In Search of Innocence

Title Screen

Back in June I came across a reference to an old NFB film about the West Coast art scene, “In Search of Innocence”. The film dates from the very early 1960s, when beatniks ruled the earth, and I felt compelled to check it out because I’ve long been interested in that period of local art history, and because I’m a fan of many of the painters chronicled therein. Unfortunately, it’s not on the NFB website, and no local library seems to have it, so my only recourse was to buy a copy. But there are worse things to do with your dollars than support the NFB.

I’d planned to do a bit of a review here, and so I will. But it won’t be as long as I’d originally thought because Claudia Cornwall did a great write up on her blog back in 2011, and not much would be gained by me repeating what she wrote.

The film was made by a Quebec filmmaker, Leonard Forest, as a tribute to the artists of the Canadian West Coast. Most if not all of the film takes place in and around the Lower Mainland. I’m guessing the segment with Margaret Peterson might have been filmed here on the Island, at her 1962 solo show at the AGGV. But she also had a show at UBC in 1961, so maybe it was there. Anyhow, there are a few glimpses of Vancouver, which was a very different city back then. And there are quite a few nature shots. The trees don’t seem to have changed all that much. But primarily the film is set in the galleries, artists’ studios and other smoke-filled hangouts of the era. The individual scenes are knit together by a rather portentous, self-consciously poetic voice-over, the effect of which is somewhat comic now.

A large part of my interest in “In Search of Innocence” has to do with how different the zeitgeist it reflects was from the one I experienced a couple of decades later. When I arrived in Vancouver back in the early 80s most of the artists who appeared in the film were still around and working. Al Neil was still performing and making art, Jack Shadbolt was still painting, Don Jarvis was still at Emily Carr, and Roy Kiyooka was teaching at UBC, where I was studying at the time. But even though it was only 20 years after the heyday of the beats, there was a huge gulf between the worldview of that era and that of the (then) present. The avante garde scene of the 1950s and early 60s, with its poetry, jazz, abstract expressionism, and mysticism, seemed worlds away from the conceptual, theory-driven worldview that had largely replaced it. Even the Neo-Expressionists seemed more fuelled by a pop-derived irony than the High Art seriousness of that earlier era. In fact, the title of the film reflects the divide: whatever the artists of the 80s and afterward were in search of, I’m pretty sure “innocence” wasn’t it.

So by the early 80s, in other words, the big names of the 50s and early 60s were still around, but increasingly consigned to the realm of history as far as their ideas and aesthetics went. It’s therefore quite fascinating to have a window onto an earlier time, to see some of those artists in their heyday, at the moment of their creative and cultural apex. A relic of a long-vanished past, and one that seems to have captured something of what it felt like to be there, in the smoky jazz clubs and studios, talking intently about Spontaneity and Time (whether it actually was like that, of course, isn’t something I would know).

Roy Kiyooka

Couple of things in the film had a personal resonance for me:

I took at least one painting class from Roy Kiyooka in the early 80s. He’d given up painting years before, but he was still a good teacher. I remember he would sometimes repeat your words back to you in such a way that you weren’t sure whether he was taking them seriously, or whether he thought they were the dumbest thing he’d ever heard (In my case, he would have been perfectly justified if it was the latter). It was a mannerism that’s hard to fully convey in words, and I’m glad to see that “In Search of Innocence” captured it for posterity.

The film ends with a shot of Jack Shadbolt working on a huge mural he did for the Edmonton International Airport in 1963. Titled “Bush Pilot in Northern Sky”, it presided over my many arrivals and departures back when I had family there and made regular trips to the city. Local wags said it looked like an exploding airplane, but to me, it looked like the land falling away as you rose up into the sky.

Edmonton Airport Mural