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.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.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.