The Grandfathering of William Lyon Mackenzie King (1)

Article excerpt

Whatever its actual location, any public monument stands in the slot where politics collides with cultural politics. Energies beyond the purely aesthetic are always at play. Consider for a moment the currents that bore the monument there in the first place. Power--the power to control public space and what resides there--operates at a deeper level than any hole dug for the statue's foundation. Governments exercise that power over the public gaze. Governors in turn sway governments, though in democratic societies this power is often diffused or hidden. Wherever power's veil slips, investigation can follow.

One of Canada's most enduring and purposeful of governors, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874-1950) exercised his control over public space as a means both of altering public memory and reconstituting his own sense of selfhood. (2) Seldom has any statue not a literal representation of its donor or subject so fused public with private concerns.

Walter Seymour Allward's (1876-1955) monument to William Lyon Mackenzie (1795-1861) has stood since 1940 along the west side of the Ontario legislature in Toronto, in the area known as Queen's Park. It stands there still, its meaning and significance puzzling nearly every observer. Representational in nature, it nevertheless evokes in any public whom I have introduced to the monument the same response that abstract monuments arouse: shrugs, head-scratching, the usual passerby testimonials to the work's continuing opacity. (3)

In this instance, however, an extensive documentary record lets us delineate each of production's traditional components: patron, artist and work. The record nor only illuminates the "meaning" (in the sense of "message") of the work itself. The record also allows us to study the inner workings of a process through which a political and cultural ideology, accompanied at every step by a personal obsession, became promulgated, shaped, and finally enshrined.

Patron and artist alike bear national significance. Not only was William Lyon Mackenzie King Canada's longest-serving Prime Minister, he saw himself as the keeper of his grandfather's reputation. His commissioning and supervision of the Queen's Park monument to his forbear proved, as we shall see, a final step in a dogged process of consecrating ancestral memory. Walter S. Aliward in turn was easily the most celebrated Canadian artist of his time. His Vimy Memorial (1936) on the battle site--all 6,000 tonnes of its statuary and pylons, plus the 15,000 tonnes of concrete and steel that it rests upon--represents the most significant commitment that any agency of the Government of Canada has ever made toward a single item of artistic production not a building. Its 126-foot height towers both literally and figuratively over any competitors.

For his grandfather's monument, Mackenzie King commissioned the artist who had enshrined Canada's overseas exploits to commemorate a figure whom he sought to place among Canada's makers. The Vimy monument stood overseas, where relatively few Canadians could view it. King's testimony to his grandfather stands in the heart of Canada's largest metropolis, and at the center of public power there, a power that his grandfather once actively sought to overthrow. Vimy rests upon what our civic religion views as the sacred ground of wartime sacrifice. The Mackenzie monument stands in Ontario's via sacra, a public space whose bronze occupants came to rest there as a tribute to the political clout they exercised even after death.

Lord Melbourne is said to have relished his membership in the Order of the Garter above any other honor because it entailed "no damned nonsense about merit." Some of the same considerations govern any appearance in the Queen's Park space. Since 1870, two full decades before the provincial legislative buildings were inserted into a portion of the site, Queen's Park had functioned as "commemorative space. …