Butte de Polygon by George Edmund Butler

<em>Butte de Polygon</em> by George Edmund Butler

Butte de Polygon by George Edmund Butler, 1920.

Butler commemorated the New Zealand soldiers who died in the First World War in the Butte de Polygon: Thy Father and I have sought thee sorrowing, Luke II 48 (1920). Intended for a New Zealand War Memorial Museum, this painting was also meant to offer spiritual consolation to those families who had lost their sons on the Western Front.

The painting is set near Polygon Wood in Belgium where the New Zealand Division spent the winter of 1917-18. Butler was able to visit this area once it was recaptured in the final weeks of the war. His placement of two grieving parents beside the grave of an unknown soldier is a fanciful gesture as most New Zealand parents would never have been able to visit the gravesite of their son or know exactly where he might have died. This couple represent the universal grief experienced by the New Zealand people in response to the war. They stand in an area of shadow, dominated by mud and debris. The mood conveyed in this section is of immense misery at the futility of war. In contrast, the upper portion of the painting is bathed in the hopeful and restorative glow of warm amber sunlight, a traditional symbol of spiritual strength and God’s healing power that reaches towards the mourning couple across the horizon.

George Butler was a Christian and references to his faith feature throughout his official war art. Visual references to Christ’s Crucifixion and the divine rebirth of the soul after death became extremely popular during and in the aftermath of the First World War, as artists searched for motifs that could explain and justify the horrific suffering of the war.

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