Thoughts on the war to end all wars
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone
Oh, when will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?
— Pete Seeger, Where Have All The Flowers Gone?
Recently, I created a series of paintings examining the War of 1812 between the young United States and Britain’s North American colonies that resulted in the birth of a new Canadian identity.
A century later came the First World War. And a century after that, I was approached by the Office of the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario to consider painting a series about this “war to end all wars” that defined our emerging colonial nation with even more profound and tragic consequences.
If this was Canada’s coming of age, its profound rite of passage, I needed to know why fighting for the British Empire was seen to be such an act of courage and loyalty, why young men from across the vast reaches of our sparsely populated country of just eight million people left for the battlefields of Germany, France and Belgium to be wounded, slaughtered and, if they survived, traumatized for life.
For months, I pored over letters written by young soldiers from the trenches, diaries of courageous nurses, and dour military reports of the appalling number of casualties among Canada’s young soldiers.
My thoughts turned to a painting I remembered from childhood by Group of Seven war artist Frederick Varley titled FOR WHAT? which depicts a grisly pile of mutilated corpses in a cart sitting in a filthy quagmire, awaiting hasty burial.
The more I read, the more I pondered war as the low point of human existence. How different were we, are we, from the apes? How have we evolved, if at all? Is killing for territory and dominance an inevitable characteristic of human behaviour?
After much sifting of ideas, I chose not to depict the violence and savagery of the battlefields, the exploding shells, the gunfire, the rotting corpses, and the agony of the wounded and dying.
Instead, I chose a path of meditation on War as Metaphor.
Wordsworth’s phrase, “Emotion recollected in tranquility”, often came to my mind. One hundred years later, could I evoke this war as a metaphor for human frailty? Could I transform misery and suffering into something powerful, poetic, metaphysical?
An excerpt from John McCrae’s celebrated poem In Flanders Fields kick-started my subconscious:
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.
My challenge was to get up close and personal with The Warrior—to put myself in his boots, to get my head inside his brain, to feel what one lone soldier felt confronting his rage, his fear, his mortality.
And I also wondered how the stoic nurses, the healers, survived deprivation,
discomfort, shock. How they must have needed and clung to each other for friendship and moral support.
I tried to imagine myself in the position of a half-naked soldier contemplating the possibility of his demise.
“Death be not proud,” wrote John Donne nearly 400 years ago.
And Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come.”
The same themes kept haunting me:
I refer to my painting style as Reductionist Symbolism, whereby I tried to reduce an idea to its essence. I have attempted a Zen-like examination of pure form, inspired and motivated by the above themes. I have endeavoured to meld the Left and Right sides of the brain (analytic and emotional) to come together to invite contemplation of the eternal questions based on the subject painted:
What is War, What is Peace
What is Life, What is Death
What is Love, What is Hate
What is Existence, What is Transcendence
What is Deliverance
What is Hope, What is Joy
Charles Pachter, OC is a painter, printmaker, sculptor, designer, historian, and lecturer. His work has been exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the McMichael Gallery. He is represented in public and private collections throughout Canada and internationally. He holds honorary doctorates from Brock University, OCAD University, and the University of Toronto, where he is a Senior Fellow at Massey College.