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Setting a legend in stone

A modernist sculptor captured Canada's conflicted feelings about Vimy and the war. Restorers had to cope with his troublesome innovations.

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

The Vimy Memorial commanding Hill 145 in France is an amazing statement, a proclamation to the world of Canada's unhyphenated identity and a bold declaration in architectural modernism of the meaning of human existence told through stark, white stone.

The government of Canada let it fall apart for 40 years until The Globe and Mail's European correspondent at the time, Alan Freeman, wrote about its decay on the newspaper's front page on May 13, 2000.

The manifestation of our national psyche was crumbling, bits and pieces of it crashing to the ground, Mr. Freeman reported. Part of the memorial's base was cordoned off for fear that the cracked arm of one of the statues would fall.

Moss and mould smirched the once-gleaming blocks of limestone pried from a Roman quarry in Croatia. The drainage system had ceased to work. Many of the names carved into the memorial's base of the 11,285 First World War Canadian soldiers who died in France but whose bodies were never found had become obliterated.

That was us -- our face to the world, our contempt for our dead, our dismissal of our own mythology.

The government was shamed into action. It announced a $30-million restoration plan for all of Canada's Great War memorials in France and Belgium, with two-thirds of the money earmarked for the national memorial at Vimy. Work began in 2003.

On Monday, the restored monument will be rededicated in the presence of the Queen, the Prime Minister and French President Jacques Chirac. Somewhere nearby will be Julian Smith. The Ottawa conservancy architect has given four years of his life to returning the Vimy Memorial to the dazzling vision in modernism and spiritual symbolism created 70 years ago by Walter Allward.

The project has been in large part a journey into Mr. Allward's mind -- guided by restoration team member and architectural historian Jacqueline Hucker -- to understand what he set out to create.

It has been about grappling with the technological hiccups of early, emerging modernism that Mr. Allward couldn't have anticipated. It has involved a derring-do search for the precise white Seget limestone that he used, and having to deal along the way with shady characters around the quarries on Croatia's Dalmatian coast.

And it has meant dismantling the monument and putting it back together like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle -- with the restoration team's hearts in their mouths for fear that they lacked the expertise to make the pieces fit with the precision demanded by Mr. Allward's geometric forms and concept of a seamless surface.

In the aftermath of the war, with its 10 million people dead and 21 million wounded, the combatants erected battlefield memorials to their casualties. Britain and the other dominions of the emerging Commonwealth built monuments of Edwardian sensibility.

On the other hand, Mr. Allward's design, chosen by a Canadian architectural jury in 1921, reflected the feeling of many artists of the time that the Great War had ruptured history -- a feeling expressed through a modernism that rejected traditional art that was based on the values seen as contributing to the slaughter of 1914-19.

Mr. Allward's Vimy Memorial is a soaring white surface on a landscape -- and unlike other memorial designers, who created beautiful landscaped gardens around their work, he left his setting as a battlefield, underscoring the juxtaposition of his monument's message and the catastrophic deaths of war.

(Shortly after restoration began, the bodies of two German soldiers were found in the top 18 inches of soil. "You're reminded that this is not only an example of early modernism but it is a sacred landscape . . . that still runs with the blood of these soldiers," Julian Smith says.)

With its symbols of classic Greek and Christian spirituality, the memorial reaches toward a new universal language of hope, peace, justice and charity, giving substance to ideals but presenting them without cultural baggage. The style is not Edwardian, English, Canadian or German. It is abstract, pure form,

The synthesis of Classic and Renaissance mythologies and intense passions expressed through the human body Mr. Allward owed to sculptor Auguste Rodin, whose work he had studied in France.

He was intellectually in tune with artists such as British theatre designer Gordon Craig, whose stark avant-garde stage sets stressed the isolation and melancholy of the human figure in the vast landscapes of the mind. Mr. Craig's 1905 design for Electra looks eerily like a model for the Vimy Memorial, with a hooded, brooding Electra flanked by white geometric pillars like Mr. Allward's mourning Canada Bereft flanked by his two pillars.

But Mr. Allward's zest for innovation paradoxically caused big trouble.

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