A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 315: Saturday Life Quotes – In Flanders Fields

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Ronald Kok, Remembrance, Mixed Media, 2017

“For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds…. And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”

John McCrae was a physician and poet from Guelph, Ontario. Though his training allowed him to be in the medical corps, he volunteered to be a part of a fighting unit in World War I. McCrae was in the Second Battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of France. In 1915, after presiding over a funeral for his good friend, he was inspired to write the poem that is perhaps the greatest memorial contribution of any soldier of any era: “In Flanders Fields”.

The legacy of his words lives on in the poppies that dominate this time of year in Canada and elsewhere. Many pin a paper poppy to their jackets or shirts, over their hearts, in the days leading up to an including Remembrance Day – today, November 11.

This week I’ve done my own act of remembrance through the truthful and powerful paintings of A.Y. Jackson, showing the devastated landscapes he witnessed in the Great War. Jackson’s work reminds me of the human toll and the reality of the blood, mud, anxiety, violence and tragedy that is war. There is no glory in his images.

It is important, too, to remember John McCrae not in some iconic, glorified way, but as a Canadian man who gave us a brief but enduring tribute to the men he saw broken and killed by conflict. His intention was to give a small act of remembrance.

McCrae would not live to see the end of the war as his life was taken by disease, a common fatality of war that is often overlooked. As my own act of remembrance this week, I’ve included an artwork I did recently. I found that I wasn’t able to properly convey the emotions of considering the sacrifice and horror of war. But maybe that confusion and frustration on my part is fitting. We should never be able to make “sense” of things that are ultimately senseless.

Below is McCrae’s poem:

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 314: A.Y. Jackson, Veteran’s Week #5

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A.Y. Jackson, Vimy Ridge, Souchez Valley, 1918

Vimy Ridge. There are names of locations that are meaningless to many which hold endless meaning to others. To Canada and Canadian history, Vimy Ridge, or just Vimy, is crucial to the formation of a national identity. The Battle of Vimy Ridge took place from April 9-12, 1917 in France but the name resounds the most thousands of kilometers away and across the Atlantic.

The comments on the Wikipedia page for Vimy Ridge will suffice to explain:

Historians attribute the success of the Canadian Corps in capturing the ridge to a mixture of technical and tactical innovation, meticulous planning, powerful artillery support and extensive training… The battle was the first occasion when all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force participated in a battle together and it was made a symbol of Canadian national achievement and sacrifice. A 100-hectare (250-acre) portion of the former battleground serves as a memorial park and site of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.

Here is that massive memorial

vimy memorial

As I have never visited this memorial in person, I could only guess that it is powerful to be there. This year, marking one-hundred years since the battle, was particularly significant, though the memorial sees thousands of Canadian and other visitors every year.

Memorials can be impressive and important, but to me the painting by A.Y. Jackson of Vimy Ridge gets to the truth of it all, where boots on the ground, severed limbs and spilled intestines, smoke, fire and fear told the real story. In Jackson’s depiction the trees are shattered, the ground gouged with fissures. It is ironically lit by a spring day sunshine, giving a false sense of peace to a place of battle.

In my mind, Jackson’s painting provides the reminder that simple pieces of ground can cost a great price in life and wounded bodies, in trauma and death. It can also be the place where great acts of heroism and sacrifice were on display, as well as great acts of barbarity and violence.

Ultimately, it is just another place on the map, with trees and grass, soil and flowers, soaking up the rain, drinking in the sunshine. In that way, perhaps it is a fitting memorial to a defining moment of national identity. Canada is also just another place on the map, with many features similar to other countries, with people who experience the same problems and joys. But that same-ness doesn’t equal insignificance, just as the simple ridge in France doesn’t equate to being just another piece of high ground in the landscape.

We are the ones who infuse meaning to places and events. A.Y. Jackson has grounded us in that reality. It is not Vimy Ridge that defined a nation, it was the people – then and there and beyond – that defined and continue to define Canada, for better of for worse.

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 313: A.Y. Jackson, Veteran’s Week #4

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A.Y. Jackson, Cathedral at Ypres, Belgium,1918

“At the front we would see examples of self sacrifice and sublime courage by men the church would regard as outside the law. His faith in the church might weaken but his faith in humanity would be better stuff after it.” – A.Y. Jackson

The sickly color and writhing buildings, the spectre-like figures and pale sky – A.Y. Jackson, Canada’s preeminent war artist, makes clear that he has no interest in depicting a “glorious” battle against the Hun in World War I. This is Ypres, Belgium descended into a layer of Hell, seemingly melting into the sodden earth.

As I mark Veteran’s Week here in Canada with the paintings by Jackson, I am reminded of the toll human conflict takes on bodies, souls, minds, cities, villages, fields, animals, life… There is truly nothing that does not suffer when we choose to hurl our wrath and weapons at each other.

For this coming Remembrance Day I choose to remember not only those who sacrificed themselves but all other things that give us our humanity which have been and continue to be assaulted by our own penchant for self-destruction. We must start by being people of peace ourselves.

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 312: A.Y. Jackson, Veterans’ Week #3

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A.Y. Jackson, Springtime in Picardy, 1918

“The rough neck and the out of work far outnumber the patriot. Volunteers by pressure… when you hear all the bosh talked and written about our precious honor, Christian ideals, etc. it just about makes you sick… people who entrust their national honor to men they would not allow to enter their houses in times of peace are not worth fighting for.” – A.Y. Jackson

Today I continue to honor Veterans’ Week here in Canada with paintings by A.Y. Jackson, an artist who enlisted and fought next to other Canadians who fought, bled and died in the mud and muck of the Western Front.

The idea of “War Art” might bring to mind glorified, colorful images of valor, whether real or imagined. Jackson was uncompromising in his display of the truth of war, whether in his images or in his words. He was disgusted by the warmongers on the home front who would never set foot on a battlefield much less deign to be among the poor rabble that made up the bulk of the Canadian fighting force.

His painting Springtime in Picardy is another ironically title piece of truth. We see the familiar war background of shattered homes, hallowed out and made vacant by the human ability to destroy. What was once likely a quaint French village is now a sickly refection of itself. I can’t help but think of the people to whom those walls were the walls of home, of warmth, of laughter and sleep and lovemaking and food and drink, of children playing and gardens growing. In Jackson’s depiction the remains of the houses are almost quivering in pain, as if they are horribly wounded and soon to die.

Yet in the midst of it, the blossoms of the pear tree. At first it is hard to take note of it, but it is there. The promise of spring doesn’t mean peace but it does mean that death doesn’t win.

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 311: A.Y. Jackson, Veteran’s Week #2

 

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A.Y. Jackson, Gas Attack, Lievin, 1918

“What to paint was a problem for the war artist… the old heroics, the death and glory stuff, were gone forever… the impressionistic technique I had developed was now ineffective, for visual impressions were not enough.” – A.Y. Jackson

I continue today to honor Veteran’s Week here in Canada with another painting by A.Y. Jackson – Group of Seven member, World War I veteran and war artist.

This painting is eerie in that you may be tempted to think there are fireworks going off in the distance. In reality, Jackson was witnessing a gas attack on German lines. The distance and seeming detachment from something so awful gives a false impression of peace. When I read news today of conflict far off, I find that my own distance from that reality leads to a detachment. In many ways, we’re all of us like Jackson on that hillside viewing something far off that is deadly and horrific yet we don’t connect with it in any real way.

Putting a human face on the very inhumane experiences of war, be it the soldier or civilian, is a way for us to enter into the fear, anger, pain and lose they felt. For me, this is an important way to remember and to honor, as well as to work to see it never happens again. Only by making it as real as we can will we be motivated to bridge that gulf of detachment and work for peace.