Rosenthal’s iconic “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” Canadian and other troops haul the rigging from a tow truck as they prepare to free vehicles stuck in mud.
In another, Corporal Adam Tofflemire of 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, makes his way through long grass wielding a non-issue Kalashnikov rifle.
The drawings are highly detailed and painstakingly accurate. Johnson says there is a value to hand-drawn images of war that photographs cannot capture.
While Smithsonian curators reviewed his submissions, the artist was given the freedom to roam the institution’s archive of military art. He viewed sketches of First World War battles that looked as current as the day they were drawn—a distinct departure from photography, whose look and feel immediately dates it.
“There was no way to tell, other than the [subject matter], that this wasn’t drawn the day before,” he said. “The artwork, especially if it’s done well, has a way of drawing people back in time right to that very moment.”
The human element, absent of technology, also contributes to the war art experience, especially in an age when we are bombarded with electronic images of every genre via television and the Internet.
“There is something about viewing a subject through a human being as the lens that has a very human contact to it. There is something very visceral about it when it is viewed that way.”
The modern-day roots of Canadian war art lie in the museum’s 14,000-piece Beaverbrook Collection, comprising works from both world wars and subsequent conflicts.
Between 1916 and 1919, the Canadian War Memorials Fund established by newspaper baron Max Aitken, better known as Lord Beaverbrook, along with Lord Rothermere financed nearly 1,000 war-related works by more than 100 artists from Canada, Britain, Australia, Yugoslavia and Belgium.
Group of Seven artists A.Y. Jackson, Frederick Varley, Arthur Lismer and Frank Johnston were among those who created pieces under the program, which focussed exclusively on Canada’s role in the Great War. Postwar exhibitions in London and New York helped launch their careers.It wasn’t until 1943 that the Department of National Defence introduced a Second World War art program involving 32 artists, including Lawren Harris, Charles Comfort and Alex Colville.
No program was initiated during the Korean War, though a handful of soldiers such as Ted Zuber recorded their front-line experiences upon returning home. From 1968 until it fell to budget cuts in 1995, the National Gallery of Canada administered the Canadian Armed Forces Civilian Artists Program, which dispatched artists to record Canadian operations in Europe, Vietnam and the Middle East.
The current version involves selected groups of artists from across Canada working in two-year rotations and deploying once with Canadian forces for about 10 days. They retain copyright, as well as their independence, and are not paid.
The exhibition is on at the Canadian War Museum until April 2.