A cart mired in mud occupies the centre of this painting. It is piled with corpses. Farther back, a man leaning on a shovel stands near a row of white crosses.

Frederick H. Varley

(Sheffield, England, 1881 – Unionville, Ontario, 1969)

 

For What?

1918-1919

Oil on canvas

147.4 x 180.6 cm

Transferred from National Gallery of Canada, 1971

Beaverbrook Collection of War Art

Canadian War Museum, 19710261-0770

© Estate of Frederick H. Varley. Photo: Canadian War Museum


Frederick H. Varley’s painting For What? offers a pessimistic view of war. The macabre scene shows gravediggers and a cart heaped with the bodies of dead soldiers in the middle of a ravaged landscape. One man stands leaning on a shovel, near a makeshift cemetery. A leaden sky weighs on the muddy wasteland. Sent to the battlefront with other artists to document the events of World War I, Varley challenged the legitimacy of the conflict and denounced its bloody consequences. For What? is a profound humanistic reflection that evokes the horrors and enormous human cost of “the war to end all wars.”


Many artists, including the future Group of Seven members Frederick H. Varley and Alexander Y. Jackson, were hired by the Canadian War Memorials Fund. This war art program was created in 1916 to depict the battlefields of World War I and illustrate Canada’s participation in the conflict. What these artists experienced later influenced the Group of Seven’s style, particularly in the representation of dead trees and devastated landscapes. However, For What? is exceptional among Varley’s works in that it expresses a very personal view of his troubling time on the front.

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