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January 29, 2010

Some Canadian Art History in Perspective

Along with my Heritage Perspective articles over the years I have written several Art Scene articles. With the current 20th anniversary of the “most intense debate about art in the history of Canada” and new works on Tom Thompson a look at some art history may be of interest.

The Voice of Fire Controversy

The January 25th issue of Maclean's magazine has an article about the “firestorm” around the purchase of American artist Barnett Newman’s painting purchased by Canada’s National Art Gallery in Ottawa in 1990. The 8’x18’ Voice of Fire painting with 2 blue and 1 red stripes did not cause any serious concern when it appeared in the U.S. Pavilion at Expo in 1967 and later on loan. There were undoubtedly opinions but they did not surface until the National Gallery bought the painting in 1990 for the new Gallery for 1.8 million dollars.

Voices of Fire book on the paintings controversy. 1996.

With Canada sliding into a recession some people criticized the purchase and many came to its defence. The press got involved especially the cartoonists. Tee shirts appeared. Copies of the painting supporting both sides appeared some in full scale

Robert Fulford in a Massey Lecture in 1997 called “The Uses of Controversy” pointed out that the “debate helped make the National Gallery and the painting famous”.

A 1996 book Voices of Fire documents the controversy giving both sides of the story and there is considerable information on the internet.

I have visited the National Gallery on several occasions with my wife who happens to be an abstract expressionist painter We always look at and appreciate all of the art including the gallery where Newman's painting is hung. While there last summer my wife got into a 30 minute discussion with a lady from Alberta who loved the Newman painting and I had trouble getting them apart. My wife by the way had a commission for a 8’x26’ painting in a new post office in Scarborough in 1968 and knows Newman’s work in detail.

Newman was an articulate writer and spokesman for modern art. He was also very spiritual and saw his work as such. The Voices of Fire title comes from the biblical voice from the burning bush.

Newman’s other paintings and sculpture are honoured elsewhere. Now 20 years after the purchase it is ironic to note that the painting has skyrocketed in value making it a brilliant investment. A small ink-on-paper work by Newman sold for 5 million U.S. in 2008.

A North Bay Connection

In a recent visit to an art show at the Alex Dufresne Gallery in the Callander Bay Museum I was surprised and pleased to see a painting of the Newman painting with a woman standing in front of it cloaked in a blue and red robe paying homage to the painting within the painting. The painting was by North Bay’s well known representational painter Arlie Hoffman.

I visited Arlie recently at his studio and took the photo shown here. He explained his affection for the painting including several visits to see it. His wife Darlene made the matching cloak on the woman who posed for him. He had the Voices of Fire book on hand and lent it to me. (see photo)

North Bay painter Arlie Hoffman talking about his Barnett Newman Painting in his studio . D. Mackey photo.

One of the innovations by Newman beside the simplicity and scale of his work is the breaking of the accepted restrictions on framing proportions. Not only did the painting have unusual proportions but it was hung vertically in what many believe to be a very religious transcendent emphasis. It was the ideal painting for the space in the Gallery. I noted in the photo of Arlie’s studio that 2 of his paintings on the left of his Newman painting were similarly proportioned and hung vertically.

Much more could be said about in this brief look at modernism. It has opened my eyes to understanding some of the work in galleries today such as the White Water and the WKP Kennedy in North Bay.

Next week I will look at some new work on Tom Thompson’s life and the ongoing mystery of his death that is part of the interest in him.

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