Wasteland: Ghosts of the Great War | Mary Riter Hamilton
Bench 1775 Gallery
This exhibition celebrates the incredible legacy of Mary Riter Hamilton and marks the 100th anniversary of her journey to document the battlefields of Europe after WWI. Mary Riter Hamilton was a fearless, trailblazing artist who left a remarkable and moving wartime record for her Canadian countrymen.
After early instruction in Toronto, and leading a china-painting studio in Winnipeg after the death of her husband in 1893, Hamilton spent the first years of the twentieth century training in Europe, initially in Berlin, and then at the Académie Vitti in Paris. She returned to Canada in 1911, and her reputation grew steadily through successful exhibitions in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg, and Calgary. When war broke out in 1914, Hamilton was determined to play her part. She urged the Canadian War Memorials Fund to send her to Europe as an official war artist, but was repeatedly denied the opportunity. Men could paint on the frontlines, but women were confined to the home front. After the Armistice, however, Hamilton received a commission from the Amputation Club of British Columbia to paint the devastating aftermath of the war for their veterans’ magazine, The Gold Stripe. Painting en plein air under the harshest conditions, quickly and on a small scale in order keep mobile, and in most cases well before any reconstruction had begun, she produced a visceral and harrowing archive of a decimated and sorrowful landscape.
For three years she painted prolifically, her evocative smears of paint capturing scenes of churned up earth, makeshift cemeteries, ghostly and still-smoking forests, cold, stagnant puddles, teetering church ruins, brooding skies, and wet, slow-moving crowds. But she also painted colourful moments of hope and renewal: a springtime garden; a lovingly placed wreath; crisp, proud flags fluttering in the wind.
Hamilton’s three years on the battlefield left her drained and dispirited. She never painted seriously again, although the collection she donated to the National Archives of Canada remains one of the most poignant, sweeping, selfless, and exhilarating wartime memorials from the period. Thanks to Uno Langmann and Pete Wright for loaning works from their collections for this exhibition.
Hamilton returned to Canada in 1925 and struggled with ill health and poverty for the rest of her life. Her spirit broken, she found that there was little interest in her artwork and in 1926, she donated 227 of her battlefield works to the Canadian Public Archives, wanting the works to "benefit war veterans, their families and future generations." Hamilton gifted some of the paintings to war veterans, but refused to sell the rest. To this day the collection at the National Archives of Canada remains one of the most poignant and sweeping wartime memorials from the period.
Opening Reception | September 20 from 7:00-9:00pm
Artist Talk + Tour | September 21 from 1:00-2:00pm