A Different Kind of War Art

The most famous art from the First World War comes from the avant-garde styles of the era: expressionists like George Grosz, Vorticists like C.R.W. Nevinson and Wyndham Lewis, or surrealists like Paul Nash. But war art reflected pretty much every art tradition out there, including some stemming from far away from the battlefields of Europe.

The Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta has a teepee door from the Kainai (or Blood) tribe on display in which triangular figures are seen running amidst what are clearly shell explosion. Some of them clearly wear the German spiked pickelhaube helmet, others stand behind a cannon. Though the artist is unknown, the door bears the date 1917.

As it happens, Glenbow Museum AF 3649-B (viewable here) is only one of many pieces of war art painted after the First World War by men from the Blackfoot confederacy, a First Nation that inhabits present-day Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana. L. James Dempsey’s extensive catalog of Blackfoot pictographs, Blackfoot War Art: Pictographs of the Reservation Period, 1880–2000, has numerous examples of the art form being used to depict wartime experiences.

The First World War works that Dempsey catalogs come in a variety of forms. They include a calfskin robe with the exploits of Mike Mountain Horse in the 191st Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, the anonymous tent door at the Glenbow, Nick King’s capture of four pickelhaubed Germans – painted on Eagle Ribs’ war lodge after the Second World War, and George Strangling Wolf’s capture of three enemy guns – on a canvas teepee liner now at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Second World War veterans similarly depicted their exploits when they returned home. Clarence McHugh, or Black Bull, counted coup for surviving heavy bombing raids in England and dangerous patrols in France; Mark Wolf Leg, whose exploits included the capture of four Germans, depicted them both on the Three Suns war lodge and a miniature shield.

Blackhawk pictographs from of the World War are, Dempsey explains, only one example of how the tradition of pictographic war art, continued after the decline of warfare on the plains in the late nineteenth century, changed to accommodate more recent experiences. My favorite example, and one that’s quintessentially Canadian, has to be the use of National Film Board logos to mark participation in documentary films on a robe painted by Pete Standing Alone.

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