Faithful readers of this blog (both of you) will know that obscure cultural figures and mid-20th century modernism both rank highly among my interests. So as far as I’m concerned, 2014 has been a pretty good year so far in terms of exhibitions. First we had an excellent show at the AGGV focusing on Harold Mortimer-Lamb, and now we have Margaret Peterson: A Search in Rhythm at the Legacy Maltwood in the lower level of the Mearns Centre/McPherson Library at UVic.
I’d thought I was pretty up on my local modernists, but I’d never heard of Peterson before, which likely means she’s fallen further into obscurity than many of her contemporaries. Perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising, given that her relative obscurity was a recurring theme in many of her press clippings even when she was alive.
She was an expat, like many other mid-century Victoria painters. Born in 1903, for the first half of her career she studied and then taught Fine Arts at the University of California, Berkeley. She quit her job in 1950 rather than take the loyalty oath that was de rigeur during the McCarthy era. That was a pretty gutsy and uncompromising thing to do, but I get the sense that “uncompromising” was probably one of Peterson’s stronger character traits. She then migrated northward with her Canadian novelist husband, Howard O’Hagan, eventually landing in Victoria where they stayed for most of the 1950s and the early 60s, before decamping to Italy for several years. They returned to Victoria in 1974. O’Hagan died in 1982; Peterson in 1997.
The exhibition isn’t extensive, consisting of only a few larger paintings, a number of smaller works on paper, and a variety of newspaper clippings, letters and other writings that provide some fascinating context for the works on display. But what’s there is well-chosen, and adds up to an interesting portrait of a painter who should be better known than she is.
All things considered, her works have held up better than one might expect. Following the loss of her day job, Peterson was reduced to using pretty cheap materials, and that was anyhow an era when using non-art materials like housepaint became part of the statement for lots of painters. But Peterson didn’t use housepaint, she turned instead to water-based media like egg tempera and used masonite panels and plywood for her supports. This turned out to be a pretty good combination, and her works haven’t suffered the discoloration and disintegration that befell the works of many of her contemporaries.
I find her paintings oddly compelling. It’s clear that Peterson knew what she was doing; words like “powerful” and “monumental” spring to mind when it comes to describing her work. But when you look at the paintings closely, they seem to almost vanish. There’s an extreme simplicity and unfinished quality that you just don’t see much these days. The paint is very thin, kind of like an underpainting. Ultimately it works with her primitivist, back to the basics aesthetic but it’s a near thing.
As mentioned above, the paintings are only part of the show. The writings are in their own way equally intriguing, and their cumulative effect is to illuminate a certain way of thinking about painting that was widespread back then but isn’t so much now. It’s a view of painting as a kind of divinely inspired spiritual quest, standing in contrast to (and revealing the emptiness of) the quotidian, work-a-day contemporary world.
A couple of quotes more or less sum up the dichotomy:
“What is Art? What is the flame of life – What is the infinite longing to become one with the cosmos, losing consciousness of self in the moment of pure ecstasy.”
“A sense of guilt is destroyed in the total criminal. Likewise, in most of our society a sense of aesthetic desire has been lost. Individuals become aesthetically incomplete robots. They are computers in the flesh.”
Painters of this orientation often took their inspiration from “primitive” and indigenous cultures, although it’s possible to argue that it was based more in a projection of their own expectations and desires than any deep understanding of the cultures in question. Her interest in and syncretic approach to the mythologies and folklore of indigenous cultures puts her squarely in with the late Romantic intellectual milieu of her contemporaries in the 30s and 40s. You can see similar ideas at work in Gottlieb’s pictographs, for example, and in fact many of the painters who would become much better known in the 50s as abstract expressionists were flirting with these ideas in the 40s, like Pollock and de Kooning. Think Surrealism fueled by Jung rather than Freud, with a seasoning of Rousseau (Henri, not the Douanier).
However, for Peterson it wasn’t a flirtation, but rather a philosophy that informed her life and work. She rejected the abstract expressionist approach, particularly Pollock (“I saw his things when I had an exhibit in New York in ’51 and I was revolted”). This meant that while her paintings probably represented the pinnacle of the avante garde in Victoria, elsewhere they were already somewhat dated. But I don’t get the sense that Peterson cared one way or the other about that; she was committed to an ideal of painting that transcended whatever happened to be in fashion that week.
Of course, while I respect her dedication and commitment, I think a lot of her ideas were questionable. I enjoy making paintings, but “pure ecstasy” seems to me to be laying it on a bit thick. Likewise, dismissing other people as “robots” because they don’t like the same things you do seems a little bit, I don’t know, arrogant maybe? And of course the whole primitivism thing is really unpopular these days, associated as it is with cultural appropriation and whatnot.
But ultimately the ideas aren’t that important, even if they did provide the starting point for the paintings. I’ve written before about how really good paintings seem to transcend the ideas that gave rise to them, and I think Peterson’s work is another instance of that phenomenon. In any event, it’s a real gem of an exhibit and you should go, or at the very least check out the website.