Friday, March 12, 2010

Paul Dorsey on Barker Fairley (cont)

Cathy Edmonton”, undated

“Ought not the painting of humanity … draw ahead of the landscape [and] take priority over it?” he wrote in 1939. “Ought it not do so in any age, and especially in this age of intense human conflict and suffering and innovation? There is everything in the world about us, the world of today, to suggest that the luxury of dwelling on empty landscapes is likely to recede in men’s minds and the urgent human issues to assert themselves with growing force.”
This passage is cited in “Barker Fairley: Portraits”, a bound collection he released with art critic Gary Michael Dault in 1981, half a decade before he died 22 years ago this past October, in his 100th year.

The Group of Seven connection easily survives him. Fairley’s works are displayed alongside theirs at the McMichael Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario, and in 2004 the Canadian Conservation Institute announced joyously that it had acquired his old paintbox, along with that of the Group’s AY Jackson. Jackson and Fairley had enjoyed several canoe trips together, the classic Group of Seven painting excursion.

The oil-caked wooden boxes had been the keepsakes of Naomi Jackson Groves, AY’s niece, until she died, when the auctioneer got them. They were being raffled off with Jackson’s record player, briefcase, sleeping bag and folding cot.

Though it was at the time awaiting a scientific “analysis of the paints”, the institute reckoned that AY must have used them while he was living in Ottawa in the mid-1960s, prior to a stroke necessitating his retirement to McMichael, which is where I got to meet him on a high-school field trip (as recounted in this post).

How Barker Fairley came to be at House Sol in Georgetown, Ontario, is a facinating story well told by John Sommer in an article he wrote in 1993. He’s shared it with me for the retelling.

Sommer says he learned about Fairley’s art in late 1968 or early ‘69 from Erindale College lecturer Alan Powell, who had agreed to pose for a painting at Fairley’s home in Toronto, at 90 Willcocks Street. Sommer visited the artist there soon after and says he “had the surprise of my life”.

“I discovered shortly after he started that the chair he was sitting on came close to breaking apart whenever he moved with it forward or backward, as he was in the habit of doing during portrait sessions. I braced myself to come to his rescue, to catch him before he would collapse with the chair, if ever it should come to that …

“In his book ‘Portraits’ he is giving this story a rather neat and flattering twist: ‘It will be apparent from my portrait of him, with his right arm grasping the back of the chair he was sitting in as if he couldn’t stay seated any longer — a position he dropped into after I had started — that he is a man of immense energy and enthusiasm.’

On his first visit to Fairley’s home and studio, Sommer asked to host an exhibition at House Sol and Barker “performed a quick little two-step (a mannerism all his own), he was so happy about my offer”.

The show was held from October 18 to November 6, 1969, and only afterward did Sommer learn of Fairley’s lofty stature as a scholar of German literature.

Still, he was puzzled that Fairley had been painting for 37 years and only one large gallery, in Munich, and a small one in Toronto, had shown any interest.

“I guess that his reputation as a literary scholar made people think of his paintings as the products of a hobby-painter. And his artless style wasn’t fancy enough for dealers and critics.”

Fairley exhibited in Georgetown four more times through the 1970s, on one occasion bringing the painting reproduced below, his just-finished portrait of Robertson Davies, one of Canada’s most distinguished authors. It too now belongs to University College, Toronto.

to be continued:
Appreciation to Paul Dorsey, for this exerpt from his blog. Click here to be taken to The Dali House.

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