World War 1

What aspect of war, or event, does this piece of art depict?

This artwork mainly depicts the terrible environment the soldiers had to fight in. Not only did the soldiers have to contend with shelling and enemy gunfire, the constant rain had turned the battlefield into a massive swathe of mud. In the painting, we see the soldiers struggling to shift an artillery piece out of the boggy ground, a common occurrence in this kind of environment. The impressionist style of painting is good for creating the imagery of a dirty, muddy, wet land covered in smoke and haze. The sky itself looks like it is on fire, and it is unclear whether it is from the constant artillery barrage or a simple, beautiful sunrise. Bastier really makes us understand the terrible conditions that these soldiers were going through by giving us this dark, hellish image. The First World War was truly an eye-opener for how much the environment could be destroyed by modern military technology, and it is images like these that show us how merely trying to survive in this environment was difficult. The incredibly poor conditions which helped lead to diseases like trench foot and the Spanish Flu epidemic are best exemplified by the images of the mud and blood of Passchendale.

Who created this piece of art?

Alfred Bastien was the artist who painted Canadian Gunners in the Mud, Passchendaele. He was born Alfred Theodore Joseph Bastien, and he was Belgian. Bastien happened to be in Paris when the circumstances of the First World War began. And while he may not have been Canadian, he was deployed to be a war artist depicting various battles and situations surrounding Canadian troops (the 22nd battalion, to be specific). When you look at the style of his work, you can see the devastation that just radiates from the canvas. Bastien’s style of painting was a lot of, for lack of a better word, smudging techniques and blending the colours together to make a distorted, yet beautiful, image. The way he portrays the Canadian soldiers in the First World War is a harsh look at the terrible conditions they were dealing with. Alfred Bastien was not a Canadian, but he was an artist. And pieces of his work, pieces like this one, were and are to this day important pieces of Canadian history. He was an artist who saw a chance to share the truth of this war with those who could not see it for themselves, and his smudged works of art can easily be viewed as the somewhat harsh dose of reality that was just what Canadians needed to help them wake up from their overly romanticized version of a world at war.

Where was this piece of art created?

Canadian Gunners in the Mud, Passchendaele, 1917 by Albert Bastien was painted while he was assigned to the Canadian 22nd Battalion during the battle of Passchendaele. He was in Belgium at the time and was assigned to depict scenes from the Front of the Canadian troops, and due to the obscene amount of mud, depicted them as trying to relieve one of their guns from the mud. The inscription on the painting faintly says “Flanders” meaning the battle of Flanders, which was part of the Third Battle of Ypres in Passchendaele. The battle of Passchendaele was located in Passchendaele, which was a small rural village northeast of Ypres, Belgium. The painting now lies in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Canada.

For what purpose was this art created?

The artwork was created to provide the viewer an insight of the tasks that the soldiers would have to face during the war. The picture depicts a group of soldiers who are working to try and release one of their guns from the mud. This allows the viewer to understand and see that the soldiers had to work in miserable conditions, with the consistent shelling from the enemies and working against the weather which would turn the battlefield into a sea of mud. The life of a Canadian soldier as depicted in Alfred Bastien’s painting was filled will hard times and misery.

What does this piece of art tell us about the experience of war?

This piece of art shows us the hardships and extremely poor conditions that the troops had to endure during the battle of Passchendaele. As most people know, Passchendaele was infamous for the never-ending rain and mud, and this piece really brought the struggle to life. There is more emphasis on the gun that is stuck in the mud rather than the troops who are trying to free it, though from looking at it we can see that the men were in to their knees or more in mud. The light orange and yellow colors seem to signify constant gunfire and fighting in the distance, and is gradually masked, as your eye moves from left to right, by billowing clouds of smoke and darkness. This also depicts the life of trench warfare, as the gun is evidently stuck in what seems to be an old trench. The trench looks as if it was flooded and abandoned.

How accurate is this depiction of war?

Alfred Bastien’s Canadian Gunners in the Mud, Passchendaele, also seems like an accurate depiction of Canadians at Passchendaele. One very accurate depiction in this painting is the use of duck boards. Duck boards were heavily used in Passchendaele, although differently than it is pictured here. This duck board was mostly being used to walk on, before it was used for this purpose. The duck board pictured here was being used to try and get a stuck artillery piece out of the mud. As pictured, lots of important war machines got stuck in the mud, making it an extremely difficult battle to fight. There is also a lack of deep, traditional trenches, which was rare in the world wars, but something that was typical of the Passchendaele battle. Instead of trenches, as pictured, there were shallow muddy holes, which is why there were usually duck boards present. There is a distinct lack of buildings, but also a lack of trees. On the horizon there are some tree trunks, and bits of trees that would have previously been there, but that were bombed to bits. Overall, it is a very accurate depiction of Canadian experiences at Passchendaele, the presence of duck boards, the artillery piece being stuck in the mud, the lack of deep trenches, the presence of muddy holes, and the lack of trees or any buildings are all true to this battle.

How does your piece of art further our understanding of Canadian history?

It helps further our understanding because it shows us what people actually went through. The war is not romanticized here, as it would have been during the period to enlist people or to try and get them to buy war bonds, etc. It shows what people were actually sending their sons and husbands to, and expels the idea that the war was exciting and full of adventures, and replaces it with the cold, muddy reality. It also shows advances of Canadian technology, and the emergence of trench warfare, as well as the terrifying reality these advances created. It also shows how little these advances helped the Canadian troops at Passchendaele, as many of their weapons, such as the artillery piece stuck in the mud were rendered nearly useless by harsh conditions. It helps us understand that Canada was such a young country, that learning to fight in this way would have been extremely difficult, and that soldiers probably went into this with some sort of naivety. We also thought that it helps us begin to understand what many World War One veterans may have been feeling on the eve of World War Two, as many young men were preparing to go to war not knowing the harsh conditions they would face. We think it must have saddened some of them to see so many young men excited to go fight, when the veterans knew what horrors the young men would face.

Posted on March 20, 2014, in War Art: WWI and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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