Archive for the ‘Virgil’s Thoughts’ Category

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Back to the Barricades: Part 1

January 12, 2017

I’m having second thoughts about not using art as a social tool to influence society. When I was a young art student and artist in San Francisco. I firmly believed in the ideas Arnold Hauser’s Social History of Art. I fancied myself as a socialist if not a Marxist. Mind you this was the early 1960s and I wanted a changed world. Sixty years on I still call myself a socialist, the Marxist me is long gone, and I still want a changed world, but it’s a very different world now and one that is, if anything, worse than that of 1960. Then we were about the enter the era of JFK and now we are about enter that of Donald Trump. I have lived for the last fifty years in Canada and the United States has gone its merry way without me.

The short story is this. After serving three years active duty in US Army, nearly half of it in Korea, in the late 1950s, I went to art school in San Francisco and Bloomington, Indiana getting my BFA and MFA and, annoyed with Vietnam, exiled myself to Canada where I taught fine arts at university for thirty-seven years. Now firmly some years in retirement, I sit and think how wrong I got it all. The world is not a better place and I’m not a better person.

I did think, back in the early 1960s, that art—I was thinking visual art—could be a tool for changing the world to be better place. People, particularly those in power, would look at art and change their evil ways. It didn’t dawn on me that most people in power didn’t look at art in the first place and those that did saw it as an investment rather than an inspiration. History to the contrariety was, of course, right in front of me, Hitler was a big fan of art, but what the Hell. So banging my head on the walls of the orthodoxy of the time, Abstract Expressionism, Colour Field Painting, etc., got me nowhere.

So, I figured there was art and then there was everything else. Art was the beautiful. Hence, the title of blog: Art and Beauty. I taught a course on the subject for over thirty years. I still believe in the beautiful and that’s the art I like looking at and the art, now photography, I want to make, but recent events have made me think that I should have another look at my ideas of half a century ago. Democracy is clearly in danger. America has elected a neo-fascist president, or at least the Elector College has, and those that voted for Trump do not seem to understand the danger to the republic and themselves. They wanted change and they are certainly going to get it.

liberty-delacroix

Yes, a majority of Americans did not vote for Trump, but they’re stuck with him. Still people do have to continue to speak out and not normalize his presidency. Artists, in particular, have a role to play. I am not suggesting that all art need to be political. Indeed, the beautiful can provide a respite from stress of Trumpism, but artists need to take a stand on the side of democracy if not in their works then through their actions and words.

(To be continued.)

©Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 11 January 2017.

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Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery

July 20, 2015

The Beaverbrook Art Gallery
Fredericton, New Brunswick
(2 May – 24 August 2015)

Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery
Sarnia, Ontario
(19 September 2015 – 7 February 2016)

Audian Art Museum
Whistler, British Columbia
( May 2016)

Fredericton’s Beaverbrook Art Gallery opened in 1959. It was the gift of Lord Beaverbrook (Sir William Maxwell [Max] Aitken, 1879-1964) to New Brunswick, the province, where he grew up and first prospered. I cannot think of a comparable gift of this type in Canada. On opening day, he had not only paid for the land and the building, but had filled it with three hundred and twenty-three first class works of art. In addition to his own collection, he also convinced rich and powerful friends, in particular fellow New Brunswicker Sir James Dunn, to donate important pieces to the gallery before it opened. Since then the collection has grown to over two thousand works, that include a second gift of paintings from Lord Beaverbrook.

The current exhibition was initiated in 2009 by Terry Graff, now the gallery’s director, who was at time was its deputy director and chief curator. It took extensive research to put it together. The resulting selection of seventy-five major works from the collection has since toured the United States and Canada and is now being shown at its home, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, for the first time. Graff has added forty additional works to the Fredericton exhibition which now virtually fills the gallery’s main floor viewing space. The impact is spectacular. Never before have so many of the gallery’s finest works been shown at one time.

They range in time from Lucas Cranach the Elder to Lucian Freud and Salvador Dali. It’s hard to pick favourites. Each time I view the exhibition, I come up with another list. Lord Beaverbrook wanted to emphasize British and Canadian art and the Masterworks exhibition mirrors not only his taste, but his predilection for realism. Of course, since Beaverbrook’s death in 1964, the gallery’s holdings have become much more eclectic reflecting the broad nature of art, but while he was alive, he handpicked every work in the collection. Lord Beaverbrook would have approved of this exhibition.

I have a soft spot for British 18th and early 19th century portraiture. There are some beautiful examples in the exhibition by the likes of Ramsay, Romney, Reynolds and Lawrence. The abstract quality of their brushwork within areas of clothing and background is outstanding, and their sheer virtuosity has always amazed me. To pick one, George Romney’s 1776-77 portrait of a young man, Charles Lennox, 4th Duke of Richmond, Duke of Lennox and of Aubigny, is a beautiful example in every way. Its portrayal of the young Charles resting outdoors with his dog possesses a beautiful strong diagonally composition combined with a carefully chosen palette. It certainly easily fits the criterion of masterwork.

It’s impossible to describe in a few words the many fine works in this collection. There is an excellent catalogue edited by Graff that covers, in detail, all seventy-five works in the original exhibition. Perhaps, the best known works in the show are Joseph Turner’s The Fountain of Indolence, 1834; Cornelius Krieghoff’s, Merrymaking, 1860; Lucian Freud’s, Hotel Bedroom, 1954 and Salvador Dali’s, Santiago El Grande, 1957, but everything in the Masterworks exhibition is of very high quality. Many of the works were involved in the infamous lawsuit between the heirs of Lord Beaverbrook and the gallery, which has now thankfully been settled largely in favour of the gallery.

Hotel Bedroom by L. Freud

Hotel Bedroom by L. Freud

Central to the suit was the Freud painting that was bought directly from the artist by Lord Beaverbrook in 1955 after it won the second prize of ₤500 in an art competition sponsored by his newspaper, the Daily Express. The painting was part of the original gift to the gallery in 1959. It is now worth many millions of dollars and is considered a key work by the artist. The small work (91.1 x 61 cm), is a haunting self-portrait of the artist is set in a Paris hotel room. He appears darkly in the background, while his second wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, lies in bed in the foreground, her head resting on a pillow.

The work foreshadows the greatness that Freud would eventually attain. Fortunately, Hotel Bedroom is now firmly in the hands of the gallery and will remain in Canada rather than on an auction floor like those few works that were lost to the Beaverbrook Foundation in the suit.

Santiago-El-Grande[1]

The massive Santiago El Grande is only one of three late paintings by Dali in the exhibition. The other two are La Turbite: Sir James Dunn, 1949 and Equestrian Fantasy: Lady Dunn, 1954. These large husband and wife portraits by Dali are fanciful, to say the least. Sir James appears wrapped in a gold sheet every inch a Roman emperor while Lady Dunn is dressed in velvet, seated on a horse with a falcon on her arm. Not surprisingly, the Santiago El Grande is the painting that is the most popular work in the gallery’s collection. It’s not only its size that overpowers viewers, but its composition. You look up, from below, at St. James mounted on horse. It’s painted in a limited blue palette and there are strange details to be found by the careful viewer. The atomic cloud under the horse, the small draped figure, in the right hand corner, Dali’s wife, Gala, and the even smaller figure, in the centre bottom, that the artist says is a self-portrait although this is not apparent. It is a very accomplished piece, perhaps the best late, work by the artist.

While the Masterworks exhibition continues on tour after Fredericton there is other good news from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. It has just announced a twenty-five million dollar expansion of its facilities that will make the gallery the largest in the region. Phase one will encompass new galleries, storage space, an artist in residence studio and a café.

With the work starting almost immediately. The future bodes very well for the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and the public of Atlantic Canada.

Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 25 May 2015.
* First published in Vie des Arts, #239, Summer 2015, pgs 64-65.

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Paring my Nails

February 25, 2015

The other day I was paring my nails and I had a Proustian moment, my very own madeleine. My mind went back to 1962 when I first read James Joyce’s words in the Portrait of the Artist describing his epiphany: “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” Those words of Aristotelian/Thomistic logic struck me like a thunderbolt then and they still ring true. An art work, while the product of the artist, stands apart from its creator. One cannot exist without the other, but once the artist releases, gives birth, to the work of art, it exists on its own merits.

I have been thinking about this separation of art from the artist for over a half of a century. Certainly the genesis of a work of art exists in the mind of the artist and its execution is by the hand of the artist. However, once it’s done, it stands on its own. Anonymous art works are no less valuable those by a known artist. Art works by a scoundrel, Caravaggio, are no less valuable than those by a saint, Fra Angelico. The history of art is filled with very good art done by very bad people.

Valuable is a funny concept in regard to works of visual art. Is a Gauguin worth hundreds of millions of dollars? No, it isn’t, it is priceless and if priceless, then it is also valueless. The worth of a painting comes when it is seen by a viewer. There is something obscene about the current art market with its ever increasing prices at auctions for art works both good and bad. Of course, art has always been a hobby horse for the rich. People without taste trying to prove otherwise are nothing new, but we appear to have reached a new high (or is that low?) in money chasing art. That is too simplistic as many high end art purchases are investments pure and simple. Investment in art has outstripped other investments many times over. It’s simply buying and selling art like pork bellies only more profitable.

What’s to be gained by the forces of triumphal commodity capitalism in having someone like me go into a museum and look at a painting. Where is the money in that? Actually, the price of looking has gone up since I was young with most art museums requiring hefty admission fees plus even more money for so-called ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions. I’ve been to exhibitions recently that ended up costing thirty-five bucks to join the herds in a jam-packed gallery. Lucky me, I have a press card that gets me in free and often to private views of exhibitions, but as a child and young man art museums were generally free. My grandfather would take me to San Francisco’s deYoung and Legion of Honor from about the time I was ten. It was there that I fell in love with paintings. As a teenager, I lived in England and went to public art galleries and museums there and in Paris. Later, as an art student, I went to museums in San Francisco and New York. All without paying a cent.

You are the product of your experiences and I doubt if my life would have followed the course it did had I not gone repeatedly to museums when I was young. It is interesting that fifty years ago, and more, the galleries were often quite empty and I had whole rooms to myself. It’s a paradox that even with high admission charges the museums are more crowded now than then. This seemingly blows my theory that museums are more elitist now, but it’s who doesn’t go rather than who does that matters regardless of the attendance figures that is important. What is more, those that should, don’t and their numbers are increasing. Yes, museums have free days and school tours, but it begs the point that museums are seen by many as elite. That’s a shame.

meaning_meaningWhat drives people to become artists? Why did Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, the young artist in question, want to be an artist and not a plumber? Even then a plumber would make a better living than a poet, but a poet’s life was a whole lot better than a plumber’s at least in Stephen’s eyes. Joyce’s hero wanted romance; to be a romantic. I think romance is still a good idea a century after Joyce’s book. Certainly, art offered me a way out boredom and on to a path that I hoped would end in adventure. When I was twenty, I didn’t think of making a living or about saving for a pension plan. I wanted to be an art hero and that’s why I read Portrait of the Artist. If Stephen could do it, I reasoned, so could I. I don’t think I ever became the hero I wanted to be, but my life has been filled with wonders and it wasn’t boring. I’m slowing down a bit now. It is the winter of my life, however, I’m hoping for a couple more springs before the curtain drops.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Monday, February 23, 2015.

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Dead White Male Philosophers

January 29, 2015

I had a second look at the image that accompanied my last post which was a page out of the Modern Library’s edition of the Philosophies of Art and Beauty edited, in 1964, by Hofstadter and Kuhns from their chapter on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics concerning what is art. I find what Aristotle had to say about art still holds water. It was written sometime before 322 BC or, to be politically correct, BCE; a long time ago. I first read this text in 1966, forty-nine years ago. I’m not sure which came first, the high-lined or underlined text or why I did either. It’s likely that I underlined the text while I was using the book in a course on art theory I took from Albert Elsen in 1966 at Indiana University while at graduate school and the high-lining was when I used the book as a text in my own course on art criticism that I taught many times during my teaching career. But that’s beside the point. What is important is what Aristotle had to say around two thousand four hundred years ago and how our understanding of the problems of art remains pretty much the same. So much for progress.

Aristotle tells us that all is art: “…whose origin is in the maker and not the thing made; for art is concerned neither with things that are, or come into being, by necessity, nor with things that are so in accordance with nature…” Makes sense to me. You can’t really have art without the artist. Of course, once you have a work of art, it can pretty much stand on its own without the artist. It’s a chicken and egg thing. The big deal is the idea. Mind you, this is where Plato and Aristotle part company. Is the idea in God’s hands or the artist’s mind? I’ll stick with the artist, thank you very much, and leave God wherever he, she, or it may reside. I really don’t believe that art is several times removed from the ideal. I don’t like the idea (Plato’s in The Republic) of art, and the artist, coming in third place after the idea of a bed.  Art is it’s own thing and certainly not an imitation of the real. And art can be an improvement over nature.

Ideas, even good ideas, are, of course, a dime a dozen or twelve cents Canadian and good ideas that result in good art are rarer still. In Metaphysics, Book IX, 25, Aristotle states the obvious: “…for he who does a thing well must also do it, but he who does it merely need not also do it well.” Therein lies my problem; most of my good ideas, intentions, have gone undone. Which leads up to the last sentence on the illustrated page from his Nicomachean Ethics: “Art, then, as has been said, is a state concerned with the making, involving a true course of reasoning, and lack of art on the contrary is a state concerned with making, involving a false course of reasoning; both are concerned with the variable.” Ah, the variable, but that’s the subject of another whole post. I’ll stick for the moment with the ‘making’.

plato

Aristotle also states in his Nicomachean Ethics, this time in Book II, that: “…we often say of good works of art that it is not possible either to take away or to add anything, implying that excess and defect destroy the goodness of works of art, while the mean preserves it; and good artists, as we say, look to this in their work.” Yes, too much is too much and too little is too little. What is needed in a work of art is balance. Finding that balance is the difficult part. In my life drawing classes I often had my students erase as much as they could from what they thought was a finished drawing and still have it hold together. The result was almost always a better drawing. The reverse was telling them that they had a certain amount of time to produce a finished drawing, say ten minutes, and then when the time came, tell them to continue drawing. The result of this exercise was mixed. Sometimes the drawings got better and sometimes worse. Believe it or not, my idea for these exercises did come from my reading of Aristotle. Talk about applied philosophy.

If dead white ancient Greek and Roman male philosophers teach us anything it is that the problems surrounding the making of art have changed very little since the fifth century BCE. We, or at least I, have failed to find any solutions. Yes, times and media have changed. I don’t want to debate here about the sex or race of who makes art; only what it is art and what it is that drives human beings to make it. Whether people picked up sticks and drew animals on a wall or whether they make videos, some do it, or did it, better. They made art. Many thousands of years ago or yesterday doesn’t seem to make a difference. The why and what questions remain. I think that art is more than shadows on the wall. There is something in human nature that gives us the will, as Aristotle thought, to do something well. I just wish that I knew more about that something that does gives us the will to make art. It’s all questions and few answers. Damn.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Tuesday, January 27, 2015.

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Marginalia: Life on the Edges

January 21, 2015

I am attempting to move my library office from the basement of my house to the first floor. It’s not because I’m getting too old to go up and down the stairs, but because I’m returning the office back to what it was, a guest apartment. The challenge is that the guest room upstairs that will become my office is much smaller and already full of books.

Books, you see, are my problem. I have been collecting books for over a half century. They’re easy to come by and very difficult to get rid of. I don’t seem to be able to throw them away. Can I be sure that my copy of Wordperfect for Windows for Dummies won’t come in handy sometime? Actually I’m just dropping that tome into a blue recycling bag as I write this. There it goes. Painful. Now for rest and it’s a lot. Books to the right of me, books to the left of me, books everywhere and the problem is that rest of the house is already full of books.

My friends, who are keen on technology, tell me I don’t need books anymore as everything is available online. Just throw them out, they say, you’ll be a better man for it and, besides, they add, we might be able to find a place to sit down when we visit your house. They might as well tell me that I could do without sex too. Which may be good advice. At my age too much excitement could kill me. Of course, there is the online sex too, but that leaves much to be desired despite the daily stream of young women who have read my Facebook profile and are dying to meet me.

Every book I own, you see, has a story to tell me. It’s not necessarily the content; it’s more about how I acquired the book. Did I buy it, was it a gift or did I borrow it and forget to return it? Yes, I did buy that copy of the Selected Poems of Ezra Pound at City Lights in San Francisco in December of 1965 when I was home for Christmas from studying for my MFA at Indiana University. How about a copy of Cézanne, a tiny Fontana Pocket Library of Great Art edition, that given to me by a certain Mrs. Lund during a trip on a freighter from Hull, in England, to San Francisco in 1954? We had become friends on the month long trip and we talked about art the whole time. I was fifteen and she was in her thirties. I was in love with her and, besides, it among my first books on art. Throw these two out? Not on your life.

Then there’s the copy of Ogden and Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning that I should have returned to the University of Manitoba’s library by December 28, 1971. I’ve yet to finish the book. Some books take longer to read than others. On the subject of marginalia, there’s my copy of the Modern Library edition of the Philosophies of Art and Beauty edited by Hofstadter and Kuhns that I bought in February 1966 for a class in art criticism taught by Albert Elsen at Indiana. I used the book, the same book, to teach a similar course for over thirty years. I couldn’t say the course was as good as Albert’s, and I did keep in touch with him, but it was my best shot. The book is held together with duct tape and every chapter is underlined or marked with a highliner with my ‘brilliant’ remarks on the margins. It’s a history of my teaching career and my friendship with Elsen.

There’s the heavily annotated The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2, also from the 1960s, once owned by my late second wife, Candice. I can’t pick it up without thinking of her. She was a brilliant woman. The book is hardly a page-turner, but I often use the book as reference. Now, it shouldn’t take me all that long to go through the thousand or so books in the basement if I continue at this rate.

Visitors often ask me if I’ve read all the books I own. Actually, I have at least attempted to read them all like the before mentioned The Meaning of Meaning. It’s just that some are easier reads than others. My dog and cat are lending their noses as I go through this hopeless task of culling my library. I think their advice is about as good as I would get from any of my friends. My excuse is that we all need history, if we are going to avoid the mistakes of the past, to paraphrase Santayana, and my books are my history. If I stop reading, stop writing, senility will surely step in the fill the gap or, at least, that’s how I view my race to the end of time, my time.

Let’s see, there are first editions, signed editions, rare books, books by friends and hundreds of exhibition catalogues going back over fifty years. I pity my children trying to make heads or tails of my library after I’ve ‘passed’ to that big archive in the sky. They’ll likely give them to the Sally Ann or throw them away. At least, that’s the advice I would give them. On second thought, why not burn my body on a big stack of books or, better still, throw a match into my library with my body sitting at the desk. It would be a Viking literary funeral—dust to dust, rubbish to rubbish.

aristotle

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Monday, January 19, 2015.

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We are all Charlie or in my Case: I am Mike

January 14, 2015

I was trained by the US Army to be a combat photographer. It was considered to be a very dangerous job. I volunteered. I was seventeen at the time and none too bright. Fortunately, the only time I spent in a combat zone was for sixteen months in Korea in 1957 and 1958. The real war had ended in 1953. I subsequently spent nearly forty years of my life teaching art at university and, in particular, teaching drawing. I was following my post army credo, make love not war with an emphasis on the love. I thought that art would not be a dangerous job for me or my students. The recent events in Paris have proven me wrong.

A former student of mine, Michael de Adder, is one of Canada’s best known political artists. In fact, I’m in the process of organizing a major retrospective of his work at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick for next year. We had spoken, before the shooting in Paris, about cartoons he had drawn that proved too hot to be published and others that when published that got him and his publishers in trouble for being too provocative. These were, of course, the kind of materials that I wanted to include in the exhibition.
Political cartoonists work within a very short time line. They need to know what is going on and what’s going to be of interest to the paper’s readers. They need to be provocative. Who wants boring cartoons. They need to have an opinion. Nothing should be sacred; yet if it’s too far off the wall, then the paper won’t likely publish it. Mike does everything a good political cartoonist ought to do. The one thing he should not have to worry about is getting killed in the process.

by Micheal de Adder (used with permission)

by Micheal de Adder (used with permission)

There’s been a lot of ink spilt in the last little while over the Charlie Hebdo shootings some of it very good and some, too much, lamentable. Salman Rushdie, who does have some real experience with extremism, vented his frustration, during a TV interview, over what he calls the buts. These are the people who say, yes, the events in Paris were terrible, an attack on free speech, blab, blab, but if Hebdo had been more sensitive to people’s feelings, none of this would have happened. This begs the point of what Charlie Hebdo was, and is, a slightly off-kilter, satire magazine. The old Mad magazine or the National Lampoon on steroids. Charlie Hebdo is not in the business of being sensitive. Rushdie said that you are either against an outright attack on freedom or you’re not; there is no middle ground. He is right.

I’m able to avoid what Mike must confront. I’ve told the magazine, that I’m still writing for, that I’m going to only write about exhibitions and subjects that I like. I figure that there’s a lot of bad art and why, at my advanced age, should I get my knickers in a knot venting about stuff I don’t care about. I guess I’m back to my make love stand of the 1960s. Mike, on the other hand, has to deal, on a day to day basis, with a lot of awful stuff and be funny at the same time. People do get offended and write letters to the editor. If they didn’t, Mike would likely be looking for another job. I do know that he believes in what he draws and is passionate about his work.

The danger of an event like the Hebdo shootings is that cartoonists, consciously or sub-consciously, will self censor themselves or be censored by their publishers. It’s easy to understand why. Getting yourself killed over your art is an option to be avoided. The main problem that faces most North American cartoonists is running afoul of the politically correct. This is a quagmire that I am all too aware of after a lifetime in academia. Seldom does a day pass that there isn’t a letter to the editor in the newspapers that I read where someone is offended by an editorial cartoon. Fortunately objections normally stop there and the next day all is forgotten.

Political cartoonists are like the court jesters of old. The jester had the difficult job of telling the king the truth and had to be skillful to keep his head. One assumes that even temperamental kings had a sense of humour or they would have had a hard time finding jesters. The people who murdered the staff at Charlie Hebdo had no sense of humour. Truth often needs humour to make us see the absurdity that surrounds us.

These are dangerous times and we need windows to truth more than ever. I doubt that if I were living in Paris today, that I would have been a regular reader of Charlie Hebdo, and I did briefly live in Paris, but I sure as hell would be buying a copy now. I’m proud that Mike was my student. I might have helped him learn to draw, but his talent, and bravery, are his own. So, I am Mike as well as Je suis Charlie.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Monday, January 12, 2015.

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The Circle Completed

February 19, 2014

This essay was originally published in the book:
Redeemed: Restoring the Lost Fred Ross Mural
UNB Art Centre, University of New Brunswick, 2013.

The recent reanimation of the Fred Ross mural, Destruction of War & Rebuilding the World Through Education, in Fredericton by a group of apprentices and artists, under the supervision of the artist, is not only a homage to the youthful work of Ross, but a reminder of the history of mural painting in Canadian art history. The original mural, now lost, was commissioned in 1946 by the student council of Fredericton High School as a memorial to fellow students who lost their lives in World War II. It took Ross nearly two years to complete the mural which was finally unveiled in May 1948. This was the very young artist’s second mural, he was born in 1927; the first was Annual School Picnic completed in 1946 at the Saint John Vocational School when he was still a student.

If there was ever a child prodigy in Canadian art it would be Fred Ross whose talents were recognised early on by the Saint John art community, in particular by Ted Campbell who was to become his teacher at the Vocational School, his mentor and lifelong friend. Other important influences were, of course, Miller Brittain and Jack Humphrey. The City of Saint John plays a pivotal role in the story of the Fredericton High School mural and the other four major murals that Ross completed between 1946 and 1954.

During the first half of the twentieth century, Saint John, and the rest of the Maritimes, sat in splendid isolation from the history of Modern Art, indeed; most of Canada was out of pace of what was going on in Europe. I would go venture to say that the art in the Maritimes was even far removed from the rest of Canada. This isolation was perhaps not a bad thing, unless you were an artist trying to make a living here, as it made us unique. There were at the time two places to study art in New Brunswick: Mount Allison University, whose degree programme did not start until 1938, but had been teaching art in one form or another since the mid 1800s, and Saint John Vocational School which started in the 1920s. The Owens Art Gallery at Mount Allison showed art, their mixed bag collection, and there was a small collection of art at the New Brunswick Museum, but there was no opportunity to see major art works; this was the world that Fred Ross, with all his natural talents, was born into.

The big elephant in the room when Ross was coming of age was the Depression. This was to affect the very nature of art in Canada and its history of mural painting. New Brunswick had always been, and remains, a difficult place to live. The Depression made it worse. Certainly New Brunswick felt the Depression in a large way and its artists were no exception. Canada had no WPA (Works Project Administration) with its New Deal Art Projects programmes for its artists which was the case with their American counterparts. Frankklin D. Rossevelt spent his way out of the Depression and that included spending money on the arts to promote his vision of a ‘New Deal’ for Americans. That did not happen in Canada where both Prime Minsters Mackenzie King and R.B. Bennett and their respective governments preferred a course of austerity. The enviable results for the arts was that they flourished in the United States as they never did before and possibly never repeated, while in Canada the arts languished along with the rest of the economy. What pulled this country out of the Depression was the war, but even that did little for the arts.

Saint John artists like Brittain, Humphrey and Campbell did, however, mirror their American counterparts with their subject matter of the despair of the Depression’s working class people. This was a time of class warfare–left versus right. Many artists, in both countries, embraced far left, anti-Fascist politics that included in some cases becoming Communists. Visual artists wanted to find a way to use their art to fight Fascism and Capitalism and this led them to murals as a public forum to educate society. Where they found models was Mexico where murals had become the chief source of a new strong public art under the leadership of artists Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 20.11.57Diego Rivera was particularly important as he was invited to the USA to both teach and paint a number of murals. As well, a number of American and Canadian artists travelled to Mexico to study mural painting. Indeed, Fred Ross went twice to Mexico to study, but that was just after Destruction of War & Rebuilding the World Through Education was completed. Ross, and his teacher Ted Campbell, were certainly well aware of what was going on in Mexico at the time of the Fredericton High School commission. The golden age of American WPA mural (1933-1943) was over, but there were many books and reproductions of Mexican and American mural art that the young artist could, and did, see during the mid 1940s. These and his teacher’s urgings were to serve as his model for the mural Fredericton High School.

There are many antecedents for Destruction of War & Rebuilding the World Through Education, but this mural was a powerful accomplishment by a young artist with so little under his belt at the time. Murals, or in a broader context, wall painting, go back to the very beginnings of art. The paintings on the wall of caves in Altamira and Lascaux are as early as you can get; Egyptian tomb art; Roman wall painting and, most important to Ross, European religious frescoes from the Middle ages through the Renaissance in particular those from Italy like Giotto, Cimabue, Cavallini, Duccio and Masaccio. The mission of all of this art, as it was with the Mexican murals, was to tell a story generally to a broad, and sometimes illiterate, audience. Much of these works were large in scale as their stories were large and meant to impress.

Ross’s audience was, of course, not illiterate, but the work was intended as a memorial to the fallen and as an example what was possible, because of their sacrifice, of a new world made possible through education. These goals were a tall order for a young inexperienced artist. The model he uses is a diptych of contrasting themes, in his case war and peace. The result is a secular version of what would have at one time been a religious work. The models I have in mind are from religious art like Rogier van der Weyden’s Last Judgement were of Heaven and Hell. Ross’s follows the general pattern of early church iconography with Hell, war, on the left panel and Heaven, peace, on the right panel. Besides the idea that left usually stands for bad and right for good such a placement also makes visual sense as well as we normally scan works of art from left to right. As well, it does make sense to look at the left panel first and then go on to the right–from what is bad to what is better. The images in the two panel viewed as pair form a triangle or pyramid that leads our eyes upward which again follows religious conventions–upwards towards the Godhead and, in any case, the top half of a composition is a stronger area. In their original placement the paintings were high on a wall which also forced the viewer to look upward.

The images on the panels mirror one another which is a strong visual device. The figures are drawn with very strong outlines which are more linear than painterly and strongly relate to the cartoons for the murals. The full scale cartoons survive and are in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. There are also smaller scale surviving drawings all which were a great help in the recreation of the murals. While I have written about the early religious models for Destruction of War & Rebuilding the World Through Education the most obvious precedences are the Mexican murals of the Rivera school. The Mexican murals, and those Rivera did in the US, were meant to impress and impress they did not only in their scale, but in the boldness of their subject matter and political content. While some of today’s postmodern art does reflect social concerns they are often presented in ways, and places, that are remote from the general public’s understanding and gaze. The mural art of the thirties and forties, and in Ross’s case, the early fifties was meant to be in your face and clearly understood by all who saw it–in short, a populist art. There is a long social history of art that was meant to be art in the service of the people. As an art student in the fifties and early sixties, I was an avid reader of Arnold Hauser’s epic multi-volume The Social History of Art and firmly believed that art could, and should, be a tool of social revolution. The muralists certainly thought this and I am sure that the youthful Ross did so as well, but alas both of us are older now and far away from the bloom of young ideals.

Oddly, the uniting factor between Ross’s two panels is the mushroom cloud of an atomic explosion that appears in the top facing corners. On the right panel is the bomb that was the result of world war and, on the left panel, it is the threat to world peace. The atomic age rested heavy on the public psyche of the late 1940s. Death it appeared was just the push of a doomsday button away, but in Ross’s vision perhaps this could be avoided by the lessons of education. Panels in the Gothic period promised eternal damnation on Judgement Day unless one had lead a good Christian life. Ross’s mural, like the Gothic models, is a moral lesson that if ignored promise a bad end.

Not all murals of the American WPA period and those of Ross were left wing polemics. Ross’s first mural from 1946, Annual School Picnic, was an innocent image of a happy event. A seminal figure in the development of mural painting in Canada was the American regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton, a teacher of Jackson Pollock and certainly not a left wing figure. He gave a keynote address at the 1941 Kingston Conference on the arts where he spoke of the importance of murals and their role in public education. Several Saint John artists, including Ted Campbell, were at the meeting where Benton’s message was enthusiastically received. Public art was seen by many artists at the time as a method of bringing art directly to the people in a way that was available to everyone.

There is the question of when public art becomes propaganda, but that all depends on one’s viewpoint just as myth can be viewed as someone else’s religion, propaganda can be seen someone else’s politics. In the best of worlds, public art mirrors the artist’s personal beliefs rather than those of the state or who was paying for the funding of the work. It should be noted that some of the very best religious mural art of the past was done by artists on direct commissions from the church and we know very little of the artists’s personal ideas. For instance, we know little of what an artist like Jan van Eyck thought about religion, but The Ghent Altarpiece (1432) is a masterpiece of the first rank on the subject. So quality art is possible in spite of what an artist believes.

Another factor, and this is the case with Ross’s Destruction of War & Rebuilding the World Through Education, is that artists as they mature can change both their minds and direction. This mural is a youthful work of the artist who was very much under the direction of his teacher and symbolic of the time when it was painted. Ross’s mature works are more classical in nature, more painterly and limited to traditional easel painting. Those things aside, I believe that this lost work, now reanimated, is very important in an understanding the artist’s development. Clearly Ross has always followed his own vision wherever it has taken him. He has avoided the trends of contemporary art be they abstraction or post modernism. He has stuck to realism and craftsmanship through thick and thin. He has remained in Saint John when the centre of Canada’s art universes are elsewhere.

Has the world been rebuilt through education since 1945 and the end of World War II? One would like to think so, but looking around us some nearly seventy years on there are serious reasons to doubt such a rosy conclusion. One thing is certain: the destruction of war is still with us. Fred Ross’s 1948 mural Destruction of War & Rebuilding the World Through Education in its new manifestation is a symbol of hope and a reminder that art, and artists, have something to say and, in this case, a way of doing it. It was a unique project, to my knowledge of a type not, to my knowledge, done before where a living senior artist witnessed and supervised a reanimation of one of his youthful works.

There is hope that the reanimated Destruction of War & Rebuilding the World Through Education in its new home in the Richard Currie Centre at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton will serve the same purpose the original did at Fredericton High School and which is to remind students, and, indeed, all of us, that while the world is a messy place, that there is hope through both sacrifice and education.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Tuesday, 20 August, 2013.