Walter Allward's Vimy memorial marks a moment in the development of Canadian nationalism when the losses of World War I reinforced what had already become an established tradition in our cultural discourse: the definition of the nation in terms of idealized abstraction. The sacred space defined by the memorial suited the aims of both artist and public, who preferred an eclectic mixture of traditional motifs to a modernist meditation on the fact of mass death.
[The Vimy monument] is in fact the most pretentious war memorial in the world. The situation is saved by it being an expression of Canada's idealism.
--Mackenzie King, Diaries, 11 October 1936.
This essay originates in one of criticism's primal acts: an inability to reconcile what I was looking at--in this case, Canada's Vimy memorial to its World War I dead--with what authorities had seen there.
Consider, for example, the response of Lane Borstad, whose command of the facts and scope of sculptor Walter S. Allward's career is unmatched. Borstad sets aside the historical and empirical grounding for his authority and recommends instead an approach brushing away any hint of the contemplative: "Because the figures speak directly to the emotions rather than act strictly as religious symbols, they are accessible to those who bring to the memorial their own experience of sorrow, loss, and hope" (Borstad 36). Can we experience any cultural object without engaging the sum of our life experiences? To use a personal example, my experiences as a palliative caregiver have surely reshaped my response to the emotionality of Robert Motherwell's "Elegy for the Spanish Republic" series of paintings. But that response--like the target of a bolt of lightning during a storm--requires no particular kind of object as its destination. Any ground will do. If a monument is in some way a mnemonic, but serving no function more complex than that of a locus for emotional release, then will not any mnemonic do? A string around the finger, a rubber band around the wrist, a knot in a handkerchief: what does it matter, so long as we remember the errand the reminder signifies?
Jacqueline Hucker, chief historian of the memorial's restoration, knows at first hand a great deal about the monument. Yet her assertion of its modernist style appears curious in its omissions. If the memorial displays "a strong, architectural structure that was stripped of all decoration and relied for effect on simple lines and a weighty, formal abstraction" (Hucker 43), then what are we to do with the twenty larger-than-life, allegorical figures that crowd the structure? Can we block all this statuary from view? Can we behold two monuments, one before our eyes, the other, a kind of invisible ur-monument stripped of the allegorical figures that are in fact among its most prominent features? How could I reconcile what Hucker had designated with what towered before me?
My own reading of the memorial's genesis and history compels my dissent from these authoritative accounts of the nature and meaning of Canada's memorial at Vimy. Surveying the idealistic drift of the verbal national cultural discourse within which this sculptural object took its place at the time of its inception and completion underlines the eclectic, neo-classical, late-Victorianism of its gestural vocabulary. Whatever stance the podium for the idealized and gigantesque (twice life-size) figures may have assumed, the fact remains that the memorial as a whole is allegorical and consolatory in intention and figuration. Devoid of irony, it stands at the opposite of any modernist sculptural statement. Nothing should surprise us in the memorial's anti-modernism, since the sculpture enacts a kind of idealized national image-making implicit within the wider habit of Canadian nationalist discourse at the time, discourse that the artist's government patrons sought to augment. The Vimy memorial's power over its original audience depended upon its relation to the emerging nation's ongoing conversation about its identity. …