Frederick Varley: Visions of Paradise


Group of Seven founding member Frederick Horsman Varley, who lived in Vancouver from 1926 to 1936, saw British Columbia as Paradise on Earth.

In BC, the Post-Impressionist was inspired to apply colour, composition and Buddhist theory to landscapes and individuals in new, wondrous forms. BC was Varley’s muse; once he left, he never again experienced such exciting and sustained creativity.

Varley was a romantic and sensualist who loved the ideal of the freedom found in nature, and the spiritual and physical beauty of women. Though not a devotee of any one religious or philosophical code, a curiosity in mysticism and Asian philosophies evolved from his anxiety toward modern life—he regarded Eastern notions as an antidote to the Western focus on mechanization and moral conservatism. During his time in Vancouver, he believed that objects and individuals emanated an aura and he developed a theory attributing specific psychological means to each colour, casting his paintings around one or two specific hues.

An Englishman who emigrated to Canada in 1912, Varley began his career in Toronto as a commercial designer, working with most of his future Group colleagues. After completing his commission as a war artist, he returned to the Group and, upon its triumph, became known as one of Canada’s leading portrait and landscape artists. But his restless nature, and his desire to escape debtors and crossed friendships, prevailed. He moved to Vancouver in search of a new life and fresh ideas.

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He became a teacher at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Art (now Emily Carr University), where he was adored by his students. But when the Depression hit, he received the highest pay cut. He indignantly resigned and, with Jock Macdonald, opened the BC College of Arts, taking half the student body with him.

Although the school was regarded as being at the forefront of progressive art and his creativity was prodigious, Varley was forever in debt. His family had been twice evicted; they had no furniture, no food. Varley, who had fallen in love with one of his students, left his wife and four children and moved to North Vancouver’s Lynn Valley. Then the school went out of business, it was time to get outa’ Dodge and he moved to Ottawa.


When he died near Toronto in 1969, Varley left behind 500 oils, watercolours and sketches—a stunning body of work, and now a cherished part of Canada’s national heritage.

Blitz Magazine, November 1999

The Divine Comedy: Buster Keaton & Francisco Goya

English: Film comedian Buster Keaton has his f...

English: Film comedian Buster Keaton has his foot caught in the frog adjacent to Western Ave., on the Calico and Ghost Town Railroad at Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park in 1956. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Photograph of Buster Keaton seated. B...

English: Photograph of Buster Keaton seated. Buster Keaton, full-length portrait, seated, in costume (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Or, What Could These Guys Possibly Have in Common?

Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746-1828) is noted for work that captured the horrors of war and, in its articulation of humour and tragedy, work that had an enormous impact on modern consciousness. He also satirized the folly of Spanish society, using double meanings to shed light on social hierarchies, royal personalities, relationships between the sexes, and a continued belief in superstition despite the rise of rational thought that dawned with the Enlightenment.

American filmmaker Buster Keaton (1895-1966) is famed as one of history’s great comics, enjoying a successful 60-year show business career. Keaton employed physical comedy to reveal a modern world that is unstable and ruled by the rhythms of the machine age. In his films (One Week, Cops, Sherlock J., The General) chaos and calamity reigned, with ordinary people moving from one disaster to the next, defying the laws of physics and surviving unscathed.

South African artist William Kentridge (1955- ) has earned an international reputation for his exceptional animated films, prints and sculptures. Often depicting a world in chaos, his work employs subtle humour and personal gesture to reflect on the psychic landscape of post-apartheid South Africa. In his animated short films, we see real life becoming tragically absurd.

goyaThe common denominator between these artists is found in The Divine Comedy, an exhibition that the Art Gallery of Gallery of Western Australia organized to explore the relationship between comedy and violence, laughter and tears. Through the work of these artists, we can see the shifting relationship between aesthetics, politics and humour.

The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya, showi...

The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya, showing Spanish resisters being executed by Napoleon’s troops. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Through a range of images from 18th century etchings to contemporary video, the exhibition weaves together the work of three artists who lived through times of extraordinary social change, when forces of modernization obliterated stale old ways and left artists grappling with the loss of social and moral certainties. It provides a timely look at how black comedy, absurdity and satire are used to express our relationship in a tumultuous world.


Blitz Magazine, January 2004



Little Big Top

circus4Blitz Magazine, October 2000

For ages, circuses were the prime—or only—form of entertainment for entire communities, particularly those in rural areas. In Ancient Rome, chariot races took place in oval arenas (anything to do with horses takes place in oval or circular structures; ‘circus’ is a Latin word stemming from the Greek ‘krikos’, meaning ‘circle’ or ‘ring’). In Medieval times, clowns, musicians, trick riders and acrobats began to travel with the horse acts; also at this time, tents were erected over the ovals.

North America’s first circus was started by a Philadelphia man in 1793. Three years later, the first elephant was brought to America and the collection and exhibition of exotic animals became popular. This practice is, of course, now considered to be cruel and déclassé (and has been eclipsed by sophisticated acts such as Canada’s Cirque du Soleil).

The Golden Age of circuses began in the 1870s, by which time they included brass bands, fancy costumes and eye-catching graphics for advertising purposes. Lavish parades announced each troupe’s arrival, with the circus rolling into town in ornately decorated wagons and gilded cages. Circuses were mobile communities, including performers, trainers, production people, barbers, costumers, teachers, doctors. They lived and worked in their colourful caravans—often, entire families stayed with the same circus for generations.

The Golden Age came to an end in the late 1920s. A short time later, circus historian Gordon Potter hired Michigan miniaturist Bert Backstein to construct a miniature model of a circus as it really was. Half a century later, Backstein’s son completed the collection (now known as the Potter Backstein Collection and owned by Vancouver businessman Bob Moore).

The collection’s components are slightly larger than the standard one-inch-to-one-foot scale, and consist of 250 wagons, a 400-piece menagerie of painted ceramic and wooden animals, and 125 carved and painted circus performers, band members and workers. Half of the wagons are miniature replicas of actual Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus wagons from the Golden Age; others are replicas of wagons from the renowned Hagenbeck Wallace Circus (1907-1938).

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Scandistyle Examined

Blitz Magazine, May 2002

Many designers might cringe at the mention of Ikea in conversation about design.

‘Fact is that Ikea introduced, to the North American mass market, an entire concept of interior decorating—a concept that was not invented by Ikea, but made affordable and easily available by Ikea. Spare, simple designs, uncomplicated materials, and splashes of colour among natural tones: this, to those who haven’t studied art history, is Scandinavian design.

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The concept of Scandinavian design refers to a particularly simplified subdivision of modern design. Characteristic features emphasize practicality, freedom from pretension and controlled use of materials. Lightness and clarity are common denominators. Timelessness and a thorough familiarity with materials bind the creations with modernism.

Design experts will tell you that Scandinavian design is a way of life, at once urban and close to nature. Many Scandinavians spend a good chunk of their lives close to woods and water, hiking in the wilderness or at summer cottages. This sounds a lot like life in Canada, except that, the experts say, Scandinavians spend nine months indoors—presumably, their winters are colder. It is said that, in the Scandinavian world, home and public interiors play a larger role, and that design is a question of survival—the farther north one goes, the harsher the conditions and the scarcer the materials. Long distances enhance the importance of using local materials, local technologies and local energy. ‘Sound familiar? Then why doesn’t Canadian design look the same as Scandinavian design?

Perhaps it’s a difference in attitude. In the Scandinavian countries, design has always been approached as competitively as sports. Nuances arise from each country’s culture, industry, politics, education and economy. Several generations of architects and designers have regarded themselves as part of a political movement. There is huge public support for design, and it’s the subject of investment by Scandinavian governments, all of which have produced national programs to support and develop design.

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Young Nordic Design: Generation X surveys the achievements and experiments of 50 young designers and design teams from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, and includes 60 works presented in furniture, industrial, textile, graphic and fashion design. Unusual pieces include Cyberia, a jacket that includes a built-in location system, a communication system, electrical heating, a first-aid kit, a hypothermia bag, ice picks and a water-heating pocket. There’s a coffee mug whose handle is also a spout, a portable sofa, a lamp whose shade collapses when it’s turned off, an elegant cabinet handle whose actual purpose is to prevent shoplifting, a chandelier made for swinging from, a blade-like, high-speed kayak made of molded carbon fibre, and a road-racing bicycle made of carbon fibre.


Sierra Nevada: The Heart of the World

sierraBlitz Magazine, November 2002

According to Colombian legend, the snow-capped mountain known as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta was created at the centre of the world, and at the beginning of time, by Shibalauneuman (the Mother of All Things).

Located at the northwestern tip of South America, in the Republic of Colombia, only 42 km from the shore, the peak of the Sierra Nevada reaches 5,775 meters (18, 948 feet) above sea level, making it the highest coastal mountain in the world.

Centuries ago, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta was a place where diverse human groups flourished; one of them, the Tayrona civilization, reached the highest level of development without deteriorating its environment. The European conquest destroyed that nation; today, all that remains of the Tayrona peoples are some gold, stone and shell carvings, and the intricate lithic (rock) pathways they carved into the landscape to link hundreds of their ancient towns and city-sites to terraced farms and water sources. The mountain is now inhabited by aboriginal communities that proudly preserve their complex religious, social and political societies.

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is one of the world’s most important ethnic, ecological, archaeological and cultural patrimonies, and is internationally recognized as a ‘Man & Biosphere Reserve’. Its environs are typical of tropical America, containing an extraordinary variety of climates and habitats with great biological diversity. Its fauna and flora are abundant and several of its species are to date still unknown to science.

Vancouver-based Colombian photographer, naturalist and educator Diego Samper, who has lived in the Sierra Nevada, has worked with the Museum of Anthropology to create an exhibit, and unique public programming, focused on the living cultures of ancient lands, issues of sustainability and the complex continuing relationship of indigenous peoples to the land. The 26-panel exhibit of images, words and soundscapes offers rare insight into aspects of a country so often overshadowed by news reports focusing on drugs, corruption and social decay. It also gives us an opportunity to learn more about the crucial role of the photographer as cultural and historical documentarian.


Bears, The Movie

Blitz Magazine, September 2002

If you talk to the animals, they will talk to you, and you will know each other.

If you do not talk to them, you will not know them, and what you do not know

you will fear.

What one fears, one destroys.

Chief Dan George


Bears have one enemy—humans. Human ignorance has always been their greatest threat. There are still men in Asia who believe that ingesting bear parts improves virility, which is why, in a scenario too horrible to imagine, Black Bears are permanently caged. In Europe, it’s still the dream of many to trek into the Canadian wilderness to shoot bears. Just for the manly-man thrill of it.

The world has eight bear species: the Spectacled Bear of South America, which is considered a pest; the Sloth Bear of the Asian subcontinent (numbers unknown); the Black Bear; the Sun Bear of southeast Asia (the smallest); the Panda, which is nearing extinction, and the three North American bears: the Polar Bear (the world’s largest land predator), the Black Bear and the Grizzly, or Brown, Bear (listed as Threatened).

For centuries, bears have been misunderstood and persecuted (the tide began to turn when Theodore Roosevelt spared a cub while hunting—hence the Teddy bear). People have always been terrified of bears. But bear attacks on humans are rare. When they do occur, the bears aren’t to blame. They do not seek human contact; they seek food (except the Polar Bear, to which all things are food. If you see one, run).

A male polar bear

A male polar bear (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over-development has led to loss of habitat and, with eco-tourism, more tourists come across bears in the wild. People become afraid, bears get shot. Global Warming is causing such drastic climate changes that food supplies are disrupted, bringing more bears into populated areas. Because of reduced ice floes, which Polar Bears need for seal hunting, their weight and reproductive levels have dropped. ‘Not good. As an Umbrella Species, bears control moose, caribou and deer populations, thus helping protect lynx, wolverine and wolves—and all plants and animals that depend on them. Bears are, therefore, essential to the health and balance of the wild places they inhabit.

In the US, unchecked hunting, trapping and development has eliminated Grizzlies from 98% of their range and reduced their numbers from 50,000 to 1,000. The National Wildlife Federation is working to restore bears to Montana and Idaho (opposed, of course, by special interest groups and Dubya). To help the process, the NWF has invested significant funds in large-format film production, believing that films are one of the best ways to educate people and inspire them to take action.

The NWF’s latest release, Bears, was shot in one of the few places where Grizzly populations are stable—Alaska’s Katmai National Park, home to 2,000 Grizzlies. The theme of Bears, which was co-produced by Primesco and Ontario’s Science North, and directed by Science North’s David Lickley, is survival. The film, offered in 400-foot surround-sound glory, with music by Lyle Lovett, blends education and entertainment, illustrating that bears are the spirit of the wilderness and that they have the right to live, unharrassed, in fully-functioning ecosystems.


Mloda Polska, the Art of Young Poland

Blitz Magazine, September 2000


The land of…uh…er…hmmm…. Borscht! Guys named Wojciech! An extraordinary facility for the use of consonants!

‘You think Canadians have an identity problem? We’ve got nothin’ on the Poles, whose national identity was almost obliterated through years and years of invasions and occupation by the Russians, Germans and Austrians. These forces all tried to erase Poland’s identity—by banning the Polish language from official use and suppressing the teaching of Polish history and literature. Rebellion was met with property seizures, mass expulsions and executions. And this was still the 19th century.

Of the occupying powers, Austria was the most lenient. Cracow was the main city in the Austrian section and became the magnet for artists and writers, bohemians and intellectuals, who met in the salons and cafes to discuss the latest political issues and trends in art practice.

Artists were also able to travel to Paris, where they participated in the salons and exhibitions highlighting new art movements. The resultant influx of artistic ideas from Western Europe, the emergence of the new pleasure-seeking bourgeoisie and the gradual development of organized political parties that contributed to the fight for independence transformed Cracow. By the early 20th century, it had become the hub of artistic development in Eastern Europe.

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In their studios, and at the Cracow School of Fine Arts, the artists of the day merged Impressionism, Art Nouveau and Symbolism to create their own movement called Mloda Polska or ‘Young Poland’. Its members broke with the staid traditions of the art academies to create sensual works that were regarded as exceptionally avant-garde. Perhaps most importantly, the movement became the expression of Poland’s national identity and provided much-needed inspiration to a broad public.


Self-portrait. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The efforts of the Mloda Polska artists stimulated an incredibly rich period of artistic production between 1890-1914. There was also a resurgence of interest in folk styles which proliferated in paintings, prints, textiles and furniture and which created a tangible link with the peasant class (which the Poles have always respected as the keepers of their identity).

The Mloda Polska works have remained favourites in Poland, matching the popularity of their counterparts in the West. Yet, as very little English literature exists on this subject and it was not until very recently that Western scholars began to study in Poland, viewing Polish art beyond its borders remains a rare opportunity.

Between Two Worlds: The Art of Poland 1890-1914 is a 112-masterwork collection from the National Museum in Cracow. It appears in Canada for the first time and is at the Vancouver Art Gallery to November 12th.

A Record of Spin

Blitz Magazine, July 1999

“Never mind my soul, just make sure you get my tie right.”

James Joyce to painter Patrick Tuohy

William-Adolphe Bouguereau

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

               The image shown here is a self-portrait by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. He painted it for his beloved as a pledge of marriage (unbeknownst to his iron-fisted mother. She was the suspected cause of Bouguereau’s first wife’s untimely death; he didn’t marry his second until his mother died–of, we assume, natural causes).

               When this portrait was painted, in 1879, Bouguereau was France’s top portrait painter. While Monet and Renoir fiddled with Impressionism, Bouguereau’s services were in high demand, perhaps because he happily gave customers what they wanted–a little spin. This is illustrated by his own portrait, which depicts a gentlemanly, aristocratic-looking Member of the Establishment, rather than a paint-stained artist/mama’s boy.

               Portrait artists have always been torn between presenting truth and idealizing their subjects. In the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, when portraits were often used as a legal means of proving membership in a family through physical likeness, truth was important. It was less so when portraits were commissioned as remembrances or tokens of friendship.

               Then people realized that portraiture was a means of attaining immortality and promoting power and privilege. Subjects learned to exploit the medium; the artist became spin doctor.

               Lighting, pose, attitude, costume, background, accessories and colour were maneuvered according to the subject’s wishes; pose, costume and drapery reflected the subject’s social level. Size was everything. A king got a full-length portrait and a grandiose backdrop; his factotum made do with a smaller format and simple props. Less power, less presentational pomp.

               In 17th century Europe, portraits were heavily mannered and idealistic–everywhere except Holland; the ever-practical Dutchmen preferred less courtly, more realistic values.

               In the 18th century, British artists such as Reynolds and Gainsborough added nature, posing subjects in parks and glades. The French went heavy on wit and erudition as indicators of social superiority. Then, as the bourgeois encroached on the nobility, sensibility, virtue and sense of importance supplanted realism altogether.

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               Photography could have meant the death of idealized portraiture. But, while photography is a more accurate and trustworthy medium, portrait painters remain busy. A painted portrait is still very much a status symbol and a most effective means of recording, enhancing and communicating power, in all its forms.


On Leo: And You Thought You Were Clever

Self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci, executed i...

Self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci, executed in red chalk sometime between 1512 and 1515 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Blitz Magazine, September 1998


Forget Mona. The genius of Leonardo da Vinci (b. 1452) manifested itself in many other ways. He was one of the greatest painters the world has ever produced, but he was also a scientist and an inventor. His paintings are perfect representations because he was a dedicated botanist and student of human anatomy. He was one of the Milan Cathedral architects. King Louis 1 popped his wig when Leo confronted him with a marching robot lion. He studied aerodynamics and hydraulics and, though he hated war, he became a military engineer, inventing the tank, the machine gun, the steam cannon and the parachute — all this while Italians were figuring out what to do with the newly-introduced tomato plant and Christopher Columbus was bobbing in the Atlantic.

          Leo was an odd guy. His students were not allowed to use brushes or colours until age 20 — the number of years it took, he calculated, to learn how to draw perfectly. And he kept most of his ideas secret, going so far as to write his notes in mirror-image. Now, however, an exhibit brings those notes to life, making the Codex look, well, a little lame.

          Leonardo da Vinci, Scientist – Inventor – Artist, which runs at the Royal British Columbia Museum from October 1st to February 28th, explores Leo’s artistic and scientific contributions, and their significance to the modern world. The exhibit consists of 230 objects, including 150 sketches and drawings, a multi-media display with 8,000 photographs and 25 models which the RBCM made using his drawings — of, among other inventions, his helicopter, spring-driven automobile, swivel bridge, paddle boat, chain-link bicycle and a full-size flying machine complete with 30-ft wing span.

          To demonstrate his theories about ‘how to paint’, the exhibit also holds 20 original paintings and sculptures, by Leo (The Kissing Infants, Virgin of the Rocks, Virgin with Child, The Infant St. John, Mary Magdalene, Bust of Christ as a Youth) and by his pupils and contemporaries, including Giampietrino, Bramantino, Raphael (The Young John the Baptist), and Salai (Monna Vanna).

The Mona Lisa.

The Mona Lisa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

          The exhibit, which was assembled in Sweden and Germany, has wrapped up in Boston, and Victoria is its only other North American appearance. It is a celebration of the passion, intelligence and inventiveness of a guy who was way ahead of his time. But he clearly saw himself as an artist first, and left behind this statement, which illustrates his dedication and explains his inexhaustible curiosity : “The mind of the painter must transform itself into nature’s own mind, and become the interpreter between nature and art.”



Leonardo da Vinci - Virgin of the Rocks - WGA12694

Leonardo da Vinci – Virgin of the Rocks – WGA12694 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Master Photographer: In Praise of the Silo

Blitz Magazine, January 2000


Canada is not beautiful in detail, but by the immensities of its proportions…This rudeness…one tries to express it in extreme simplicity of composition, form, strength, obvious contrast in light and shade. One is not looking for gloom, but rather dramatic strength…for the forms, contrasts, proportions and designs which belong to Canada and to no other country.

         John Vanderpant, 1928

John Vanderpant arrived in Alberta in 1911. A photo-journalist, he was on assignment for a Dutch newspaper. He stayed. In 1919, he moved to New Westminster, BC and, by the mid-1920s, he was (along with other West Coast photographers like Johan Helders, Harold Mortimer Lamb and Harry Upperton Knight) an acclaimed figure within the international circuit of Pictorialist salons.

siloHowever, speaking about Vanderpant’s 1925 solo exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society in London, a critic noted that his work reflected little of the Canadian spirit. Vanderpant resolved to “unlearn the Old World concept of beauty in relation to its environment,” and turned away from the aesthetics of Pictorialism, adopting a simplified graphic economy in his photography, emphasizing rhythmic pattern and simplicity.

Vanderpant and his colleagues–Frederick Varley, Vera Weatherbie, Beatrice Lennie and Jock Macdonald, among others, formed a group which resolved to combine, in their paintings and photography, Utopian ideals with a modernist approach. The idea was to create new ways of viewing the interaction between nature and technology. These artists believed in the power of art to shift patterns of thought and lead away from the social conflicts that reigned over the Depression Era. They broke with traditional photography and painting to challenge the British colonial mentality which dominated Canadian culture at the beginning of the century. And their approach was to combine European Modernism with an enthusiasm for British Columbia as the frontier between East and West, the natural and the urban.

Meanwhile, the architecture of the grain elevator had been recognized by modernist European architects as a symbol of the dynamism of North American culture, and its ability to progress rapidly by breaking with archaic European traditions. Le Corbusier extolled the virtues of the engineer who was able to create structures that combine form and function, and identified the terminal grain elevator as one of North America’s most significant contributions to architecture. Really? Well, yes. Grain elevators were seen to emphasize the potential for social harmony, rather than to represent social struggle.

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In Canada, the elevator was an important emblem of the vitality of the Canadian economy, and the prosperity that Vancouver’s middle class was enjoying in the 1920s, as the country captured an increasing share of the international grain trade.

Vanderpant turned his camera on the terminal grain elevators that first appeared in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet in 1916. Writing about a series of grain elevator photographs which he took between 1934 and 1936, he said that grain elevators “rise on lakeshore and terminal throughout the land and in their rigid strength and sublime simplicity are the unpretentious temples of trade. As seen through an artistic mind, the print gives strength of form and cement, the tenderness of beauty, of texture, the design possibility in form and shadow, the feeling of safety in the storage of abundance, they give an almost religious adoration of significant form.”

Yeah, well it’s important to appreciate your subject matter.

He also wrote about the abstract patterns found in vegetables; we can assume that he was an interesting dinner guest.