Art, Inside Out

Blitz Magazine, September 2001

Ah, the Summer of 2001…

Everybody was protesting something; I just wish someone had had a clearly-articulated point. We watched riot squads in action. At the G8 Summit in Genoa, Canada’s Prime Minister Chretien sat down for a confab with Bob Geldof and Bono; outside a young man died on the pavement, shot in the head. Who knows what he wanted…’something to do with stamping out evil capitalism, perhaps wanting it to be less evil.

In Vancouver, when people have something to protest, they do it at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG), which has become the de facto social meeting point. It’s architecturally grand, centrally-located, and surrounded by the Towers of Power (the Law Courts). Perfect. And now, it is decorated. With outdoor art. Specifically things like a vehicle sculpture by Kim Adams and some ‘stranded boats’ by Ken Lum. They’re fine…inoffensive. Just, well, why.

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On Location, according to the press release, “is a commissioning project created as an artistic legacy that will enrich and animate the public spaces around the VAG. Designed to celebrate the rich social and political diversity that forms urban life in Vancouver, it will address subjects such as street life and cultural histories that are often ignored in public art projects.”

The VAG isn’t only popular for protesting. It’s a hot spot for busking and selling jewellery (if junior capitalists can get permits), and for celebratory events (if the Vancouver Police don’t mind). This “complex and active street culture” contributed to the rationale behind On Location: “…the gallery has been largely focused on the exhibitions inside, resulting in a sharp distinction between the interior activities and the exterior world,” continues the release. “Recent planning at the gallery has prioritized projects that reinforce a strong and visible link between art and its social context, that provide a greater public transparency for the institution and create increased opportunities to integrate visual arts into the public spaces that surround it. We want the gallery’s building and exterior site to communicate ‘art’.”


Hmmm. We are skeptical. Because art is a matter of taste. It’s impossible for a group of board members and curators, regardless of how much public consultation has been conducted, to tell the public that what they are putting in its open spaces—in its collective face—is ‘art’. And, given the architectural disasters which Vancouver City Hall has allowed to be constructed on the Georgia Street waterfront and the shores of False Creek—not to mention the absurdly mundane public sculpture everyone is constantly made to look away from—we are loathe to have any more visuals foisted upon us. As far as ‘art’ is concerned, it’s often a good thing that it is inside—if people want to look at it, they know where it is.


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.


Down from the Shimmering Sky : Masks of the Northwest Coast

         Blitz Magazine, July 1998

In Western culture, masks are used to disguise, distort, deceive. The First Peoples of the Northwest Coast of BC, however, use masks as a means of communication — and have done so for centuries. In the largest collection of First Nations masks ever amassed, The Vancouver Art Gallery is currently hosting Down from the Shimmering Sky : Masks of the Northwest. Some of the exhibit’s 175 masks are new, but most come from 57 private and institutional collections in Canada, the US and Europe, and are returning to Canada for the first time in 200 years.

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          Yuppies, incidentally, were not the first avid collectors of aboriginal art — some of these masks were collected during Captain Cook’s early expeditions. Those from the late 18th century and early 19th century are of human faces; it was only after the 1850s that masks depicting animals and supernatural creatures became predominant. In the 1870s, Haida artists such as Simeon Stilthda and John Gwaythil began creating masks specifically for sale. Today, there is a strong community of mask-makers in BC, and there is more interest in producing non-traditional masks that draw inspiration from the secular world.

          Down from the Shimmering Sky includes masks from the Nuxalk, Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, Heiltsuk, Tlingit, Nuu-chah-nulth, Gitxsan, Nisga’a and Makah nations. While the identities of those who carved the older masks remain unknown, there are pieces by Robert Davidson, Charles Edenshaw, Richard Hunt, Willie Seaweed, Arthur Thompson, Mungo Martin, Tony Hunt, Joe David, Tim Paul and Freda Diesing.

          The exhibit, which runs to October, explores the representation of The Human Face Divine, plus the four dimensions of the cosmos as perceived by the various nations. The Sky World, which dominates legend and life, is depicted with radiant sun masks, serene moon masks or supernatural bird masks — of the thunderbird, crooked-beak, raven or eagle. The Mortal World, the realm occupied by real and mythic creatures, is represented by wolf, grizzly bear, sea lion or puffin masks. The Killer Whale is a common representation of the Undersea World, which is equal in mystery and power to that of the sky and is full of threatening creatures; and the Spirit World, which co-exists with the Mortal World but is home to a fearsome ghost who is the keeper of drowned souls, is depicted by masks of strong emotion.

          Some are decorative pieces, some ceremonial objects. Some are ugly, some pretty, some fierce, some gentle. All are powerful icons; each one tells a story and reminds its people of their responsibility to carry on the traditions and values of their ancestors.

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On Auks and Audubon

Blitz Magazine, January 1999

Consider the auk;

Becoming extinct because he forgot how to fly,

And could only walk.

Consider man,

Who may well become extinct

Because he forgot how to walk

And learned how to fly

Before he thinked.

                    Ogden Nash


          When we see a guy shooting birds out of the air, we say “That jerk’s needlessly killing wildlife to compensate for a lack of, er, something else.”

Two hundred years ago, people probably didn’t think that way, but they did note that James Audubon’s favourite hobby was shooting birds — hundreds at a time. He’d then select attractive corpses, wire them into life-like poses and paint pictures of them. People called him a ‘romantic figure’, likely not imagining that he would become history’s greatest wildlife painter.

          He was born Jean-Jacques Audubon, the bastard son of a French naval officer. In 1812, he dodged the Napoleonic draft and headed to the US, where he posed as the son of a Louisiana plantation owner. He blew all his wife’s money, did time in debtors’ prison and was running a Kentucky grocery store when he saw the work of nature artist Alexander Wilson. Audubon realized that his life-long habit of sketching wildlife produced far superior results.

          Off he went to paint birds, walking 50,000 North American miles. Along the way, he identified 35 new species and sub-species and revolutionized the way his world saw and portrayed nature. He respected birds as predators and gave them personality and character. While others had shown birds in life-like poses, or in their environmental context, or in their true sizes, he was the first to combine all elements. Although he was entirely self-taught, his work is highly-stylized and textured and exhibits the realism, scientific accuracy and artistic merit of a technically-disciplined painter.

          After completing 453 paintings, Audubon headed to Scotland in search of cash and production capabilities. In Edinburgh, then London, his work was engraved, printed and completed, by hand, with watercolours. It took 12 years but, in 1844, the 29” x 39” Birds of America became one of the greatest illustrated book of all time.

          Ever the hopeless entrepreneur, Audubon only sold 200 copies. But he created a huge market for wildlife art and, while he dressed up in buckskin to lecture at such august institutions as the University of Edinburgh (where Charles Darwin was in the audience), other people pirated his work and profited handsomely. The 11th Mayor of Toronto, however, bought an original, and it remains in the Toronto Reference Library. It includes the result of Audubon’s Canadian travels, the 100-plate Birds of Canada collection, and it can be seen at the Vancouver Art Gallery until January 24th.

          Even if you’re not a bird lover, the exhibit is worth a look. Audubon left us a record of the New World as it was before humans got hold of it. In his time, there were 5 billion passenger pigeons and he recorded a flock so large that it took three days to pass. The last one died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. He reported a two-month period in which a Halifax man sold 400,000 auk eggs (at .25/doz.). The last auk died in Iceland in 1844; now, there are more Audubon auk prints than there are auk museum specimens.

          Humans hunted four Audubon subjects to extinction — there was also the Eskimo Curlew and the Labrador Duck. Some of his other subjects are now endangered, including the Whooping Crane, Peregrine Falcon, Harlequin Duck and Northern Bobwhite. So this may be your only chance to see what those birds look like. And the next time you see some guy using his shotgun to commune with nature, ask him if he can spell ‘Viagra’.

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Three Cultures, Three Icons

Blitz Magazine, July 2002

They epitomized individualism. They didn’t belong to any ‘school’. Their styles were indefinable. Today, they are among their respective countries’ most famous and respected artists.

They are Emily Carr, Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, three extraordinary artists who, while appearing to have little in common, shared a singleness of spirit and a fascination with the themes of nature, culture and self. Their work reinvented traditional imagery relating to the natural landscape, and conveys the sense of the landscape as female, from Carr’s symbolic forests, to O’Keeffe’s anthropomorphic plant forms and Kahlo’s earth-mother self portraits. They also interpreted and expressed the characters of their regions, defining, for the period, a distinct Canadian, American and Mexican experience. Collectively, their work played a critical role in defining the art of the Americas by linking region and nationality.

Emily Carr (1871-1945) was born in Victoria, studied in Europe, then returned to British Columbia and spent four years on Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands), the Skeena River and the islands off northern Vancouver Island, sketching and painting carvings, and recording the lives and rituals, of aboriginal Canadians. She depicted the region’s vast natural beauty, going beyond the presiding misty landscapes by creating a unique visual idiom. She was viewed as a rugged individualist—and scandalously unladylike. This could have contributed to the bust that was her 1913 Vancouver exhibition, after which she quit painting and opened a rooming house. It wasn’t until she was ‘discovered’ in 1927, that she resumed painting. Today, she is one of the world’s most famous female artists.

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Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) never sought recognition. In fact, when she sent samples of her work to a New York friend in 1915, she asked that they not be shown to anyone. But the friend showed them to painter/ photographer/exhibitor Alfred Stieglitz, who promptly included them in a group show and then gave O’Keeffe her own show. Her reputation was immediately made. She and Stieglitz married, and remained happily married until Stieglitz died in 1946, but Stieglitz was a New Yorker; O’Keeffe could only work in New Mexico. There she stayed, creating work characterized by sensually smooth forms and stunning colour. Her animal skulls and desert landscapes are famous icons of modernism and her plant forms distinguish her highly personalized style. (She too was known as an eccentric, wearing nothing but black and associating one with people whom she deemed to be talented and interesting.)


Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) taught herself to paint while recovering from a 1926 streetcar accident that left her permanently pain-ridden. This pain, and her endurance of 30 operations, led her to create 200 paintings, including many harsh self-portraits, marked by jarring colour and odd spatial relationships. They also chronicle her turbulent relationship with famed Mexican painter Diego Rivera, whom she married in 1929.


At this time, ‘Mexicanidad’, the embrace of pre-Hispanic Mexican history and culture, gave great currency to the notion of native roots. At the same time, being seen as a primitive provided an avenue for recognition for women artists. While they shared a devotion to communism and a passionate interest in Mexico’s indigenous cultures, the two moved in the most sophisticated circles, with Rivera extolling Kahlo’s work as authentic, unspoiled and primitive. He stressed her Indian heritage (she had Indian blood on her mother’s side, but was of Hungarian-Jewish descent on her father’s), and she encouraged the myth, in part by adopting traditional Mexican dress. Still, she didn’t achieve the recognition of her contemporaries—Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros, and wasn’t ‘discovered’ until 1980. Today, her stature as an artist and icon is at a level unprecedented for any Mexican figure, male or female.