In our recurring feature What’s the Meaning of This?, we explain what those public-art installations you walk by every day are supposed to represent. This week: one of the city’s most controversial war memorials.
Name of installation: Per ardua ad astra
Artist: Oscar Nemon
Location: University & Dundas
Date of display: 1984
What’s it supposed to be?: Like many of the imposing sculptures on University Avenue, Per ardua ad astra is a memorial that honours Canada’s World War I and World War II veterans. Created by Croatian sculptor Oscar Nemon (best known for his public statues of high-profile British figures, like Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill, and Vicount Montgomery), the towering, 12-metre high installation takes a more stylized approach than traditional memorials (which typically feature rectangular stone columns with smooth bronzed statues symbolizing peace, justice, and unity).
In this installation, a lanky, coarsely textured stick-like figure rises high into the air, arms stretched out, releasing a roughly defined bird. The sculpture’s title takes its name from the motto of the British and Commonwealth’s air forces (translated as “Through adversity to the stars”), and is meant to honour Canadian soldiers who fought in the early part of the 20th century.
Erected nearly 40 years after the end of World War II, Nemon’s work was originally disparaged by art critics and troops alike, with complaints ranging from how it was commissioned (by a private donor without public consultation) to its appearance (which has been described as “Gumby Goes to Heaven,” with some adding that it looks like a surrendering combatant).
Regardless, it remains one of the city’s most controversial pieces of public art, and its function—to honour Canadian servicemen and women—has not been forgotten.