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

Torres-García at the MoMA

A year and 20 posts ago, I wrote about my ongoing, decades-long interest in the School of the South, aka the Taller Torres-García. The founder of the school, Joaquín Torres-García is currently the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at the MoMA, which runs until February 2016. Given that it’s his first major North American retrospective in 40 years I’d hoped to be able to make the pilgrimage, but it’s looking now like that probably won’t be possible.

In any case, great to see that he’s getting some favourable attention. Especially since the last time around he got two(!) highly unfavourable reviews from the critic John Canaday, who said that the work looked like it might have come out of a “progressive Kindergarten.” The review of the current show in the NYT was a lot more positive, not to mention perceptive. (Meaning that it echoes a number of the things I wrote a year ago 🙂 ).

More on Jock Macdonald

I’ve been giving some more thought to Jock Macdonald’s late abstract expressionist paintings. I may have been too quick to judgment in my previous post, so I’m going to take another run at them from a different angle.

My re-think was prompted by a comment made by Robert Amos in a review of the same exhibition in the weekend’s edition of the Times Colonist:

From a distance the paintings appear to be spontaneous gestures, but closer examination reveals the hand of the artist fussing over the edges and touching up the patterning of every image. [http://www.timescolonist.com/life/islander/robert-amos-museum-highlights-canadian-art-1.1997859]

I’d noticed that particular characteristic myself, but didn’t think it was important enough to mention in my review. The more I think about this group of paintings though, the more I think the deceptive appearance of spontaneity is probably their most interesting quality, and one that complicates my previous reading of them as well-made but basically derivative.

My new reading is at odds not only with my earlier take, but with Robert Amos’ take as well. Amos asks the rhetorical question “If they weren’t the spontaneous expression of his subconscious, what were they? It’s an excellent question, and I think trying to answer it might be a worthwhile exercise.

But first we need to situate these works in context. “Spontaneous expression” was a pretty big deal back in the late 50s. Thanks to the Surrealists, short-circuiting one’s conscious intentions had come to be seen as an act imbued with all kinds of significance. By mid-century, according to one of the dominant narratives, the technology-driven horrors of two world wars had wiped away any lingering confidence in Enlightenment values. In that context, the random spatters of a legion of Abstract Expressionists were seen to be frontal assaults against the bankrupt rationality of Western culture.

And yet from another point of view the same works were celebrated as an expression of the freedoms available in Western democracies, set against the conservative, rule-bound styles of painting prevalent in fascist and communist dictatorships of the day.

So gestural abstraction was beloved by yea-sayers and nay-sayers alike. But it was a consensus based on a contradiction, and it could not be sustained for long. Abstract Expressionism was still riding high in 1960 but would soon be eclipsed by a number of other styles, notably pop art but also post-painterly abstraction, op art, and the beginnings of conceptual art. All of these subsequent approaches returned at least some measure of conscious intention to the artmaking process. Conceptual art represented an almost complete about-face, from spontaneous gesture embedded in the physicality of paint, to the work of art as idea, whose physical embodiment was almost an afterthought.

Painted as they were in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, Macdonald’s works participate in the valorization of the spontaneous gesture. But Macdonald, for what I think were probably excellent but largely aesthetic reasons, was never completely committed to that approach. True, he did some purely automatist works under the guidance of Pailthorpe and Mednikoff, but as works of art they were pretty bad, and he must have been aware of that. He got far better results when in the mid-50s he used automatist techniques as a springboard for developing more consciously constructed watercolours.

It’s likely the same forces were in play when he turned from his watercolours to the large abstract canvasses. These paintings probably began with a spontaneous gesture or two, but such were Macdonald’s aesthetics that he couldn’t just leave them in their initial, unfinished state. So just as he did with his watercolours, he went back in and very consciously fine-tuned their colours and forms, preserving the appearance of spontaneity (unless you look really closely), but improving the composition, adding subtleties of colour and texture, and generally working them up into finished designs.

One could, of course, simply dismiss that approach as a failure of nerve, and anyone who bought into spontaneous expression as either critique or celebration would probably have done just that. But in retrospect we could position it rather as an anticipation of things to come, a recognition of the limits of the spontaneity. An acknowledgement that, for better or worse, we probably need to think about what we’re doing at least some of the time. In the artworld of the late 50s that would have been an interesting and somewhat controversial stand to take.

Jock Macdonald at the AGGV

There’s a truly excellent Jock Macdonald retrospective currently showing at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. It runs to September 7th and if you haven’t seen it yet, you should. They’ve put together an impressive collection of his work with highlights from all the way through his career, including a whole room full of the abstract expressionist works that constitute the last and most critically respected phase of his 30-plus years as a painter.

He began his career as a designer, and it was as Head of Design that he was hired by the Vancouver School of Decorative & Applied Art back in 1926, when he would have been in his late twenties. He took up painting with the encouragement of his colleague, Fred Varley, and his earliest works show quite a strong Varley influence. In addition to picking up Varley’s technique Macdonald also seemed to pick up a lot of Varley’s nature spiritualism. A concern for the spiritual realm, the world beyond the veil, would remain a constant in Macdonald’s work, even as the outward forms of his expression changed over the next 3 decades.

The exhibition is called “Evolving Form”, and maybe that’s apt, but I have some reservations which I’ll get to in a minute. Following his Varley period, you can see Macdonald picking up ideas from other painters like Emily Carr, and less fortunate influences like Lawren Harris. You can see where Harris, with his Theosophical interests, would appeal to Macdonald’s mystical side, but Macdonald’s Harris-inspired geometrical mandalas are to my eyes his weakest work, along with a couple of paintings that reflect the Harris’ mushy deco landscape style. But then I’ve never been a big fan of Harris (can you tell?).

Macdonald’s style changed again under the influence of a couple of British Surrealists, Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff, whom the Telegraph once described as the eeriest couple in art, although I think “eerie” is perhaps a nice word for what they were. Macdonald met them in Vancouver where they had relocated during the war, and they inducted him into the surrealist practice of automatism, drawing without consciously thinking about what you’re doing. Initially the results of these exercises seemed pretty weak, but by the early 50s Macdonald was using a modified version of this approach to produce some really interesting watercolours. These are the works in the show I like best, which puts me at odds with the critical consensus regarding his late-period abstractions.

Not that there’s any question the large abstract works from the last 3 or 4 years of his life are by far the most accomplished works in the show. They’re fine paintings. But at the same time, at this remove it seems to me they’re a lot like what a lot of other painters, many of them Macdonald’s students, were doing in Toronto in the late 50s. In this they simply carry on a pattern evident from the rest of the show: Jock Macdonald was really good at picking up on whatever was going on around him and running with it. That kept him in the mainstream, but at a cost. I get the sense that he spent more time expressing other people’s pictorial ideas than he did expressing his own.

So I guess my question here is: did Macdonald’s approach truly evolve, as the show’s subtitle would have it, or did it just change as the fashions changed? Macdonald’s late-period abstractions are often touted as the culmination of a lifetime of artistic development, and perhaps they were. But I can’t help wondering how Macdonald would have handled the 1960s, if he had lived to see them (he was 63 when he died in 1960). Would he have spent his last years as an abstract expressionist even as that movement petered out, or would he have continued to follow the trends into, say, colour field abstraction, Op Art and minimalism? We’ll never know, of course, but based on the evidence in this exhibition I suspect his work would have continued to evolve, or simply change, along with the times.

A trip to the Brera

339px-Piero,_Pala_di_Brera

Why do we think some paintings are good, and others not so much? Why do we like what we like? Is it all just personal preference, or can we legitimately say that one painting is, objectively and for everyone, better than another?

These are hard questions. They were probably somewhat easier back when art was based more in craft, and in fact “art” simply meant craft of surpassing skill. Skill isn’t that hard to recognize, and it’s certainly possible to say that one painting is more skillfully painted than another. But is a skillfully painted picture necessarily better, in some absolute sense, than one of lesser craft? I very much doubt it.

The craft of painting never attained a higher level of perfection than it did in the great painting Academies of the 19th century, but sadly the work of the Academiciens, revered in its day, has not held up so well over time. Much of it seems rather cloying and sentimental to us now. Whereas work painted at around the same period by painters of lesser technique continues to live on and inspire us. Think Cezanne, the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and their followers.

So craft skill is out. Note that I don’t think this means craft is completely unimportant – obviously, the painters I just mentioned took it quite seriously indeed – but just that it can’t be the only determinant of what makes one painting better than another. Better craft does not necessarily equal better painting.

Unfortunately this gets us no closer to answering the questions posed above.

Maybe there is no absolute scale of values. Maybe the canon is basically just a random group of historical talents whose apotheosis is sheer convention, and we could substitute another group just as well. Is it possible that our liking for Cezanne, Picasso, Piero, etc, was learned or even conditioned? That is to say, we were told so often during our impressionable years that these were great painters that we simply came to believe it?

Somehow I doubt that too, and I’ll back up my doubt with an anecdote.

Many years ago, in the context of an extended European vacation, I made a day trip to Milan. Since there were several things I wanted to see while I was in the city, I had at most a couple of hours to spend in the Pinacoteca di Brera, the main public gallery there. It was an absurdly short time to spend in a place with so many amazing paintings. (Heck, I could have spent the entire two hours in front of the Piero.) In order to see the small collection of paintings I had previously determined I absolutely could not afford to miss, I had to run past other paintings that, had the circumstances been different, I would have gone out of my way to see. Countless Modern and Renaissance masters … “Next time,” I thought. “Next time.” Not knowing when that next time would be, if ever.

And then I came to a small group of paintings that stopped me dead in my tracks. These paintings weren’t on my must-see list, and in fact I’d never heard of the painter before. There was nothing obviously arresting about them: small paintings of musty-looking bottles and generic Italian landscapes in muted tones. But they had some kind of curious, undefinable power. Ultimately I spent longer looking at those paintings than the ones I had come to see. When I finally did tear myself away I carefully made a note of the painter’s name so I could look him up later: it was, of course, Giorgio Morandi.

The point of the anecdote is of course that no one told me Morandi was important; he wasn’t on the curriculum of any of the art history survey courses I’d taken to that point, or mentioned in any of the books I’d read. So you can’t say in Morandi’s case that I was looking at his works because I’d been told to. Nor can you say I was looking at them because they were on the walls of a prestigious gallery, since there were many other works on the same walls I was regretfully bypassing as I checked off the paintings on my list. You can’t even say I looked at them because they resembled other paintings I’d been taught to like, since a Morandi doesn’t resemble anything but a Morandi. No, I think the only possible explanation is that I was looking at Morandi’s paintings because of some intrinsic quality or qualities they possessed. But that gets us no closer to understanding why I liked them (and still do, to this day).

If you’ve read this far you may be a bit disappointed to learn that I’m not actually going to answer the questions I posed at the beginning. In fact I don’t really think there is a definitive answer, or if there is one it’s probably complicated and far from universal in its application. What I am going to say though is that ultimately I prefer not having an answer. I think it’s a lot more productive to leave open ended the question of why we like what we like. Occasionally we’ll come across something that seems to give us a clue, a part of an explanation. But the full explanation continues to elude us, and so we keep looking.