John Walker

Boston University Art Gallery / Nielsen Gallery

Although the miseries of what we once called the Great War stimulated the creative juices of such Modern pioneers as Otto Dix, George Grosz, and George Rouault, not many contemporary artists at the end of the century find war a source of compelling images. An exception is the British-born painter John Walker, whose father, John Henry Walker, fought in and survived two of the First World War’s bloodiest and most futile battles, the Somme and Passchendaele. “A Theater of Recollection” included ten monumental oil paintings, heavily troweled and richly colored, as well as related prints from 1996 and ’97. In these, which constitute his first foray into narrative figuration since 1959, Walker has produced a significant body of work that explores his father’s war experiences and their lasting significance for the painter.

Capturing the Hadean world of the trenches with impastoed, muddy paints, Walker created enduring images of the world of war and its aftermath. In The Somme (July 1, 1916), 1997, Walker memorializes the battle in a highly charged expressionist manner. A sheep’s skull with a British uniform—a recurring image of the soldier-father and the countless thousands who went like animals to slaughter—sits before a pair of funerary crosses in a painterly field of writing that quotes from a sixth-century text by the Welsh poet Aneirin. The crosses, thickly painted in dark others and blacks reminiscent of Robert Motherwell’s “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” series, represent the thousands of Allied and German military crosses that today commemorate the battle site. Semiabstract vessels (to contain souls) both obscure and contain parts of Aneirin’s text, the translation of which Walker has borrowed from David Jones’ In Parenthesis (1937): “Men went to Catraeth as day dawned: their fears disturbed their peace./Men went to Catraeth: free of speech was their host ... death’s sure meeting place, the goal of their marching.”

The father as sheep-soldier reappears in more personal paintings as well. In the lower half of a horizontally divided canvas, The Studio, 1997, he sits alone and vacant, squatting in a netherworld of blue, gray, and ocher brushstrokes that relate to landscapes on view painted in Maine in 1995–96. The painting physically separates him from the activity above, in the studio, where an easel stands in for his artist-son. The roughly hewn easel of simple red rectangular strokes, based on one in Rembrandt’s Artist in His Studio (ca. 1627-28), is surrounded by some of the painter’s signature images, such as ovoid abstractions of Aboriginal beads and bright red and blue curvilinear forms that the artist calls “Albas” (because they are derived from Goya’s portrait of the Duchess of Alba). Owing a considerable debt to Philip Guston’s late figurative work, The Studio is complex and multileveled.

Among the exhibited works was a profoundly moving smaller oil dedicated to one of the best-known poets of the First World War, and one of its casualties. For Wilfred Owen, 1997, is a bisected canvas with an extract from Owen’s poem “Disabled” written within fiery-red vessels and scrawled across the lower panel: “Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes/Passed from him to the strong men who were whole./How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come/And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?”

In the panel above, a uniformed veteran with a heavily bandaged, fishlike face appears in darkness. This haunted figure, a paraplegic amputee, echoes the horror of Dix’s veterans and demonstrates the historical burden of apocalypses: for some, they never entirely end.

Francine Koslow-Miller