Art for War and Peace
How a Great Public Art Project Helped Canada Discover Itself
The Sampson-Matthews print program was the largest public art project in Canadian history. Launched at the start of the Second World War, it lasted 22 years and cost tens of millions of dollars. The exquisite, oversize silkscreens were based on designs by a who's who of Canada's greatest artists, including David Milne, Emily Carr, B.C. Binning, Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson, Tom Thomson, J.W. Morrice and Clarence Gagnon.
The idea that launched the project was simple. Get Canada's best painters to contribute to the war effort by creating new works, guided by the National Gallery. Toronto printer Sampson-Matthews would turn these into high-quality silkscreens, which would then be sent to every military unit and government office from Britain to Ceylon. At the same time, target the home front: schools, libraries, banks, insurance companies. By 1943, the prints were hanging in Eaton's store windows from coast to coast. The images were so popular that the program went into overdrive after the war. Dozens more artworks were commissioned and tens of thousands more printed. Sets toured the USA, Soviet Russia, war-torn Europe; the Bank of Montreal put them in every branch. The grand landscapes became familiar backdrops for two generations of Canadians.
The program was a grandiose exercise in art education, a coming together of culture, commerce and patriotism that only a world war could ever create. Watch the film Argo and you'll see two prints in the Tehran embassy scenes, benevolent totems assuring the plotters that everything will be alright; this is Canada, relax.
Art for War and Peace tells the story of the Sampson-Matthews prints, with full-colour reproductions of 112 silkscreens and contributions from several art writers, including Douglas Coupland, now available in this paperback edition.
About this Author
Ian Sigvaldason is the owner of the Pegasus Gallery of Canadian Art on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia; he has been mesmerized by the Sampson-Matthews prints for many years, and curates the website sampsonmatthewsprints.com.
Scott Steedman is an editor, writer and publishing consultant, and an Adjunct Professor at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. He co-edited Visions of British Columbia, winner of the 2010 City of Vancouver Book Award.
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