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Monday, January 7, 2019

A Dance of Death: Vancouver's Canadian Pacific Railway War Memorial (1922)

Vancouver, BC, Canada. Winged Victory World War Memorial, detail. Coeur de Lion MacCarthy, sculptor (1922). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Vancouver, BC, Canada. Winged Victory World War Memorial. Coeur de Lion MacCarthy, sculptor (1922). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Vancouver, BC, Canada. Winged Victory World War Memorial. Coeur de Lion MacCarthy, sculptor (1922). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.

A Dance of Death: Vancouver's Canadian Pacific Railway War Memorial (1922)
by Samuel D. Gruber  

As I've paid more attention in the last few years to World War I memorials, I've noticed that in addition to the expected public monuments erected by government and civic associations in cities, towns, and villages across Europe and America, there are also more private memorials installed or erected by many institutions - businesses, lodges, churches, synagogues, and so forth. Among the most prominent of these are memorial created and by railroad companies and other transportation organizations in memory of their many fallen workers who went off to fight the war. I've see these markers and monuments in grand train stations and subway/metro/U-Bahn stops from New York to Berlin.

Berlin, Germany. Nollerndorfplatz U-Bahn station. World War I Memorial for employees. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.

One of the grandest of these - and the most dramatic in its representation - is the bronze memorial sculptural group created by Montreal sculptor Coeur de Lion MacCarthy (1881-1971) for the Canadian Pacific Railway, of which three castings were made and installed at train stations in Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Montreal. I recently saw the Vancouver version firsthand outside the classical style Waterfront Station (opened 1914) These representations of the "Angel of Victory" (also called "Winged Victory", who lift up a fallen Canadian soldier, were made to commemorates 1,115 CPR employees killed during the Great War and installed from 1921 to 1923. Subsequently, the inscription was changed to also include CPR workers who died in the Second World War, too.

Vancouver, Canada. Unveiling of the Memorial. Photo: City of Vancouver Archives.
Vancouver, BC, Canada. Winged Victory in original state. Photo: Vancouver Public Library Accession Number: 21265.
MacCarthy came from a family of artists and was the son of sculptor Hamilton Plantangenet MacCarthy (1846-1939) (I just love this family's names!). Born in London, he moved with his family to Canada in 1885, and learned the art of  sculpture in his father's studio.  Both father and son created many memorial works throughout Canada. Coeur de Lion MacCarthy set up a studio in Montreal in 1918, and was especially active in the  decade following World War I, when in addition to the Railroad monuments, he created Montreal's Monument aux braves de Verdun Monument to the Valient of Verdun.

Montreal, Canada. Monument aux braves de Verdun, Cour de Lion MacCarthy, sculptor, 1924. Photo: Wikimedia.
For the Canadian Pacific Railroad memorials MacCarthy borrowed from the iconography of Roman victory monuments and Catholic imagery and the ascending form familiar from Art Nouveau sculpture. This is a sort of vertical Pietà, with the solider as Jesus. But it also an Assumption of sorts as the Winged Victory seems to resurrect the fallen soldier and (perhaps) to carry him heavenward. But the Victory must be careful. The bronze soldier is heavy, and looks like he might fall on a passerby. 

Compare this with two other monuments World War I monuments I've posted about, the Doughboy in Gloversville, NY and the 107th Infantry World War I Memorial, Central Park, by Karl Illava, (1927) at the border of Fifth Avenue in New York City.  Both of those monuments show better the soldiers' life - in repose/despair (perhaps eternal), and in active combat. These all may just be variations on the memorial theme, or they may represent different view from Canada, which fought the war for so much longer than the U.S.A., and America.

Vancouver, BC, Canada. Waterfront Train Station, opened 1914. The monument is at the far end if this building (right end). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
The popularity of the Vancouver monument has waxed and waned with the changing tastes of the time, and attitudes toward war. The dramatic sentimentality was typical of a certain class of monument of the time, and also played to public taste informed in part by the legacy of Romanticism and the over-acted melodrama of silent films. But modernism, abstraction and minimalism were on the horizon, so in the post World War II years the monument was harshly criticized.

A post on the excellent blog greatwar100reads quotes a 27 July 1963 column in the Ottawa Citizen, by Carl Weiselberger who detests the statue, and calls it "candy art":
It is that monument showing the limp body of a dead soldier complete with puttees, hobnailed boots, lifted by an angel (or is it victory?) – a kind of Canadian Valkyrie, carrying a Canadian soldier into a kind of Canadian Valhalla. It’s the worst kind of candy art applied to a great human drama, a desecration of art and taste to such a degree that a super-sensitive passenger might flee from the station to take the nearest bus …
We might agree with Weiselberger (who was writing in the heydey of abstraction) about the art, but as a monument the work does more than most static statues of the time.  If it was better sited or if the pedestal was lower to allow closer engagement, the monument can work - despite is saccharine celebration of sacrifice - and patriotic death. 

The soldier and Victory are doing a dance, a funerary waltz, which I also see as a 20th-century Dance Macabre. If the work could be experienced more fully in the round it could activate almost any space, as the Montreal version did in its original location in the Windsor Street Station, and in its new placement there.

But stuck on the corner, overlooking but not part of a busy street, the statue has been treated badly. The Victory’s wreath is broken and the bronze patina was removed with wire brushes in the 1960s, in a misguided attempt to clean the work, and the monument now is set up again a barrier and tables and chairs from bar/cafe located in the station but with access to this outdoor space.

Vancouver, BC, Canada. Winged Victory Waorld War Memorial. Coeur de Lion MacCarthy, sculptor (1922). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
For more on Canadian War Memorials see Monuments of the First and Second World Wars.

Read some of my other posts about World War I Memorials:

Gloversville's "Thinking Doughboy": A Quiet Yet Powerful World War I Memorial (August 20, 2017)

USA: Lee Lawrie's Striking - Yet Modest - World War I Memorial at St. Thomas Church in Manhattan (July 1, 2017)

A Little Known Reminder of World War I: The Split Rock Explosion Monument (July 14. 2017)

For Veterans / Armistice Day: More Monuments of Jews who Died in World War I (Nov. 11, 2012) 

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