CALGARY – A 1919 painting depicting the impact of mustard gas on soldiers fighting in the First World War is being re-created as a human tableau.
The original painting “Gassed” by American artist John Singer Sargent shows soldiers, blinded and injured by mustard gas, being led to a casualty tent for treatment.
The artist was commissioned to portray British and American troops co-operating on the battlefield but he didn’t actually encounter that. As he got closer to the front lines in France, he saw fewer soldiers and more chaos, so he painted soldiers he had seen who had been gassed.
Artist Adad Hannah enlisted about 50 volunteers to re-create portions of the painting. They will be put on video, which will become part of a mock-up of the battlefield depicted in the picture.
“You have a bunch of people who have just been gassed. There’s people who have succumbed to the gas on the ground, people walking hand on shoulder in the line because they can’t see,” Hannah said Wednesday.
“I’m not shying away from the fact that it’s a war painting. There’s definite parallels to people who have been gassed in Syria in 2018.”
Mustard gas, a potent blistering agent, was used by both the Germans and the Allies during the war.
Hours after exposure, a victim’s eyes became bloodshot, began to water and became increasingly painful. Some suffered temporary blindness. Mustard gas is blamed for an estimated 120,000 deaths.
Four volunteers, wearing Canadian Forces uniforms, their eyes covered with bandages formed a line on the fake battlefield. Each reached forward to grasp the shoulder of the individual in front of them. Two casualties lay on the ground before them.
The soldiers aren’t battle-hardened veterans, but women of various ages and ethnicities as well as a young man.
“The goal is not to be identical. As you can see, we’ve sort of thrown historical accuracy out the window,” said Lindsey Sharman, curator of the University of Calgary’s Founders’ Gallery at The Military Museums.
“At first glance, they kind of look like photographs, and then you notice people blinking, people breathing so you have this kind of raw lifeness. By using real actors, by using real people that are existing out here in the world, it really draws in more of that feeling (that) these are real people.”
Taran Hari came to the museum looking to do some volunteer work and ended up wearing an army uniform and a bandage on her head at what appeared to be a fashion shoot.
“I love the uniform. It’s actually super comfortable despite what I may have thought before,” she said.
“This is supposed to go over my eyes apparently and I have mud all over me to look like I’ve came from war. Hopefully this is going to be good.”
The exhibit, titled “Gassed Redux,” includes gas masks and other First World War items from the archives and collections at the museum and will be on display until September.
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