When the war came home

"The Halifax Explosion" at the Dalhousie Art Gallery.

On December 6, 1917, the Norwegian freighter Imo collided with the French munitions ship Mont Blanc in the narrows of the Halifax Harbour, near where the Macdonald Bridge is today. The Imo was empty, in Halifax to pick up relief supplies for Belgian refugees. The Mont Blanc, however, was fully loaded with high explosives. The French ship caught fire, was abandoned by its crew, and drifted up harbour, running aground at what was then Pier 6. At 9:04 a.m. the burning Mont Blanc exploded, creating what was until the first atomic blast almost 30 years later, the largest manmade explosion in human history. Over 2,000 people were killed, more than 9,000 were injured, and an area of Halifax, once known as the Richmond district, was devastated.
This is a familiar story to Haligonians, of course, and all the more so this year with the various events and activities marking the centennial of this tragedy. On that December morning, the horrors of modern “total” war, all too familiar to the civilian populations of Europe, were brought home to Canada for the first, and only, time in our country’s young history.
How one marks such an event is an interesting conundrum. We can celebrate the individual heroism of Halifax citizens, the collective strength and perseverance of the city in rebuilding from such a devastating blow, and the generosity and friendship immediately shown by neighbouring cities, towns and villages in the Maritimes, in Canada, and in the United States.
The Dalhousie Art Gallery has chosen to mark this anniversary with five distinct, but related exhibitions: Walking the Debris Field: Public Geographies of the Halifax Explosion, organized by the local collective Narratives in Space + Time Society (NiS+TS); Claire Hodge: Negotiations, an exhibition of photographs curated by Peter Dykhuis; Arthur Lismer and the Halifax Explosion; Arthur Lismer and The Drama of the City; and From 2D to 3D: Mapping Halifax Over Time.
There’s a lot going on in the space, but it is worth the visit to explore the various approaches to such a central event in our collective history. Over the past few years the four-person collective NiS+TS (made up of Robert Bean, Brian Lilley, Barbara Lounder, and Mary Elizabeth Luka) have been organizing walks, animated with readings, performances and other public interactions, mapping the debris field of the Halifax explosion—an area approximately bounded by North Street, Windsor Street, the Dartmouth shore of the Harbour, and the Bedford Basin shore along the north end of the peninsula. Of course, debris went further, some ending up in the Arm, for instance. Maps, photographs and videos reflect the activities and collaborations of over 80 groups with NiS+TS, and activities will continue throughout the run of the exhibition.
Local photographer Claire Hodge presents a series of images of the houses from the Hydrostone neighbourhood, famously built to replace a neighbourhood levelled by the explosion. In a painstaking process she took individual images of each unit of the fourplexes and duplexes that make up the area, digitally stitching them together in panoramic views that the tight quarters of the neighbourhood make impossible to do with conventional photography.
In 1917 Arthur Lismer (future member of the Group of Seven) was principal of the Victoria College of Art, now known as NSCAD University. He normally took a train in from Bedford to work each day. On the 6th, serendipitously, he stayed home. The train was wrecked in the explosion. Lismer made sketches of the aftermath that were published in the magazine Canadian Courier, and in a book by Stanley K. Smith, called Drama of the City. The original sketches have long since disappeared, but a copy of the magazine and scans from the book are on view in a small exhibit curated by local historian Alan Ruffman. In a related project, Lismer’s paintings and drawings of Halifax during the First World War are on view, including several wonderful paintings of the camouflaged warships called “Dazzle Ships.”
The last project, created by Dalhousie Libraries’ GIS Centre and organized by James Boxall, GIS Specialist and Map Curator, is a video projection of a 3D digital model of the Richmond area of Halifax and the effects of the explosion, shows the effect of the blast on the city, using the simple expedient of different colours for the buildings in the large area: blue for totally destroyed, red for gutted by fire, orange for merely “wrecked.” Virtually every building (represented by schematic blocks), is depicted in one of the three colours.
The Halifax Explosion is a complicated experience, with a lot to see and absorb. It’s worth the trip to Dalhousie’s Art Centre to see it, though, as it gives a picture of the immediate, and lingering, effects of one of this city’s most traumatic and defining events. It does so obliquely, and thought provokingly, rather than directly, but then, that’s what art should do.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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