Hello and welcome to Tracing Colville. My name is Dean Burry and I am a composer, writer and Assitant Professor at the Dan School of Drama and Music at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada. My time at Queen's began in the fall of 2018 and with the assistance of a Research Initiation Grant from the university, I was able to set in motion this research/creation project. Ever since seeing a documentary on the Canadian War Arts Program about 20 years ago, I have been fascinated by the striking contrast between the creation of art and the destruction of war. I have worked extensively in the operatic medium but this project spoke to me more as a symphonic work...the orchestral medium being so connected to the idea of colour. So I had the medium, but what was the context?
It only took a small amount of investigating to discover that one of the most prominant Canadian War Artists was none other than Canadian icon Alex Colville. After the war, Covlille went on to be one of the world's foremost realists and most people don't even realize his first experience as a professional artist was on the battlefields of the Netherlands and Germany. Something else leapt at me when I read his name. He and I are both graduates of MOUNT ALLISON UNIVERSITY in Sackville, New Brunswick (he was class of '42 and I was '94). In fact, my first opera, Unto the Earth: Vignettes of a War (1993) was performed in Tweedie Hall at Truman House, right under the Alex Colville mural The History of Mount Allison (1961). Now I also had the context...but what was the project?
I discovered a copy of the book Alex Colville: Diary of a War Artist at the Queen's library. The book was neatly divided into the four main periods of Colville's war experience: Training in Yorkshire, on loan to the Navy in the Mediterranean , entrenched with the 3rd Canadian Army in Nijmegen, and as one of the earliest artists to witness the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. It was like reading a travel itinerary and the project formed in my mind. Exactly 75 years later, I would trace Lt. Alex Colville's war time journey through Europe and re-imagine his artwork and experience through my own medium of expression; the symphony orchestra.
The striking contrast between the Art of Creation and the Art of Destruction is no better illustrated than in the works of the Official War Artist. Warfare and Art have always been two important aspects of civilization and Canada is known for having one of the most extensive war art program in the twentieth-century, including contributions by such famous painters as Alex Colville and members of the Group of Seven.
The political and social circumstances of the Second World War, most notably, the Holocaust, make this contrast even stronger. It is also interesting that despite technological advances in photography and film, painters were still sent to the front lines. Despite extensive lobbying from the artist community, the National Gallery of Canada and a number of senior diplomatic and military figures, a Second World War Canadian war art programme was not launched until January 1943. Thirty-two artists served in the three services - army, navy, and air force. The artists, who were commissioned officers, were attached to a naval, military or air force unit, with the task of accurately recording what they observed. Their legacy is a large number of drawings and paintings recording military scenes from the last two and a half years of the war.
From the beginning, Canadian painters who participated in the Canadian War Records lived and worked closely with the armed forces, spending a great deal of time close to the front lines. Wherever they found themselves, they were expected to produce accurate images of fighting men, machinery, and the landscape of war. This they did by sketching in the field and later developing the sketches in watercolour or pastel. Only when they returned to their headquarters in London, or, after the war, to Canada, did they compose their studio works - the oils on canvas.