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Commanding Art: Gertrude Kearns and Canada’s Afghan mission

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CDA Institute Research Fellow Craig Mantle offers his thoughts on Toronto-​based artist Gertrude Kearns’ exhibition The Art of Command, on display at the Fort York Visitor Centre in Toronto until 14 June 2015.

Around the balcony of Currie Hall at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston hang stately portraits of some of Canada’s First World War generals. As fine examples of military portraiture, these paintings record the appearance of the sitter and indicate many of his tangible accomplishments, for instance, his rank and orders of chivalry. Rather more documentary than engaging, each portrait offers scant insight into the sitter’s personality; the most that can be had, for those without any background knowledge, being taken from a subjective interpretation of pose and expression.

Jumping ahead a century, military portraiture remains an active genre. In her most recent project, completed independently of the Canadian Armed Forces over the course of ten years but with its unprecedented cooperation throughout, Toronto-​based artist Gertrude Kearns has produced portraits that are rather more engaging than documentary. Mixing recent military history with contemporary art, she uses large format portraits as the jumping-​off point to explore the complexity of command in modern, asymmetric warfare, and in so doing, challenges traditional conceptions of military portraiture.

The Art of Command exhibition is divided into two sections. Head-​only portraits of nine senior Canadian commanders who served in Afghanistan, all colonels and generals, are located in a separate room. Painted on a black background, the heads are colourful and bright, mixing flesh tones and CADPAT camouflage in varying proportions. As a consequence, the portraits have a digital feel that in some instances borders on the slightly abstract. Some of the subjects gaze off into the distance, other stare directly into the viewer’s eyes, yet all wear expressionless faces. That this is a serious exhibition about a serious subject is evident from the outset.

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The remaining pieces are located in an expansive and upward-​sloping corridor. At the entrance to the hallway, ten full-​length drawings of various soldiers are presented. It is from both the head portraits and drawings that come what is arguably the most interesting part of the exhibition, the 23 texted prints.

Incorporating single words, pithy catchphrases or complete sentences that in one way or another pertain to the sitter and his experiences, each print offers a partial window into the mind of the subject. Although the prints are specific to individual commanders, in many cases the works also reference the broader period and context in which they served by presenting other important ideas, even seemingly discordant ones. Indeed, this body of work is as much about ideas as it is about what actually occurred on the ground in Afghanistan. A few pieces also include criticism of the subject by others, superiors and subordinates alike.

The selection of the accompanying text was, to varying degrees, a collaborative effort between Kearns and her subject. As a result, it is exceptionally personal, and if read with care, gives insight into the individual as a commander and the multitude of challenges, some ultimately unresolvable, that he was forced to confront. The decision to link text and image was deliberate and far from hasty. Certain words simply “worked” better with certain leaders for both personal and professional reasons. “Transformation,” as an easy example, could be associated with no one else other than Lieutenant-​General Andrew Leslie!

Because each sitter had vastly different experiences in Afghanistan, the accompanying text is likewise diverse. It quickly becomes apparent that this war in particular was about so much more than just killing the enemy – that it required brains and brawn, that it was vastly complex. Commanders at the highest levels had to know how to fight and think, essentially being able to grapple with the Taliban on both a physical and intellectual level. Not only did they have to understand counter-​insurgency, for instance, they had to implement it effectively over a vast area. Afghanistan was not a “straightforward” war with a clearly-​identifiable enemy, front and parameters for victory, and this fact becomes patently obvious.

The prints may be distracting to some, but endlessly stimulating to others; either way, they force viewers to engage with the history of the mission and its protagonists. Because there is so much text on many of the pieces, some of which is in English, un peu en français, most are accessible to a general audience; those viewers who do not possess a detailed understanding of Canadian military involvement in Afghanistan will surely come away with “something” at least. Regardless of one’s background, it’s hard not to sympathize with those at the top and their associated predicaments.

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Gertrude Kearns is no stranger to controversy. Her earlier paintings, some of which are held by the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, have tackled difficult and unsettling subjects. Her graphic depiction of Clayton Matchee’s involvement in the torture-​murder of Shidane Arone during the Canadian Airborne Regiment’s deployment to Somalia is perhaps the best-​known example. Her examinations of Kyle Brown’s involvement in the death of the same Somali teenager, as well as Romeo Dallaire’s struggle with post-​traumatic stress disorder, have not escaped notice either. Through her work, and to her credit, Kearns has kept some of the darker episodes and issues in Canadian military history in the forefront of public consciousness and discussion. Should not failures and challenges be remembered right alongside triumphs lest the latter mask the former and distort the historical narrative?

The Art of Command is less visually graphic than some of Kearns’ earlier work, but it is far from sterile. One painting in particular, a depiction of an anonymous triple amputee lying in hospital after surgery (a non-​Canadian, by the way, who later succumbed to his catastrophic injuries), is the most difficult. At first glance it does not seem to “fit” with the rest of the works, even though it is a macabre portrait of sorts at its most basic level. Yet, it is perhaps one of the most important for it illustrates in stomach-​churning detail the possible consequences of command. Saved: For What? (artist’s collection) reinforces in no uncertain terms the messages that the texted prints communicate about the burden, weight and awesome responsibility of command in war. The decisions ultimately made by each commander profiled in the exhibition, whether major or major-​general, had the potential to put a soldier in the Role 3 Hospital at Kandahar Airfield. The wrong decisions on a good day, even the right decisions on a bad day, could have tragic, life-​altering results. That fact alone gives reason for pause.

The soldiers that Kearns painted seemingly felt the weight of this responsibility too, as is to be expected. The reason that none of them are smiling in their portraits seems obvious, with any inclinations toward levity being masked by the experience etched on their weathered and serious faces. Unlike the dry portraits at the College, one comes to appreciate on a deeply personal level the commanders profiled in this exhibition.

If nothing more, The Art of Command makes viewers think about the awesome responsibilities that Canada’s soldiers held in Afghanistan and the complex and ever-​changing environment in which those responsibilities were exercised. The exhibition is engaging and thought-​provoking, inviting viewers to attempt to understand each sitter’s military-​self and the nature of war in the 21st century. Veterans, civilians, academics – all will take away something different from the exhibition. The exhibition is exhausting, not because the art is pedantic, but because there is so much to reflect upon.

The Art of Command ~ Portraits and Posters from Canada’s Afghan Mission is on display at the Fort York Visitor Centre in Toronto until 14 June 2015. An upcoming edition of ON TRACK, the Journal of the CDA Institute, will feature a more in-​depth and full-​length article about the exhibition.

Dr. Craig Leslie Mantle was most recently the post-​1945 historian at the Canadian War Museum. He is the principal editor of In Their Own Words: Canadian Stories of Valour and Bravery from Afghanistan, 20012007 (Kingston: CDA Press, 2013), and is a Research Fellow at the CDA Institute. (Image credited to Toni Hafkenscheid.)

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