Did you Ever Wonder...

What military memorial is considered one of the most controversial pieces of Canadian art?

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"Per Ardua ad Astra" - 'Through Adversity to the Stars' – was the motto of the Royal Canadian Air Force from 1 April 1924 until 2 September 1975 (upon the creation of Air Command, it returned to the original motto "Sic Itur Ad Astra" or 'Such is the Pathway to the Stars' that was granted to the Canadian Air Force when it was first established in 1920) and is also the official name of a memorial erected in Canada's largest metropolitain city "IN MEMORY OF OUR CANADIAN AIRMEN WHO FOUGHT IN THE SKIES TO PRESERVE FREEDOM AND ORDER IN THE WORLD". It is also known as the 'Canadian Airman's Memorial' and inscribed on its black marble base are the names of the seven Royal Canadian Air Force members who were awarded the Victoria Cross: for actions during the First World War - William Avery Bishop, Alan Arnett McLeod and William George Barker; for actions during the Second World War - Andrew Charles Mynarski, David Ernest Hornell, Ian Willoughby Bazalgette and Robert Hampton Gray. This Modernist style figurative composition, prominently located on Toronto's main ceremonial boulevard, is considered "…one of the most controversial pieces of art this century" and was rated by the Canadian and Contemporary Art Departments of the Art Gallery of Ontario as the sixth of the top "ten controversial moments in Canadian art." This monument is the last major piece created by Croatian-born Oscar Nemon (1906-1985). This bronze memorial - featuring a tall, stylized human figure whose hands reach the sky toward a soaring bird - was unveiled on 29 September 1984 by Queen Elizabeth II. Controversy began the moment it was installed - the reaction from the public, the art community and the media was swift and unkind. While some claimed and protested that the Jackman Foundation was politically motivated and imposing its own interests, others criticized that the public sculpture was installed without consulting the art community. The reality was that many did not understand the iconography of the sculpture and as a result it was described by many names, including: "hideous", "vapid", "ghastly", "mediocre sculptural doodad", "conspicuously ugly/trite", "childish appearance", among many others. Even the sculptor had something to say. Unbeknownst to Nemon, his statue was placed on top of a plinth against his express wishes and was reported to have said that the completed work looked like "a tulip in a box". However, the most damage was done shortly after it was installed - vandals spray-painted the words "Gumby goes to Heaven" on the plinth and the sculpture is still despairingly called by that name ever since. To summarize the majority's opinion on the Canadian Airman's Memorial, one critic best described it: "as art it's just ridiculous, but as a war memorial it's insulting".

On this day, 29 September 2021, we commemorate the seven Royal Canadian Air Force members who were awarded the Victoria Cross during the two World Wars and mark the 37th anniversary of the dedication of the Per Ardua ad Astra memorial in Toronto, Ontario.

André M. Levesque

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