Art and the City July 21
Reading is different when you are on holiday. Languishing on a beach chair or in a rocker on the veranda, resting in the afternoon on a comfy but unfamiliar hotel bed, flying. Regular life is suspended. A good book is a companion on a long journey, a friend you can spend as much time with as you like. No job to leave it behind for, no engagements requiring it be put aside till later. You can almost fall in love with a book on holiday. Like a lover, you can give it your full attention, spend time thinking about it, go everywhere together.
During my high school years, we were given a list of books for summer reading which seemed to me to be an unfair intrusion into the glorious freedom from the confines of class and curriculum. Yet, as it turned out, there were worlds to discover that I had no time for during the year: Rachel Carson’s sea, J. M. Barrie’s Scotland, Jane Austen’s “universe in a teacup” as one writer called her literary microcosm. As the years have gone by, I have made my own lists. At one point I realized that I had not read very many women authors, and so read women for a long time. Another time I set myself the classics, and am so happy to be able to conjure up pictures of Dickens’, Thackery’s and the Brontë’s Victorian England in my mind. Or the nineteen twenties, thirties and forties: Evelyn Waugh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S Eliot, George Orwell, Graham Greene. The mysteries of Russia in Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Pasternak. French tragic heroines like Madame Bovary, Nana, Cossette and Camillle. The American heroes and anti-heroes of Earnest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. I could go on and on, but this is supposed to be a column about art. Which I am leading up to – gradually.
As a child, I devoured every fairy tale I could get my hands on – many times over: my children’s copy of the Greek myths; stories from the Hebrew Bible a friend of my mother’s gave me; “Folk Tales From Many Lands”. And I particularly relished a book of my brother’s about heroic wartime escape stories. Growing up Catholic, I read the lives of the saints, inspiring accounts of virtue and vice, courage, faith and integrity in the face of cruelty and ignorance. All these characters, heroines and heroes lived life to the fullest in their own ways, sometimes escaping a dreary or desperate existence, other times experiencing the outermost limits of excitement, drama and adventure. Now, I have turned to the lives of artists.
In recent years, I have been reading their biographies in much the same spirit as I read about saints, brave soldiers or the simple characters of fairy and folk tales, myths and history, standing up to the rich and powerful, part-human, part-god, part-animal creatures of ancient Greece and pagan Europe, or despots (petty or otherwise) of a modern and sometimes equally frightening world. Their lives are every bit as interesting to me. I have read Dora Carrington’s life story twice, and the movie about her with Emma Thompson is one of my cult favourites. I have a book of her diaries. She painted deep and unusual portraits and landscapes – as well as her walls and furniture. She documented her world and the adventures of her friends and lovers in simple sketches and little drawings sprinkled throughout her many letters. She hated being a woman, made pies and jam, wore breeches and short hair, loved men. After living a rich life, she chose to end it early when her dearest friend died. She and others are not mythical creatures, or lost in the mists of time, or faced with the arduous decisions of wartime. They lived each day as artists, courageously in my opinion, wishing to gain every ounce of experience it had to offer, each in a way unique to them – and inspiring to others, if not in their own time, in ours.
There are so many, many artists and their stories to choose from. Here’s a partial list of some I have read over the last couple years.
- The Art of Dora Carrington by Jane Hill.
- A Border of Beauty: Arthur Lismer’s Pen and Pencil by Marjorie Lismer Bridges, a loving memoir by his daughter.
- The Women of Beaver Hall: Canadian Modernist Painters by Evelyn Walters, a great, well-written history of some of Canada’s best and under-represented painters, and it’s a nice peek into Montreal of the early to mid twentieth century.
- Anne Savage, the Story of a Canadian Painter by Anne McDougall, about the beloved art teacher at Baron Byng High School to the likes of Mordecai Richler and his contemporaries, and good friend of A. Y. Jackson. This is a lovely look at a remarkable woman.
- Bonnard. There are tons of books on Bonnard but I find he particularly tells his life story through his paintings and I can browse any picture book about him to soak up his colours, composition, and depictions of endless afternoons spent with his wife Marthe – in and out of the bathtub.
- Fairfield Porter: An American Classic by John T. Spike (I found this one at the Concordia Library – it’s very expensive online. If anyone knows of a reasonably priced copy, please let me know! It’s a beauty). He is another painter like Carrington and Bonnard who painted life – family, friends and home – with vigour and accuracy of feeling. And this was at the height of Abstract Expressionism. Now he is considered by some to be America’s best painter of the twentieth century.
- N.C. Wyeth, A Biography by David Michaelis is a long, thorough and easy to read biography of a very complex and talented artist who gave America many of its greatest illustrations of children’s classics, and at the same time raised a large family, teaching them all to paint, and starting a painting dynasty in the process.
- Lucian Freud, who recently died, has been called the greatest painter of our times, and is largely responsible for the renewal of realism and figure painting. There are an endless number of books about him. My favourites are Lucian Freud, Painting People, and Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait for Lucian Freud, written by Martin Gayford, a British art critic who chronicled his year and a half as Freud’s model.
- Bemelmans: the Life and Art of Madeline’s Creator by John Bemelmens Marciano and Ludwig Bemelmans. Besides his “Madeline” books, he was an excellent painter and it shows in the backgrounds of his children’s book illustrations. He lived a large life and fed all his experiences into his art and stories.
These above I chose because I am interested in their art, how and why they made it, but also I wanted to know more about the people behind the pictures. What inspired them, why they painted what they painted, how they lived – and could I be like them, or paint like them a little. Some are artists I have discovered recently, others I have known since childhood. I wish I could paint like all of them. Ambitious of me, I know, but this is the consequence of my early reading. There is something to be learned from the lives of artists who have braved this complex and sometimes unfathomable human journey of ours, and pictured it with precise brush strokes and colours, subject matter and composition to give us their vision of it, to pick out from all their experience what they found to make sense of it, using the elements of their existence and placing them in such a way as to create order from the chaos of sensory input and societal demands.
This is my list and it is based on people and art I have wished to know more about. Go and search out your favourites. If you are looking for anyone specific, it is easy to Google them now and find books online – one leads to another, and it is so much fun to order a book and have it come in the mail. On the other hand, browsing through the many wonderful bookstores in the city, large ones and small, brings surprises. In a second-hand bookstore, investigate the art section and you will discover artists and art periods you never even knew existed. Of course, there are libraries. Anyone can join the Montreal ones for free, and there are others that charge a small fee. Or spend an afternoon or evening in a university library. You may not be able to take the books out, but no one will stop you from going up and down the stalls in the art section, and sitting in a quiet corner to look through your finds – many out of print now. And you can photocopy sections if you want.
Also, there are lots of great movies about artists – on Netflix, at the National Film Board, at the video store, and this month at the Cinema du Parc, there is a series of movies playing about artists.
I am a book-aholic – the nice word for it is “bibliophile” I believe. Over the last few years, as I have down-sized, I have been doing my best to control myself. But now that I am at the Montreal Art Centre, I have a place to lend (and store) my collection. We have a modest (but growing) library there for members, and it is the perfect place to put books that I run out of space for at home. And I have all the other books there at my disposal, so I am able to indulge myself and feast on art books to my heart’s content.
As I write, I am in Atlanta Georgia sipping a mint julep on the veranda of a very pretty house that I have the good fortune to be staying in, so I am sorry I do not have as much as usual to report on vis-à-vis art events in Montreal for this week’s column. But do go look through the bookstores and libraries, websites and Google, and find your art saints and heroes. There are other titles of interest I would like to share with you, but I cannot remember them off-hand – they are at home and at the art centre. For those who are interested, they will be posted on my blog at montrealartcenter.com/blog. But for now, I’m on holiday and it’s time to get back to my book!
Art Group for Adults & Elders La Ruche d’Art @ 4525 St. Jacques Wednesdays10:30-12:30 Until August 8. Free of Charge.No artistic experience necessary. Coffee & Refreshments. Come socialize, explore your creativity and have fun. For info/ Pour info: Naomi Lasry @ 514.266.5353. Thanks to Federation CJA.
Montreal Art Centre In the Heat of Summer – exhibit coming soon, August 8 -.22. Vernissage August 8, 5 – 9. Many artists have been sending in work – it promises to be a great show. montrealartcenter.com/in-the-heat-summer
If you are an artist, or an aspiring one, looking for a home then the Montreal Art Centre is for you! Visit the Centre’s website at www.montrealartcenter.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org to get more information on becoming a member artist with your own studio space, and about classes and events. Or visit the Centre at 1844 William Street, Montreal, Qc H3J 1R5. (514) 667-2270. Catherine Wells is an artist, art teacher and art therapist working at the Montreal Art Centre. Her website is artandmind.ca. She can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog Art and the City at www.montrealartcentre.com/blog
If anyone wishes to announce a Montreal art event in this column, please contact me at the email address above.
What you have read above was published July 21 in the West End Times in my bi-monthly column, Art and the City. I am back from my holiday and here are more books as promised:
- A Speaking Likeness is the autobiography of Joeseph Plaskett, a lesser known Canadian painter – mostly because he painted in Paris most of his life. At 94, he is still painting exquisitley. A lovely book lovingly and modestly recalling a long, quiet but marvelously productive life.
- Edwin Holgate is a group of essays edited by Rosalind Pepall and Brian Foss. It must be obvious by now that I have been wishing to learn about the many great painters that Canada has produced. This book is a catalogue covering his retrospective exhibition. Besides revealing much about this talented painter, this book also conjured up another glimpse into an exciting period in Montreal art history, as one reads about the familiar neighbourhoods where he lived and painted.
- Peter Doig by Adrian Searle, Kitty Scott and Catherine Grenier. Peter Doig is an extremely successful contemporary painter whom we claim as Canadian as he lived much of his childhood and adolescence here. Trained mainly in England, he retains a Canadian quality in his treatment of landscapes, while adding a magical quality to them. One of my favourite artists.
- Vuillard: Master of the Intimate Interior by Guy Cogeval. Like Carrington and Bonnard (the latter was his contemporary), Vuillard is another painter of home and family. Do not be deceived by the size of this little book which can fit into a pocket or purse. It is very comprehensive and has many of his wonderfully luminous paintings reproduced as well as old photos, journal entries, letters, posters and sketches.
- Portrait of an Artist – A Biography of Georgia O’Keefe by Laurie Lisle is a thorough and easy to read account of her early years, through her time in New York and retirement into the desert, where she painted what no one thought could be painted.
- Fairfield Porter: Raw by Klaus Ottman. I had forgotten about this one. A nice complement to the larger book about his paintings but it also stands alone, describing his painting process, and showing a lot of sketches and studies of his larger work.
- The Age of Insight by Eric R. Kandel is what I am reading now. Not exactly a biography but a fascinating take by a Nobel laureate about how a few people in 1900 Vienna changed the way we think about the human mind – Sigmund Freud, the novelist Arthur Schnitzler, and artists Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka.