In the week leading up to Remembrance Day on November the 11th, PATO will be featuring various memorials to Canada’s valiant war heroes.
Today we are going to profile what is arguably the most unpopular war memorial in the City of Toronto.
I’m talking about Per Ardua ad Astra by Oscar Nemon, commissioned by Hal Jackman and installed at the intersection of Dundas Street and University Avenue. Per ardua ad astra roughly translates to “Through adversity to the stars”, the motto of the RAF, and is a meant to be a memorial to the RCAF airmen who lost their lives during WWI and WWII. Winners of the Victoria Cross are carved onto the sides of the plinth.
It was the last piece that Nemon worked on before his death in 1985.
The project was mired in controversy on many different levels. In terms of politics, many felt that the installation was politically motivated on the part of Jackman. Somehow, he, a private citizen, was able to secure the installation of a privately commissioned piece of art to be installed on public property without consultation of any kind rankled many, particularly the arts community, deeply. According to The Great Canadian Book of Lists “this jolted many awake to the realities if not the shortcomings of civic process.”
Then there was the art. Firstly, Oscar Nemon requested that the statue be placed directly on the ground, and not a plinth. This request was ignored by the city. As a result, Nemon commented that Per Ardua looked like “a tulip in a box”. That was probably the kindest description. The Globe and Mail called it “vapid,” “ghastly” and a “mediocre sculptural doodad”. Others were even more brutal. Av Isaacs, a local art dealer, and critic staged a protest against the sculpture. Someone else spraypainted ‘Gumby Goes to Heaven’ on the plinth. The name stuck and is this how city conservators and many locals still refer to the piece, some affectionately, others not.