Restoring Loss at Vimy

Text Andrea Picard

Photos Peter Maccallum

A memento mori as much as it is a grand symbol of peace, Walter Allward’s Dantean monument at Vimy serves, first and foremost, as a collective and colossal expression of grief for the more than 66,000 Canadian men who died in the First World War. The pride (and sorrow) of our newly formed nation was carved, from 1925 to 1936, into 6,000 tons of specially chosen Yugoslavian limestone, which boldly jut into the sky above the pristinely preserved pockmarked battlefields from the Great War. As textbook history has taught us, the taking of Vimy Ridge was an insuperable feat carried out by the young and inexperienced Canadian military corps, whose involvement in the war was, until that famous battle, predominantly informed by its status as a British colony. But in April of 1917, a British regiment fell under Canadian command during this operation, one which both French and British battalions were previously unable to execute, and to great loss. Vimy Ridge was finally overtaken by the Canadian troops on April 9, an historic campaign which was to be the apex of our achievement in the First World War, and mythologically, “the birth of a nation.”

Allward, a Toronto architect and sculptor, supplied the winning design, beating out 160 entries for the commission of the Vimy Memorial to be erected atop the ridge overlooking the Douai Plain in northeastern France near Arras. The pinnacle of his career, the felicitous monument is majestic and arguably un-Canadian in its grandiosity, allegorical thrust, and captivating mix of neoclassical and abstract form. The cost of its construction, including site preparation (the hazardous excavation of land mines) and the creation of roads amounted to approximately $1.5 million. The grounds were bestowed in 1922 to the people of Canada by the French government and encompass 100 hectares, 92 of which form a park with transplanted trees and shrubs indigenous to Canada. Many of the wartime tunnels and trenches intact, the formerly contested battlefield is now a site of sublimely contrasting features especially conceived for contemplation. The awesome contribution of the landscape cannot be denied, like the power of the ocean off the coast of Dieppe. But the centrepiece, of course, remains Allward’s memorial; it commands like any great work of art. In fact, the monument’s “Female and Male Mourners” reference Michelangelo’s illustrious Medici Tombs in Florence and the “Weeping Woman” figure (also known as “Canada Mourning”) embodies Christian iconographic overtones. Not unlike so many Italian masterworks today, the Vimy monument is currently undergoing a vigourous restoration program (supported by the Canadian government), its twin plinths mummified like a site-specific Christo sculpture.

This Christo reference was recently voiced by Toronto photographer Peter MacCallum, who travelled to Vimy last fall to photograph the Grange subway–an underground passageway named for the Grange House in Toronto–for his “Interiors” series, but instead saw his focus shift to the monument in its transitional state. Integral to MacCallum’s work is his vested interest in processes and their historical import, in industrial labour and its consequences on the material world. Still, changes in the landscape do not elude him and he often contextualizes his subjects into a larger whole–when possible, a natural environment. His photos from Vimy, then, are documents of the labourious tasks involved in remedying the cenotaph, which has suffered considerable attrition from time and weather. They are also, significantly, beautifully composed and printed testaments to a site whose intrinsic incongruities bestow a sense of disquiet fitting to its role. These include the pockmarked battlefields, which remain off limits to the public due to the high risk of unearthed explosives potentially lurking just beyond the surface. Sheep graze those fields peacefully, natural grass-cutters in a deceptively bucolic atmosphere. MacCallum documents this pastoral scene like a Romantic. The brooding skies and fluffy sheep have an air of Dutch genre painting to them, but the overall series illustrates the visual cacophony of the commemorative site, laying bare the anguish inherent to the land. A sense of gravitas emerges from these photographs, from their ability to convey the poetics of unparalleled loss, whereas the images of the tunnels are evidently more difficult to glorify. They depict dank, dark spaces, and their claustrophobic earthy forms stand in stark contrast to the vast sky above; their horrific connotations robbed of the levity provided by the expanse beyond them. Allward was well aware of how powerful this contradiction would be.

Unlike the average visitor to the site, MacCallum was granted permission to mount the scaffold temporarily cladding Allward’s Monument and enjoyed a panoramic survey of the grounds below. The land, he shows us, is bifurcated between rolling trenches and shell holes and a smoothly compacted field–a juxtaposition not dissimilar to that of the flattened multiples of tombstones erect before swaying, sinewy trees in one of the numerous surrounding cemeteries. These manifest variations create dynamic yet precisely framed compositions which have the power to awaken the senses, to penetrate beyond the reality of the photographs. Yet the most dramatic images are those of Allward’s monument doubly framed by MacCallum’s camera, but first by the buttressing system created for the restoration work. Through concise cropping, these images posit the effects of monumentality still surprisingly intact while the majestic figures are encased in cage-like structures, trapping and dissecting them into parts. The most striking photo from MacCallum’s Vimy series depicts the nude torso of the female incarnation of Peace, who dramatically clings to a lightning rod, her rib cage prominently protruding below her breasts. The innate histrionics of this portrayal is further dramatized by the Saint Sebastian-like scene created from an intense network of support rods aimed in her direction, tension that MacCallum cleverly seized upon. Clearly “a gimme shot,” MacCallum remarked lightheartedly.

Down below, a specially designed structure has been created to allow work to be done on the ramparts and base, where severe water damage has corroded the soldiers’ engraved names. Here MacCallum photographed some of the Belgian workers in action–they are painstakingly restoring the loss for whom Allward’s great monument was erected. Their work, along with MacCallum’s new series, point toward an imminent reconsideration of Canada’s monument at Vimy, 70 years after its historic inauguration.

Andra Picard is a film curator at Cinemathque Ontario and the Toronto International Film Festival. She writes a quarterly FILM/ART column for Cinema Scope magazine.

Peter MacCallum would like to thank the managers Pascale Iveson and M. Devloo for arranging access to the Vimy site, Senior Technical Advisor Peter Craven for explaining the restoration process and providing transportation, and the employees of the Monument restoration firm for their kind cooperation. This project was funded by a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts under its International Residencies Program.