Looking at art with history in mind: a very brief Ottawa summer tour

Among the many fine things about a classic summer family road trip is the way history often becomes part of the holiday. Pull the car over at that historic plaque. Drag the kids through another museum. Then, ice cream—perfect balance achieved.

So I look forward to tourist season on Parliament Hill. For those of us who work here year-round, it’s good to be reminded every spring by all those happy visitors of the history represented by the old neo-gothic buildings, which never disappoint.

This is the sort of popular connection with Canada’s past that the Conservative government seems eager to foster. There’s much to be said for framing our history in the way Heritage Minister James Moore proposed last year, when he announced that the Canadian Museum of Civilization will be rebranded the Canadian Museum of History, with a revised mandate to “highlight the national achievements and accomplishments that have shaped our country.”

But the government’s critics fear, and not without reason, that sometimes the Tories signal a weakness for abridged history, with room for little but the political, military and economic highlights. This is shaping up as a running battle as Stephen Harper continues to take steps to assert a Conservative perspective in the run-up to Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017.

Pondering all this with those tourists in mind, I’ve been thinking about certain artworks scattered around Ottawa that I like to recommend to visitors. Here are just three, more than worth seeking out for their beauty, but also, these days, for the way they insist on telling nuanced, layered stories about where we Canadians have been.

1. Since it’s about to be revamped, the Canadian Museum of Civilization is a good starting place for this brief tour. Nobody fails to take in the museum’s soaring Grand Hall, with its impressive totem poles. But don’t just look up. Duck into the Coast Salish house—one of the hall’s six art-filled replica Pacific First Nations buildings—and you’ll find yourself facing a wall-sized Haida screen.

It was carved and painted around 1850 in a village in what is now Alaska. George MacDonald
, director of Simon Fraser University’s Bill Reid Centre of Northwest Coast Art Studies, tells me it would have divided the private compartment of an Eagle Clan chief from the communal area of a large house. In the lower middle of the screen, a human figure straddles a circular opening, through which elaborately masked participants would have emerged during dances and ceremonies.

Symmetrical designs of ravens and perhaps whales—taken apart, stylized, flattened—surround that central figure. The original red, green and black pigments—classic Haida colours—have held up well. While more roughly carved than, say, the elegant masks from the same period to be found only a few strides away in a glass case, the screen’s impact is mysterious and even transporting.

Macdonald says this is the only Haida interior screen of its kind to survive—what a sad fact. Collected in the 1890s, when the Haida were besieged by missionaries, infectious disease and economic turmoil, it was acquired by a British aristocrat. In the early 1960s, the Canadian government in turn bought his collection, returning this unique treasure to us. It’s a permanent reminder of how, not long before Confederation, the West Coast’s astonishing artists thrived, though ruinous times were on the horizon.

Nobody who looks at the screen carefully will ever carry away from the museum any simplistic concept of what was happening during the era of Canada’s founding as a federation.

2. About two decades after the screen travelled across the Atlantic, thousands of Canadian soldiers would follow it to England, and to Europe’s battlefields. In 1918, six senior Canadian military officers stationed in London for the Great War were brought together for a group portrait. The result, a large canvas by Sir William Nicholson, is a jewel of the Canadian War Museum’s collection. Rather than depicting them in a formal grouping, Nicholson captures the officers standing around casually, some with downcast eyes, as if absorbed in their separate thoughts just a moment before he asked them to pose.

Not a general in the bunch looks remotely heroic or even particularly resolute. The backdrop is a huge black-and-white photo of the Ypres Cloth Hall and Cathedral, showing the damage of German bombing. A few months before Nicholson executed this unsettling painting, his own son, Anthony, had died of wounds suffered in France. At a major 2004 Nicholson retrospective in London, critics lauded the English painter’s consummate skills at still life and portraiture, but they heralded his Canadian Headquarters Staff, on loan for the show, as a major revelation.

The painting is in Winnipeg for much of this summer, reason enough to take in the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s ambitious 100 Masters: Only in Canada exhibition. Usually, though, it hangs not far from the Canadian War Museum’s assemblage of historic tanks. I’ve looked at it as schoolboys clambering over the old war machines hollering in delight; maybe a few of them will get around to Nicholson when they’re older. No grownup who spares a moment for those war-weary generals could leave the museum imaging that Canada’s military history can be reduced to a politician’s platitudes about courage.

3. What trip to the capital would be complete without a visit to the Parliament Buildings?  There you’ll find portraits galore of prime ministers. But on the way to the luminous Library of Parliament, get the guide to let you poke your head into the Reading Room. It’s called that because it was once filled with inviting leather chairs and periodicals from everywhere. In keeping with that former purpose, the space above the door on the north wall is decorated by a 1921 mural called The Printed Word.

Hamilton, Ont.’s Arthur Watkins Crisp—who painted admired murals in public buildings and private homes from New York City, to Albany, N.Y, to Toronto—actually contributed 17 panels for the Reading Room. They’re all charming, but The Printed Word stands out. It features strapping pressmen admiring a newspaper proof hot off the presses, which stand at the ready behind them, along with rolls of pristine newsprint. They embody the might of the medium. It’s ironic that the Reading Room was repurposed in 1990 for hearings and receptions largely because it offers nice backdrops… for television.

Sometimes I cover a committee session or news conference there, and watch politicians playing to the cameras and journalists sending out reports wirelessly from laptops and smartphones. Those pressmen look so confident, but their muscles weren’t much good against technological change.

If the other art on the Hill tends to be about celebrating political power, the mural reminds us of underlying forces, and unforeseen changes in how we learn things and talk to one another. It’s about what no politician, however powerful, can control.

The screen, the painting and the mural are all big images on display in prominent spaces. They have their secrets, but they’re easy to enjoy—in other words, good summer fare. And after taking them in, after you’ve walked outside blinking into the sunlight, you can go on with your vacation reassured that Canadian history, at least seen like this, doesn’t look susceptible at all to being dumbed down.