Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Toronto in 1931 - Nudity in Art
Bertram Brooker at work behind his easel
By David Helwig
It was 1931 in Toronto the Good, and a painting by Bertram Brooker was removed from the annual OSA exhibition by officers of the Art Gallery of Toronto. Nudes. Bertram Brooker had sent off a painting of nudes for exhibit—two nudes in one painting. Toronto quivered, shuddered, took it down.
And so: we look at this Bertram Brooker painting from the Confederation Centre Art Gallery’s collection, Cabbage and Pepper , oil on canvas. Look closely. That is a barenaked cabbage.
Mother, do you see what I see. Tell me it isn't so.
The tense pallor, those tumescent veins: what could be more impudent? Or turn your eyes to the green pepper, its soft curves, the slippery shine of the skin, clearly the sort of thing that should be banned,
the sort of vegetable that thrives only in the hot climates. No doubt about it, those vegetables want to be touched. There’s a loneliness about them, each one in isolation from the other, not like the gregarious apples.
Brooker was born in England, then lived in Manitoba. He once owned a movie theatre in Neepawa, Manitoba (the birthplace of Margaret Laurence), later moved to Toronto as an advertising executive. Self-taught as a painter, he was the first artist in Canada to exhibit entirely abstract paintings; in 1927 that was, somewhat geometric paintings full of spatial illusions, at times a little like something from a sci-fi comic of later vintage. The mountain in the background of this painting might be related.
It’s not a mountain, you say, but a piece of paper bent in odd shapes.
It looks like a mountain. It looks like a somewhat abstract mountain, a hint of Lawren Harris. One of those pure white theosophical mountains, more textured perhaps, but with that aspiring triangular form, rock faces catching the directional light, the white point rising up against a blue non-sky. So we have an oil painting of a naked cabbage at the foot of a paper mountain.
Brooker may have been English and Canadian, but that brown paper bag is very Dutch, like something out of one of those seventeenth-century paintings meant to deceive and delight the eye by the rendering of detail with a precision that is more than photographic. Sometimes it is the fur of dead animals that is evoked, the brush creating the sheen of the delicate surface. Or a brass jug, round and shiny, catching the light. Or the metallic shimmer of the scales of a dead fish. Here it is crumpled brown paper catching the dramatic light from the left, a wonderful trick of deceptive imitation. Fool-the-eye painting as they call it. But look again, and the bag suggests another mountain, with a dark cave.
Now as for the apples, I can’t get very interested, at least at first. "Goddam apples," as Robert Frost reportedly said, when asked what that apple-picking poem was about. But then I look at them some more and I think they should be falling off the table, if it is a table. The geometry gets funny, and I’m reminded that Brooker’s early abstracts were full of odd geometrical forms, coming at the viewer, receding, pointing up and down, very 3-D.
He liked weird geometry, and the more you look at the apples, and the white paper over the white fabric with more tricky painting of the folds in the cloth, the two whites that are not quite the same, that move in different directions, the more disconcerting it all seems. We are above and in front, aren’t we? But those apples are about to roll out of the frame altogether and fall on the floor. There’s some tension between the picture plane and the realization of the subject matter. It may be the kind of thing called a still life, this picture, but it's full of tension, everything wanting to be somewhere else. Paper becoming mountains, gravity, whether by design or bad luck, playing games.
At around the time he did this still life, Brooker was painting Cubist nudes, and another one that isn’t Cubist but is seen from a very odd and difficult angle, the tensions not unlike those in this picture. His nudes have a stillness about them, a concentration on form, cool but wanting to be touched.
He was a smooth painter, Bertram Brooker, not a porridgy painter like Tom T. and most of the Seven Groupies. Maybe that's why this painting makes me think of something by Prudence Heward, a Girl Painter of about the same vintage. Another smooth painter, she was, from Montreal. There’s a well-known picture that's focused on the bare skin of the back and shoulders of two young women, flesh as cool and sensual as Brooker’s vegetables, the slippery pepper, the ultimate cabbage.
Feeling a little like a voyeur ogling a Playboy centrefold, I crept up to the painting with a magnifying glass. Even enlarged, the strokes are mostly smooth ones, paint placed with infinite care and precision. The most noticeable texture is the canvas behind the pigment. Now, as well as being a painter, Brooker did a lot of writing—in fact he won the first Governor-General's Award for fiction—and he seems to have loved paint for its descriptive effect, not for itself. A thinking man's painter, we might call him, working with illusion in impacted space, a spiritual space where everything is flying or falling, and only a cabbage can be still.
About Bertram Brooker:
Often considered one of the most remarkable figures in Canadian cultural history, Brooker was an editor, critic, dramatist, novelist and artist. As an artist, he was the first Canadian painter to exhibit abstract art, and his paintings today hang in every major gallery in Canada. Owing to the public presence of his writing, his opinion reached great distances and held a significant amount of influence. Believing that beauty and truth were related to God and thus only attainable though ecstatic visions of mystics, Brooker condemned useful art and proclaimed that artists would only be able to create with validity when they learned how to expand their sight. In his paintings Brooker worked to escape the chains of both the past and the present and thus avoid reproduction but instead felt he was able to make the truth tangible. He did not believe that expression needed to rely on the world as we know it.
From 1928 to 1930 Brooker wrote a syndicated column "The Seven Arts" where he analyzed theatre, music, visual arts and poetry through reviews that underlined the qualities of a distinctly Canadian arts and culture. The writing of this column helped the Group of Seven and their associates become known but over the years Brooker became increasingly disenchanted with the Group's narrow view of a nationally based aesthetics. He wrote to L.L. Fitzgerald: "The experimentation is over, the old aggressiveness has declined. The Group of Seven has become orthodoxy and now, I suppose, the public will start buying their pictures."
Brooker's own paintings were unlike anything else being produced in Canada at that time. Leaf Sonata, Wings and Waves, and Abstract Nude all have a sense of Futurism influence but ultimately Brooker was working with something that was intensely personal and very much a product of his own concerns for art in a civilization which he believed needed it.
Text from: Arthistoryarchive.com. Please click here.
Picture of Bertram Brooker from Wikipedia. Please click here.
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