Trau­matic re-cre­ation

Arthur Lis­mer’s stark sketches of the Hal­i­fax Ex­plo­sion’s im­me­di­ate af­ter­math draw a line through his­tory; con­nect­ing art and tragedy.

The Coast - - HX 100 - BY JEN­NIFER HEN­DER­SON

Arthur Lis­mer and the 1917 Ex­plo­sion: When War Came to Hal­i­fax Novem­ber 23–De­cem­ber 17 Dal­housie Art Gallery, 6101 Univer­sity Av­enue

If it hap­pened to­day, producers would be bid­ding for the film rights by noon. In­stead, the Ex­plo­sion in Hal­i­fax Har­bour— the worst hu­man-made disas­ter prior to the atomic bomb—was doc­u­mented in a 75-cent pa­per­back filled with 60 pho­to­graphs.

Heart Throbs of The Hal­i­fax Hor­ror was writ­ten by Saint John news reporter Stan­ley K. Smith, who landed in this city on De­cem­ber 8, 1917, two days af­ter the tragedy. A print­ing of Smith’s book and a rare hard­cover edi­tion fea­tur­ing 11 il­lus­tra­tions by Arthur Lis­mer are now on view in an ex­hibit at the Dal­housie Art Gallery.

The lurid orange cover of Heart Throbs fea­tures a sketch by Lis­mer, who later be­came a mem­ber of Canada’s famed Group of Seven. The com­pelling pen-and-ink draw­ing shows a cou­ple with a child gaz­ing sor­row­fully over the de­bris field.

A later, short-lived sec­ond edi­tion of Smith’s book en­ti­tled The Drama of A City: The Story

of Stricken Hal­i­fax in­cludes 11 other draw­ings Lis­mer sketched in the hours and days fol­low­ing the Ex­plo­sion.

Peo­ple with eyes cov­ered by ban­dages com­fort one an­other in a hellish land­scape of fallen homes and smoul­der­ing fires. Char­coal sketches de­pict oth­ers load­ing bod­ies dur­ing a bl­iz­zard or stand­ing wearily in line-ups for food.

Lis­mer, orig­i­nally from Eng­land, was prin­ci­pal of the Vic­to­ria School of Art and Design. The school, later re­named the Nova Sco­tia Col­lege of Art and Design, sat on the cur­rent site of the Five Fish­er­men restau­rant. On the day of the Ex­plo­sion, Lis­mer’s fam­ily was fin­ish­ing break­fast at their Cliff Street home over­look­ing the Bed­ford Basin. The house was sud­denly shaken by a pres­sure wave trig­gered by the col­li­sion with the Mont Blanc mu­ni­tions ship. Lis­mer sent his wife and daugh­ter out­side for safety. There the fam­ily saw a miles-high cloud emerge over the north end. The artist then set off on an ex­tra­or­di­nary walk to work.

Be­cause the train had been halted at Rock­ing­ham Sta­tion, Lis­mer spent many hor­rific hours strug­gling to­wards his of­fice, stop­ping to sketch scenes of the Ex­plo­sion’s af­ter­math. Those rarely seen black-and-white im­ages— re­pro­duced and en­larged for the Dal­housie ex­hibit—are stark and sym­pa­thetic por­traits of be­wil­dered, griev­ing cit­i­zens.

Dal­housie Art Gallery cu­ra­tor Peter Dykhuis says the Lis­mer draw­ings of­fer an im­por­tant wit­ness to a ma­jor his­tor­i­cal event. The artist’s pen may have al­lowed ac­cess to a more in­ti­mate por­trait of hu­man suf­fer­ing than “a more in­tru­sive” cam­era, sug­gests Dykhuis.

The ex­hibit also in­cludes Lis­mer draw­ings pub­lished by the Cana­dian Courier in its Satur­day, De­cem­ber 29, 1917 is­sue. Here’s the open­ing over­heated prose of “When War Came to Hal­i­fax As Seen By A Cana­dian Artist”:

“Never in the world of science, so far as we know, was there such a force let loose all in a few mo­ments as the Anar­chy that wrecked Hal­i­fax. Never was a city so sud­denly wrecked. No earth­quake ever came with the aw­ful, un­premed­i­tated swift­ness of the ex­plo­sion of 4,000 tons of TNT. One blow from a cat­a­clysmal fist shat­tered a city as a gi­ant’s hand crum­ples a toy vil­lage of card­board.”

Lis­mer be­came a des­ig­nated wartime artist in 1918 and even­tu­ally moved to Toronto. His orig­i­nal sketches of the Ex­plo­sion have never been found.

Alan Ruff­man, a ge­ol­o­gist, lo­cal his­to­rian and self-con­fessed “Ex­plo­sion nerd” since read­ing Hugh Ma­cLen­nan’s Barom­e­ter Ris­ing as a teen, gen­er­ously agreed to make his copy of Heart Throbs avail­able for Dal’s ex­hibit. Ruff­man not only has one of two known copies of the orange-cov­ered pa­per­back, but he also owns the rare sec­ond edi­tion of Smith’s book that in­cludes those 11 rough sketches of hu­man tragedy.

Drama of a City “is word-for-word the same text,” says Ruff­man. “The pub­lisher, Ger­ald Weir, took the 60 photos out and put in the 11 draw­ings.”

A chance en­counter in 1977 with then-Dal­housie art cu­ra­tor Ge­mey Kelly (an ac­knowl­edged ex­pert on Lis­mer’s Hal­i­fax pe­riod) at a New Year’s levee at Schooner Books tipped Ruff­man to the sig­nif­i­cance of Lis­mer’s draw­ings. He even­tu­ally got his hands on one copy of The Drama Of A City that turned out to con­tain the 11 pre­vi­ously un­known Lis­mer sketches.

Those sketches are part of the writ­ten re­flec­tions and art about the dev­as­tat­ing, trans­for­ma­tive event that are sur­fac­ing in prepa­ra­tion for the Ex­plo­sion’s cen­te­nary. Lis­mer’s con­nec­tion to the event con­tin­ues to re­ver­ber­ate with Bar­bara Lounder; a vis­ual artist who teaches at NSCAD. Over the past decade she’s be­come fas­ci­nated with walk­ing as a method to stim­u­late cre­ativ­ity, and is a found­ing mem­ber of the Nar­ra­tives in Space + Time So­ci­ety. The group has cre­ated a se­ries of pub­lic walk­ing events that mash-up per­for­mance art, re­search and sto­ry­telling to con­nect the present to the past.

In 2013, Lounder led a pub­lic walk re­trac­ing Lis­mer’s foot­steps af­ter the Ex­plo­sion. The tour grew out of a solo jour­ney she took four years prior.

“I walked from where Lis­mer lived at the top of Bed­ford Basin to the Sex­ton cam­pus of the en­gi­neer­ing school at Dal,” re­calls Lounder. “It was a re­minder that De­cem­ber 6 is about the Hal­i­fax Ex­plo­sion but it’s also about the Mon­treal Mas­sacre. And it’s about vi­o­lence in gen­eral and why th­ese things hap­pen. I wanted to ex­pe­ri­ence that as an artist. I was very moved by the fact Lis­mer did this work and was a wit­ness to the catas­tro­phe of that day. I wanted to em­body that by walk­ing the same path.”

The col­li­sion of vi­o­lence and art is foun­da­tional to the Hal­i­fax Ex­plo­sion. Im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing the blast in 1917, the Art Col­lege where Lis­mer was prin­ci­pal be­came a tem­po­rary morgue. An exhibition bor­rowed from the Na­tional Gallery had just opened in the gallery above the school and sus­tained se­ri­ous dam­age. In a let­ter to the head of the gallery, dated De­cem­ber 14, Lis­mer asked if he could use some of the pre­cious, un­bro­ken glass from the lith­o­graphs to patch win­dows to keep out the snow.

“Now all th­ese are small things com­pared with the aw­ful dam­age and death toll in the dev­as­tated area, that is in­deed a woe­ful sight— and our 20,000 home­less (we are all car­ing for them) and the nu­mer­ous blinded peo­ple— and the lit­tle chil­dren—a sight of any of th­ese would de­press the ten­der­est soul... My school is full of coffins now and all boarded up.”

The Lis­mer draw­ings of the Hal­i­fax Ex­plo­sion will be on dis­play at the Dal­housie Art Gallery un­til De­cem­ber 17.

Jen­nifer Hen­der­son is a free­lance reporter liv­ing in


The De­cem­ber 6, 1917 walk from Bed­ford to down­town ex­posed Lis­mer to scenes of the Ex­plo­sion’s af­ter­math, and the art school where he worked (top mid­dle) was used as a morgue.

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