Karl Spreitz films, Limners

UVic recently put a selection of Karl Spreitz films online. It’s a great cross section of his work, from nature documentaries to art films to portraits some of his fellow Limners, the latter representing a fascinating record of the heroic period of the local modern art scene.

The Limners were an interesting group. Although I’d heard of some of them individually – Maxwell Bates primarily, and I’d seen a show of Herbert Siebner’s paintings at the old Atelier gallery in Vancouver – I’d never heard of them collectively until I moved to the Island seven or eight years ago. And of course, once you’re here, it’s impossible not to hear about them, from which I conclude they had a big impact locally, but not so much elsewhere. And although one can decry the injustice of that, in another way it’s great to have some persistence of regional culture in a time when so much of what we get is the opposite; the product of a globalized culture-making machine.

Collectively, it seems to me, their most interesting characteristic was their eclecticism: all of them were moderns, in one way or another, but they covered a lot of ground, from the impressionistic portraits and landscapes of Pavelic, the expressionism of Bates and Siebner, to the experimentalism of Spreitz, or the totemic abstractions of Mayhew. And not just stylistically, but in their choice of media as well. They were diverse enough that one is permitted to wonder how they got together in the first place. It may just have been a function of the rather small size of the arts community of the time; that an inclusive approach was necessary in order to have any community at all, because the alternative was to split into factions of one or two. I can’t help thinking that collective variety probably contributed to the vitality of their works. In retrospect they seem to have been rather progressive in their openness, providing us now with a useful model for engaging with the necessarily more pluralistic world the arts have since become.

In their variety they remain rooted in the more open, experimental modernism of the first half of the 20th century, before it had a chance to congeal into the High Modernist dogma of the post-war era. That may be another reason they never much made it off the Island; by the time they came together they were a couple of decades behind the times in terms of what the cultural gatekeepers of the time thought was appropriate. Although it’s never really been clear to me why being in step with the times (assuming we could all agree what that meant) should be all that important, there’s no question that a lot of folks think it is, and it was probably even more so back then.

To conclude this somewhat rambling post I should also mention that UVic has recently disinterred one of Maxwell Bates’ best paintings, Parade in the Graveyard, currently on display as part of the show The Long Now of Ulysses, in the lower level of the McPherson Library. Very much worth seeing if you get a chance, along with all the other Limners works hanging in various public locations all over campus.

If anyone had asked me, I would have suggested that the Limners would be a great choice for a permanent exhibition in the renovated former wax museum in the Inner Harbour, but sadly nobody did. Until that day comes, UVic deserves a lot of credit for keeping all of this work visible.

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