Where History and Memory Ride Together

Thoughts on the opening of a new exhibition “Behind the Lines, Alfred Munnings, War Artist, 1918”
March 21st 2019

When The Honourable Patrick Seely cut the red ribbon to open the new Munnings Art Museum exhibition
Behind the Lines, Alfred Munnings, War Artist, 1918, there was a tangible excitement amongst the invited guests as they walked at a pace to get into the galleries and be the first to see the elegant arrangement of 41 evocative paintings of the Canadian Cavalry and Forestry Corps in France in 1918 by Alfred Munnings. The private view represented the culmination of a several-years’ long effort to bring the exhibition to The Munnings Art Museum in Dedham and to see the paintings, which are on loan from the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, displayed in their shimmering gold frames, set against the smoke-grey gallery walls has marked a milestone in the life of the museum.

The profound, lifelong affection that Munnings had for horses imbues so many of the pictures in the exhibition but there is affection, too, in the detail of soldiers taking a moment of quiet between combat. One of the most striking of these paintings depicts a soldier sitting atop a stack of felled timber under an azure sky. It’s an image that celebrates the beauty of the moment and perhaps only serves to heighten the tragedy of the war that is there just beyond the frame of the painting.

Enriching the pictures on display in this once-in-a-generation return of the paintings to the museum at Castle House, Alfred Munnings home for 40 years, are a fascinating selection of his sketches that are permanently housed in The Munnings Art Museum’s own collection. There are loosely worked sketches of soldiers relaxed in repose and delicate, but highly detailed, renderings of the faces in the places through which the soldiers moved.

History and memory are connected by quite different ways of seeing the past and in relation to Behind the Lines there’s some value in quoting the American historian David Blight who has usefully made the following observation: “If history is shared and secular, memory is often treated as a sacred set of absolute meanings and stories … Memory is often owned, history interpreted. Memory is passed down through generations; history is revised. Memory often coalesces in objects, sites and monuments; history seeks to understand contexts in all their complexity.”

When Alfred Munnings bought Castle House in 1919, hardly a year after his return from France, he described it affectionately as “the house of my dreams”. For a man who spent significant stretches of time away from home with his work, the house on the edge of Dedham, became Alfred Munnings’ refuge and workplace. How fitting and moving it was, then, at the opening of Behind the Lines, to hear Jim Witham, Acting Director-General of the Canadian War Museum, speak to the resonance of Castle House as Munnings’ creative stronghold. Behind the Lines brings back home a series of paintings that quietly and brilliantly sustain a memory that belongs to us all.