Archive for the ‘Virgil’s Thoughts’ Category

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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.

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Across the River and Into the Trees

February 12, 2014

Landscape and Northern Myth
[This is the text of a talk that I gave, and was published, in Finland in 1998.]

“This task demands a new type of artist; one who divests himself of the velvet coat and flowing tie of his caste, puts on the outfit of the bushwhacker and prospector; closes with his environment; paddles, portages and makes camp; sleeps in the out-of-doors under the stars; climbs mountains within his sketch box on his back.” – Fred Housser

Northern countries such as Canada, Finland and other Scandinavian countries share something besides long cold winters. We rely on our image of the landscape as one way to define us as nations. In Canada, a vast majority of the population is urban and the contact of the people, if any, with the wilderness is limited to vacations and time in their ‘cottages’. Yet, the idée fixe remains in the minds of many Canadians of a constant battle against the savage elements for survival. The late Northrop Fry, Canada’s best known literary and cultural critic, spoke of “…the vast hinterland of the north, with its sense of mystery and of fear of the unknown, and the curious guilt feelings that its uninhabited loneliness seems to inspire in this exploiting age.” Throughout its history Canada’s artists have explored and amplified our uneasy relationship with nature with their portrayal of the landscape and help shape our identity as a people.

Eight years ago I gave a lecture titled The Landscape as Metaphor in Canadian Art in several European cities. In the interim I have thought more about this subject of landscape and its impact on who and what we are. This kind invitation to Finland has given me the opportunity to focus my thoughts. Besides our common bond as northern people we, Canadians and Finns, share the idea that our national identities can be witnessed through how we see our respective landscapes reflected by the work of some of our most respected artists. I am speaking particularly of our artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when cultural nationalism was a very important issue in both of our countries.

I cannot speak with authority if national identity is still a burning issue in Finland. This I hope to learn during my visit. I know that nationalism was an issue while you were under the thumb of Russia and before that Sweden. I can assure you that national identity is still an issue in my country although there many artists in present day Canada who see themselves as internationalists and would view using art as a weapon of cultural identity with suspicion. There is one advantage that you have and that is your unique language. The English language that we in English Canada share with the rest of the world, and in particular with the United States, is a large part of our problem of sustaining a unique identity and the French of French Canada is little better off except that their language gives them a sense of difference within North America.

We started our history as a nation as the physical colony of both Great Britain and France and, in some ways, today we are both the economic and cultural colony of the United States. The most powerful nation in the world with ten times our population is our nearest neighbor. We share, at least in English Canada, a common language. We are totally engulfed by their media–in print, in film and in television. Yet there are those, and I count myself among them, who would like to separate ourselves from the American juggernaut.

This takes some explaining as I am a dual citizen of the two countries–American by birth and Canadian by choice. I moved to Canada over thirty years ago because I thought there was a difference. What Canadians want from their country it is a sense of law, order and good government. This is very different from the American idea of rugged individualism, expansionism and Manifest Dynasty. The province of Canada where I live, New Brunswick, was chiefly settled by people who were called Loyalists. These were people who fled the United States during its revolution because they remained loyal to the Crown; obviously not revolutionaries, they were staunch conservatives. Conservatism is not in itself a bad thing assuming that there is something to conserve. For the Loyalists it was King and Country.

The American Revolution, like any war, tends to be seen through the eyes of the victor, the revolutionaries, rather than with the losers, the loyalists. This is even the way that it is seen today by many Canadians through American media where their revolution is continually portrayed in American television on our screens as a righteous struggle against the tyranny of monarchy. What I find interesting is that, to my mind, Canada, in spite of its royalists roots, is a more socialist and caring country than the United States. This is because Canada is, and was, a more paternalistic country. I am using paternalism here in a positive way. It simply means that government sees that it has an obligation to care for all its citizens. One example, although there are others, will suffice. Canada has universal medical care supported through its tax system. The United States does not. In truth, our system of a caring government is eroding , as are similar social democratic governments, in a head long rush into the so-called global economy. This is why this question of identity is so important. Either we find and protect who we are or we run the danger of becoming like everyone else whatever that may be.

Why is the landscape a powerful metaphor for the Canadian psyche? Are Canadians victims of their own myth of their understanding of the power of nature? British born, American historian, Simon Schama, says, and he is correct, that: “Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock” Myth has always been a strong force in the way that a country envisions itself. It has certainly been a help to the Americans who see in the myth of their ‘Old West’ an allegory of what they hold to be sacred American values, and to the French who enshrine the myth that France is the centre of the cultural universe. There are times when a myth that a nation believes about itself, such as Nazi Germany’s belief in Aryan supremacy, can lead to catastrophe. Canada’s myths pales beside these three examples probably because we, as a nation, do not have the political power to export our mythology to other countries. Canada has not been, and very likely will never be, a colonialist power; indeed, our history is one of being a colony. It is interesting that in the major myths of the United State, France and Nazi Germany it is the people who act on, and control, ‘nature’ and in the case of Canada’s dominant myth, it is nature that controls the people. These contrasting myths are a perfect metaphor for colonialists and the colonised. Canadian art is in awe of nature, not its conqueror.

What is it to feel Canadian? Frye says it: “…was to feel part of no-man’s land with huge rivers, lakes, and islands that few Canadians had ever seen.” And “In the Canadas (Upper and Lower), even in the Maritimes, the frontier was all around one, a part and a condition of one’s whole imaginative being.” This description of early Canadians was true at the time and in some ways is still true. One does not have to go far outside of Canada’s largest cities to find wilderness. Vast areas of our country are sparsely populated or even totally unpopulated. Yet, it is not an easy landscape and besides its obvious beauty it can kill you. But our landscape expresses what we are, or think we are, even if we live in large cities such as Montreal or Toronto.

For the purposes of this paper I will limit myself to the first thirty years of this century and to the work of the Group of Seven. The artists in the Group of Seven are synonymous with the issue of Canadian nationalism and there is a direct connection with Scandinavia art from the late 19th and early 20th century. The Seven were Franklin H. Carmichael, Lawren S. Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Fraz Johnson, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and Frederick Varley. By all rights the Seven should have been the Eight, but Tom Thomson, who was the prototype of the heroic Canadian landscape painter died in 1917 three years before the Group was officially founded in 1920. Actually before the time the Group disbanded in 1930, and became, three years later, the Canadian Group of Painters, they had already added A.J. Casson, L.L. FitzGerald and Edwin Holgate to their number. It wasn’t that members of the Group could not count, but that the very name Group of Seven had come to mean Canadian nationalism; it was already iconic and any change of name would have been unthinkable.

Forest Undergrowth by Tom Thomson 1915-1916

Forest Undergrowth by Tom Thomson 1915-1916

The artists of the Seven were certainly not the first artists to notice and paint the grandeur of the Canada landscape. 19th century artists William Brymner, William Cresswell, John Fraser and Lucius O’Brien to name just four did a credible and workman like job of painting Canada, however, they did so in a European manner. This was not surprising as our early artists were either trained in Europe or by artists who were trained there. The only difference in their pictures from that of European landscape paintings was their exotic location. The Rockies rather than the Alps. The landscape painting done in the second half of the 19th century in Canada were almost without exception very conservative. Movements such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism went without notice in Canada even if some of our artists had trained in Paris while these movements were in vogue. Our artists stuck to places like the Académie Julian when perhaps they would have been better off hanging out with Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge.

The membership of the original Group of Seven was neither homogeneous in training or country of birth. Leaving aside, the Canadian born, and largely self-taught Thomson, three, Lismer, MacDonald and Varley were born in England and the others in Canada. Lismer and Varley studied at the Sheffield School of Art in England and later at the Antwerp Academy of Art. Carmichael, who studied in Canada, also ended up at the Antwerp Academy. Jackson studied in Canada, the United States and France, Johnson in Canada and the United States. Harris in Munich and Berlin. MacDonald, although born in England, did all his studying in Canada. What they did have in common was a love of nature as a subject for their art. Several of them worked prior to World War One, by necessity, at the same Toronto commercial art firm, Grip Studios. The exception was the independently wealthy Lawren Harris who became identified as a leader and spokesman for the Group. He also, with non-artist Dr. James MacCallum, a Toronto ophthalmologist, bankrolled the early development of the Group.

Canada prior to 1914 was regarded as an far off outpost of the British Empire. Our Governors General, the Head of the Canadian State, were all British born and our laws ratified by the British parliament, but there were plenty of Canadians, including the band of artists who were to become the Group of Seven, who were anxious to see a country that they could call their own. Harris returned from Germany to Canada in 1910 and shortly thereafter, in 1911, saw an exhibition of work by J.E.H. MacDonald and was immediately drawn to the older artist’s images of rural Ontario. The two started working together and MacDonald introduced Harris to his colleagues at the ‘Grip’. This was the informal genesis of the Group of Seven.

From their very beginnings the Group of Seven saw themselves as populists and not as an avant-garde. Art historian Dennis Reid, who curated the 50th anniversary exhibition of the Group states: ” They saw their role as more fundamental, and at the same time more general, one of a profound aesthetic involvement of a large number of people.” He continues: ” …What was needed, they felt, was a direct and unaffected mode of painting derived from an experience of the Canadian land that all Canadians, if they would only look about themselves, would have to acknowledge as being true and worthwhile.” It is very important to understand these facts in order to place the Group not only in art history, but in the cultural history of Canada as well; the latter is far more important than the former because their efforts to forge a unique Canadian identity far outweigh their contributions to the history of art.

The Group needed a model for their nationalistic art and they found it in an exhibition in January of 1913 as Harris recalled in 1954: “MacDonald and I had discussed the possibility of an art expression which would embody the varied moods, character and spirit of this country (Canada). We heard there was an exhibition of modern Scandinavian paintings at the Albright (Knox) Gallery in Buffalo–and took the train to Buffalo to see it. This turned out to be one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences either of us had. Here was a large number of paintings that corroborated our ideas. Here were paintings of Northern lands created in the spirit of those lands and through the hearts and minds of those who knew and loved them. Here was an art bold, vigorous and uncompromising, embodying direct first hand experience of the great North, and our conviction was reinforced…From that time on we knew we were at the beginnings of a great adventure.”

Another thing that appealed to Harris and MacDonald was, as recalled by MacDonald in 1931, that the Scandinavian art in the exhibition was not fashionable or ‘Parisian’ and an art that could be “…understood and enjoyed without metaphysics”. This certainly can be seen as a reaction against modern art, but the Group wanted to create, and maintain, an art accessible to all Canadians and they believed that avant-garde art was not able to do that. It was also widely believed as late as the 1930s by the Group, and their supporters, that “…abstraction is not a natural form of art expression in Canada”. It is interesting to note, in spite of these strong statements, that Lawren Harris went on to become an excellent abstract painter.

Cathedral Mountain by J.E.H. MacDonald , 1927

Cathedral Mountain by J.E.H. MacDonald , 1927

There are pluses and minuses to the whole question of nationalism and art. On one level nationalistic art is propaganda , pure and simple, however, it can also echo the legitimate feelings of a society for their nation. The question is how do we navigate between theses two poles? The Nazis put a nasty twist on Nordic nationalism and art with their motto of Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil) which was equated with racial purity. What was good and true about the German character, according to the Nazis, came from the myths of the German woodlands and mountains. Nature was powerful and so were the German people. Hitler had his Eagle’s Nest, Göring was the great hunter. Nazi painters’ landscapes were settings for German heroes. Simon Schama points out in Landscape and Memory that , strangely, German Green politics, now firmly to the Left, have their roots in the Nazi period. Nazis practised what Schama calls ‘deep ecology’ setting aside vast areas of forest as nature reserves. They maintained these reserves all through World War Two even if it took manpower from the war effort.

The Finns, however, envisioned their forests and mountains in a different way. Their artists used these motifs as part of the path to the independence of their country. The rallying cry of many Finns in the 19th century was: “We are no longer Swedes, and we don’t want to be Russians–so let us be Finns.” However, when Harris and MacDonald saw the exhibition of Scandinavian art in Buffalo in 1913, Finnish art was excluded as Finland was still part of Russia. Full independence did not come until 1917. Nevertheless, Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Pekka Halonen were two Finnish artists who did influence the Group of Seven through both reproductions of their work and the influence these two artists had on other Scandinavian artists that were in the exhibition.

I should emphasise that only Harris and MacDonald actually saw works by Scandinavian artists and this raises the question of the direct influence of Scandinavian art on the Group. There is no question that Harris was the moving force of the Group not only financially, but spiritually as well. MacDonald was also a powerful voice within the group. Nor is there any doubt that these two artists viewed the 1913 exhibition as a seminal event in the formation of the mind set of the Group as witnessed by their public statements throughout their lives. Harris and MacDonald forcefully brought back the message of the exhibition to their colleagues in Toronto. The message was simply that Scandinavian artists, and their concerns, had many things in common with what the Canadian artists were already thinking about. Harris and MacDonald ‘shuffled off to Buffalo’ with a mission in mind. They already knew what they might find. They wanted to confirm with their own eyes what they already knew which was that Canada had a cultural kinship with Scandinavia.

The artists of the Group were not working in a vacuum–many had trained in Europe, they read art magazines, in particular, the British publication the Studio which regularly published photographs of recent European art including that from Scandinavian and Finland and, most important, they talked to each other about what they were trying to do as a collective. Nasgaard writes, in his essay in The Mystic North, about a belated synchrony between what happened in Canada, with the Group, and what had happened in Northern Europe a couple of decades earlier. The situation in Scandinavia, and in Finland in particular and to a lesser degree in Sweden, was similar to that in Canada. Groups of artists each country wanted to use their art as part of the process of establishing a national identity. The American thinker, Morse Peckham, uses the interesting term cultural convergence to explain phenomenon of this sort that where there are similar problems it is not unusual for people to find similar solutions. In this case we have cultures that are all trying to find an identity and share a similar environment or landscape. Artists in Scandinavia and Canada saw what they thought made their societies unique in their common rugged northern landscapes.

The Group, and their Northern European counterparts, were, by and large, Neo-Romantics in an age that had seen Romanticism already dead in much of the rest of the world. It is important to understand that the artists in the Group did not believe in art for art’s sake, but were trying to produce an art for the lay public. Through their art they hoped to bring a sense of nationalistic pride to all Canadians. Their timing was impeccable. Canada, many believe, came of age as an independent country in a single defining event of fifteen minutes duration on the 9th of April 1917 during World War One when Canadian troops, under Canadian command took Vimy Ridge. We would no longer simply be a colony of Great Britain, but country of our own traditions and our own future. The Group wanted to be part of that future.

Northrop Frye said of Lawren Harris, that the artist was: “…the bridge between the artist and his society. He is missionary as well as explorer: not a missionary who wants to destroy all faith that differs from his own, but a missionary who wants to make his own faith real to others.” Bridging is a good simile for what the entire Group was trying to do with their art. The foreword to a catalogue to a 1914 of second annual exhibition of small pictures by the Group stated: “What made it succeed (the first exhibition of small pictures in 1913) was that it fulfilled just what was promised, viz., to provide an opportunity for Canadian people to see Canadian pictures suitable for their home.”

From fairly early on the Group was successful both critically and financially. They built their own myth, however, that they were not well received by the critics and the elite of society, but this does not hold up to the light of truth as Dennis Reid has conclusively proven in his text for the 1970 exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada of the Group’s. They were championed long before 1920 by the then director of the National Gallery, Eric Brown, who regularly bought their pictures for the national collection; their first exhibition as the Group of Seven was at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario); the Province of Ontario was a regular purchaser of their works; they were generally received quite well by the press; their work was collected by the cream of Toronto society if for no other reason the social connections that Harris maintained. It does make a better story if the Group portray themselves as fighting the establishment. In truth, they did take on the Royal Canadian Academy (of which many of them were members) and soundly defeated it and , by 1930, the Group had become the artistic establishment.

This is where the waters become muddy. Today’s revolutionaries are often tomorrow’s reactionaries. This has been a repeated theme throughout history. However, the Group of Seven needs to be viewed in a somewhat different light. Much depends on how one regards the idea of progress in art and what one believes to be the mission of art is in society. If you believe that there is a linear progress in the history of art then the Group fails on nearly all counts. The Group was not from its outset avant-garde–it was solidly Neo-Romantic with roots in Symbolism and Theosophy all of which were old hat by the time they were taken up by them. If you believe that art has a social role defining the broad society then the Group was a success.

Here is where I admit my own ambiguous feeling towards the Group of Seven. As a young artist and writer I thought them to be totally reactionary and an enemy to all that I held dear. Art had to be on the cutting edge which clearly the Group was not. The cutting edge of what was another question and my ideas were really not as clear cut as I would have liked because, as a young man, I also believed that art had a social role to play. Art was going to bring socialism to the masses, but, on the other hand, I believed that art had to aim high and it was up to the public to figure it out. It took me a while, but eventually I figured out that avant-garde art and the general public were mutually exclusive. I came to the conclusion that art was an elitist activity done by generally poor artists for the rich. I still believe this and it is not even a very original idea as artists have been serving the elite for centuries. I have come to terms with this conclusion and I doubt that anything much can be done to change it.

The Group of Seven thought that they could make a peoples’ art and for that I give them full marks. What is important is they believed, at least at the beginning, in what they were doing. I found the remarks, which I quote at the beginning of this paper, by Group biographer, Fred Housser, about bushwhacking, mountain climbing artists with a backpack on their backs slightly Monty Python like, but if you look at the photographs of the Group of Seven artists in situ the description was apt. Canadian museum director and curator, Joan Murray, in her book the Best of the Group of Seven calls them: “…a grown up boys’ club”, and as for their search for sites for subject matter, “…less like Monet’s constant quest for motif than like the Hardy boys’ adventures.” And this is from someone who likes their work.

There are good reasons why the Group of Seven is not better known outside of Canada. The most obvious reason is that almost all Canada visual art is unknown outside the country because we are out of the mainstream of art history, but you can say the same thing about Finnish art and Finland. A better reason is that viewed in world terms the Group’s paintings are not very original or even what is considered to be by many as being very ‘good’. I have placed the word good in quotation marks because it is a relative term. What is good in art depends on what it is compared with. There were certainly better Post Impressionist, Symbolist, and Neo-Romantic painters than those in the Group and they did their work years before Group did theirs. There is much stock placed in originality–doing something first–in the visual arts and often this is seen as the same thing as being ‘good’. However, they are not the same things, and I believe that the Group produced any number of paintings that I would consider good and a few that were outstanding, in particular, some of the work by Harris and Varley.

A good painting to me means one that is well painted and interesting. The qualities that make a great painting are much harder to define, but good, in a less than perfect world, is good enough to make a difference to me. The terms well painted and interesting are inevitably tied together. I was trained as a painter and by well painted I meant how the artist applied the paint to the canvas. You have to actual see a painting to make this judgement. Reproductions are not sufficient. My appreciation of the painterly qualities in a work of art is generally technical while for a lay person it would be visceral, but none the less valid. The interesting part of a painting is its content or subject matter. I seldom get as far as the content of a painting if I am not first drawn to it by its painterly qualities. Judging a painting from a reproduction is not unlike judging sex from reading about it; satisfying only if you haven’t experienced the real thing.

It must be obvious by now to see that I don’t believe in a linear progress in the history of art. I don’t believe in linear progress in any history nor do I believe in a common history for all of humankind. Such epochs as the Dark Ages do not fit nicely in a linear theory of progress in history. The history of art in the early 20th century ground on at a slower pace in Canada than in Europe in spite of some of our artists knowing what was going on in Europe. Artists in the Group thought that the work of European avant-garde artists was alien from the everyday experiences of common people and they were right, but they were only able to fight a holding action and did not achieve a lasting victory.

The death of Romanticism spelt the end of popular style art. It was replaced by a modern art whose very ethos was to be unpopular if not anti-popular where the romantic artist saw his or her role as the salvation of humankind–a hero–modern artists, on the other hand, more likely sees themselves apart from the concerns of the common people.

The artists of the Group of Seven were Neo-Romantics and they could no more stop modernism’s victory than they could stop the world from spinning. In the end their destiny was not to become art heroes, but to be regarded as curmudgeons and reactionaries who stood in the way of modernism in Canada. This misses the point. They were never part of the mainstream history of art. They were the eyes of a nation who wanted to be unique, who wanted to be Canadians and here they are heroes, Canadian heroes.

23 September 1998 (c) Virgil Hammock, Sackville, NB, Canada, E4L 1G6

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Blue Train on a Red Track

February 5, 2014

This is part one of a two part article on Soviet art that was originally published in 1991 and 1992.

I was looking forward to my second trip to the USSR in less than two years. So in mid-May of 1991, I took a flight from Valencia, Spain to Frankfurt and onward to Moscow. I had just completed several lectures on Canadian art and architecture at the University of Valencia and was looking forward to repeating them in the USSR; as well, I planned to visit artists and critics, see exhibitions, and look into art education in Soviet art schools. I had no idea what had been planned for me prior to my arrival in Moscow. I had been sending letters and telegrams to the Artists’ Union, my hosts, for months trying to work out details, but communication to and from the Soviet Union is difficult at best and usually impossible. All I knew was that I had a visa and that they were expecting me.

As anyone who has been there knows, arriving at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport is always a treat that is only surpassed when leaving the country from the same airport. Passport control features a Frontier Guard–part of the Army–who looks alternately at you and your passport photo for approximately five minutes–I am sure that he has a timer in his booth that tells him when time’s up–hoping to break the clever disguises of the multitude of spies who fly in every day on commercial flights from the West. I am clever enough to pass this tough inspection by giving the guard my Canadian Flag lapel pin which gains me immediate entry into the, now ex, Evil Empire. I hope that the CIA knew this ploy. The next barrier are the entry Duty Free shops where you could top up your goodies such as cigarettes which are a handy substitute for the local currency. This is particularly useful if you ever expect to take a cab in Moscow. Russian cab drivers draw a blank when presented with Lenin-festooned rubles by foreigners; however, they immediately recognize a pack of Winstons and they seem to have a fond place in their hearts for George Washington and Abe Lincoln whose visages they collect with fervour. Next stop is the luggage carousel. It appears that each piece of luggage is lovingly carried from the aircraft to the carousel by a single Russian luggage handler and in a mere hour or so you have your bag. You can get a cart for your luggage, but here is the rub, there’s a guy there wanting one ruble for its use; seeing as it is illegal to bring rubles into the country, there is a problem–shades of Toronto’s new Terminal Three, with its carts for Loonies, but, what the hell, I am happy to see the Russians practising Capitalism and all is not lost: the obliging cart guard will let you have the cart for an American dollar which is only thirty times what one ruble is worth. Last stop is customs. I am lucky enough to be in line behind two returning natives who had several large boxes filled with bolts of cloth and assorted computer hardware. The customs official gleefully unpacks each heavily tied and taped box throwing cloth and other goodies from the West in all directions. When it becomes apparent that this could take a long time, I attempt a successful end run around the custom’s desk. Those involved seem to be having so much fun that they don’t notice my illegal entry.

Soviet_deco_art_metalworkmen

At last, I am in the country! The person sent to meet me at the airport, my translator and guide, Anna Kononow, has no trouble spotting me. We art critics stand out in a crowd at Russian airports–I was the only male westerner on the Frankfurt flight who was not dressed in the official German business uniform of blue blazer, grey slacks, white shirt and tie. Anna and I lug my bags to a waiting cab–it is pouring rain and cold, weather which will continue throughout most of my visit–and we are off to the hotel, the Budapest, a very depressing place. Like many Soviet hotels more than half the light bulbs were out, the hallways were dark, the rooms were dirty and most of the ‘features’ in them don’t work. There is usually a radio with from one to three stations that will either not turn on, or if it is on, you can’t turn it off. Russian television sets have the distressing habit of self-immolation–bursting into flames–whether they are on or off. In February of 1991, a turned off T.V. exploded in a Leningrad hotel and the resulting fire did in a number of tourists. So I always unplug the set in my room when I am not actually using it, but as some large Soviet hotels have hundreds of rooms all with these time bombs installed, I am not sure that my safety precautions really count for much. Each of the two built-in beds in my room at the Budapest tilted downward at an approximately thirty degree angle from level, which meant that I had to figure a way to hold on while I slept if I didn’t want to roll out every time I fell asleep. Fortunately, for me, my room had an extra feature, a very large refrigerator that came on with a loud bang every thirty minutes throughout the night. This saved me from falling out of the bed, but I didn’t get much sleep. The next morning I found a way to unplug the fridge; however, I was only at the Budapest one night.

On our way in from the airport, Anna had told me the plans for my visit. I had thought that I might repeat my last visit and go to the same places: Moscow, Leningrad and Tbilisi as this was the plan that I had discussed with my Soviet friends when they were in Canada in the summer of 1990. However, by the time I arrived in the USSR for the second time, I had misgivings about going to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. Things were already heating up there by the spring of 1991 and I didn’t want to find myself in the middle of a civil war hundreds of miles from Moscow. My hosts seemed to have had the same thought. They now had plans for me to go directly to Leningrad, spend some time there, and then go to Novgorod–which, in Russian means ‘new city’ which is strange, as it turned out to be one of the oldest cities in Russia dating back to the ninth century–and then to Kiev, Ukraine and from there back to Moscow. It seemed like a good way to spend three weeks.

The first day was to be in Moscow and that evening Anna and I were to take the train to Leningrad, The Blue Train. The first thing we had to do, was to change my visa. I had a business visa because I was travelling on my own and not in the usual tourist group. Getting the visa in Canada, in the first place, was difficult enough. One must have an official invitation and one must list each city one plans to visit. It took months to complete the details and I had listed only Moscow, Leningrad and Tbilisi. One must have one’s visa stamped at every place one visits in the USSR; even Soviets must carry internal passports. I should make it clear that bureaucracy such as this, as well as the airport entry and exit antics, were designed as much to limit the Soviet citizens free travel as they were to frustrate tourists. It is still a police state or at least it was in May and June of 1991. So we were off to some government office where Anna did her thing, the first of many, to make my trip a success. Anna knew how to do things and we soon had Kiev and Novgorod added to my visa. If one doesn’t speak Russian one’s chance of getting anything officially done in the USSR is nil; even if one speaks perfect Russian one must know how to do things and have some pull.

One evening in Leningrad, Anna and I had dinner at the Architects’ Union restaurant. A Press Card was needed to get in. We had vodka, some very good Soviet champagne, caviar, two kinds of smoked fish, salad, pork cutlets, dessert and coffee. The total cost in rubles, at the official tourist rate, was well under four Canadian dollars. This, by the way, was one of the more expensive meals I had during my visit. Later, in the same city, we stopped in at a ‘hard’ currency bar, I had a couple of beers, Anna had tea, and we both had a very light snack and it cost me over forty Canadian dollars. This is the difference between being a regular tourist and having some way to deal yourself into the local economy.

Anna was unusual in other ways. She refused to let me spend my dollars to get things ‘done’. She wanted nothing to do with what she, and others, called crime people. This does make things difficult because there is a flourishing black market in the USSR and if you don’t, or can’t, use it, it is not very easy to do anything, in particular, to get a cab if you are a European or North American. All the cabs in front of tourist hotel will only take dollars or cigarettes; it’s all very illegal, but the country is coming apart and everyone, including the police, are on the make for dollars. Graft and corruption is rampant. I had a feeling that I was in the company of a very rapidly decreasing minority–a completely honest person. So, we walked a lot, and took the bus, the trams and the metro. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it gave me a chance to see how real Soviets get around. Public transport is cheap in large Soviet cities, but not as cheap as it was a couple years ago. The fare for all public transport in Moscow, for instance, is 15 kopecks ( 100 kopecks equal one ruble, during the time I was there, approximately twenty-five rubles–at the official tourist rate–equaled one Canadian dollar. The rate is even higher now.); however, for fifty, yes fifty, years before Perestroika, the metro fare was a constant 5 kopecks. To put it in context the average Soviet wage when I was there was between 200 to 350 rubles a month. All prices were fixed in the USSR before Perestroika. Now some prices are fixed and others aren’t, but it doesn’t matter much as you can not buy very much of anything in rubles unless it is with a whole lot of them. A pair of decent shoes can cost 600 rubles, or two months’ wages, on the black market if you can find them at all. It doesn’t do you much good if cigarettes officially cost 80 kopecks if they are nowhere to be found. If anything, the Soviet Union reminded me of South Korea in the mid 50’s, right after the war. I was stationed there as a photographer in the American Army. The local currency, the Won, was worthless and the whole economy moved on US dollars and cigarettes. This made us G.I.’s rich, but the Koreans were wretchedly poor. They, like today’s Soviets, lived in a country where their own currency played second fiddle to the almighty dollar. If you can find a way to live on rubles as a visitor, as I did, in the Soviet Union, a hundred dollars worth, at the official tourist rate, goes a long way. You might not get the standards that you are used to in Western Europe or North America; however, it does give you a clearer picture of how things really are in the Soviet Union than the usual package tours that most tourists endure.

Паровоз_ИС_на_маркеSoviet express trains are one area where no apologies are necessary. The long train rides I took were from Moscow to Leningrad, Leningrad to Kiev, and Kiev to Moscow. They are much better than the poor excuse we have for long distance trains in this country. They are on time, clean, offer good services, have good equipment and are cheap. This might all go down the tubes very quickly with the collapse of the central control by the USSR. I just hope that they don’t get a helping hand from VIA to find a new system for their trains.

The train is the best way to travel from Moscow to Leningrad. It is overnight and is painless. Soviet train stations are another matter. They are dirty, crowded and confusing even if you know what you are doing as my guide did. Don’t even try to buy a ticket on your own. It is hard enough to discover on what track,or at what time, your train leaves. After an uneventful ride, we arrived in time for rush hour in Leningrad. Anna looked in vain for a taxi that would take rubles and finding none, we took the very crowded metro and a trolley bus to our hotel. It appeared to me that nearly every time I got on a bus in the in the Soviet Union the good citizens were trying to break the Guinness Book of Records for the number of people who could fit into a bus. This was particularly fun if you were carrying a month’s worth of baggage as I was.

The hotel, the Helen, where we stayed in Leningrad was the best of my entire trip. This was because it was not a Russian hotel at all, but part of a Finnish chain. Only the Finns would call a hotel Helen. Everything in this hotel worked and it was clean. The bar, however, was filled, as were all hotel ‘hard currency’ bars–there are no ‘soft currency’ bars–, with the before-mentioned `crime people’ and various Western business wheelers and dealers. It was a toss up which group was the most obnoxious, but these bars were the only place to get a cold beer or a stiff drink. I usually needed the cold beer to cool off after a hard day and the stiff drink after a day of minor and major frustrations.
In Leningrad, in addition to meeting artists and seeing art schools, I wanted another chance to see the Hermitage. On my last visit I had very little time to visit this vast museum. I did manage this time to have several hours of intense looking; however, you can spend several lifetimes at this great museum and not absorb everything. The Rembrandts, Titians and their great collection of Impressionism and Post Impressionism alone are worth any inconvenience that a trip to the USSR entails. Unfortunately, most foreign tourists are hustled through the Hermitage in thirty minutes flat. I am worried that with the enormous problems facing Russia, and the rest of what was the USSR, that this great museum will fall on hard times and will not be able to care for its magnificent collection properly. The care of museum collections is not the only problem facing Soviet art. I am disturbed with what has been happening to public sculpture since the failed coup and the total collapse of Communist authority. The iconoclastic fury of the mobs intent on destroying the images of their deservedly hated past is understandable, but they risk destroying legitimate relics of their history in the process. To paraphrase Santayana, people need to be reminded of the lessons of their history if they are going to avoid repeating its mistakes. Stalin wasn’t able to tear down anywhere near all of his country’s churches. Now these buildings are coming alive once again with renewed voices and songs of the Orthodox Church. In Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev there were major exhibitions in state museums on the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920’s and 30’s. The works in these exhibitions had been kept unnoticed in the vaults of the galleries. The people who saved these works are the real ‘heros’ of Soviet Art. Because these works were not ‘deaccessioned’ or worse, today’s Soviets have the opportunity to see these works from their very exciting past. I hope that future generations of Soviets will have the same opportunities to see the art of their Communist past. It will help them to understand what went wrong with the dreams of the Revolution. Much of the past official Socialist Realism, like Nazi Fascist Art, was, despite some technical competence, truly awful, but that is the point and people, all people, not just Soviets, need to be reminded of this fact. It is already too late for much of the public sculpture, but I hope that it is not for the Socialist Realist works that are in public collections.

In Leningrad I saw the annual exhibition of the local Artists’ Union. It was installed in the Blue Gallery of their headquarters that is in a wonderful old Victorian building near the Hermitage. The exhibition, however, was pretty bad by Western art standards, but what do you say in such a situation? I wanted to be constructive because Soviet art needs encouragement rather than smart-assed comparisons to what it is not, but in a show like this one it was difficult to be positive without stretching reality. The quality of much of the work reminded me of the kind of thing that you might see in exhibitions of local amateur art associations in Canada. Most of these Leningrad artists appeared to have either been cut off from recent art history outside of their country or to have been so thoroughly indoctrinated by Marxist-Leninist art dogma that they can’t find their way out. This is not to say that they are not trying and that many of them know that something is dreadfully wrong with their art. Of course, the art in this particular exhibition was not necessarily on the cutting edge of Leningrad art; there is ‘good’ art in Leningrad, but it wasn’t much in evidence at this show.

Most of the work was for sale, but it wasn’t moving. In the new free market Soviet Union, people are not buying art. It is not because they are not interested–there were many people looking at the show–but the average educated `middle’ class Soviet has little disposable income for art or other luxuries. The ‘crime people’ and their ilk aren’t into collecting art either. They prefer to put their hard earned cash into symbols of western culture like high cut basketball shoes, and big league team sports jackets with matching baseball caps; however, these born-again capitalists of the black market and prostitution certainly cut fine figures at all the best eating and watering holes in the major Soviet cities. These are hard times for the vast majority of all Soviet artists and it is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

In the remaining time I had in Leningrad, I visited the Repin Art Institute, which is the Leningrad Academy of Fine Arts, and the studios of a few senior artists. Art education in the Soviet Union is too complex an issue to cover in this article. Suffice it to say that all education in the Soviet Union is undergoing a painful transition and art education is no exception. Most artists I spoke to thought that the likelihood of real changes in the art education system are about as possible as the veritable leopard changing its spots as long as the existing faculty and administrations stay in place, which presently is the case.

Leningrad senior sculptor, Anatoly Kisselev, was typical of many of the older artists I met who were truly confused by the events that had overtaken them. He had been working for well over thirty years as a successful artist when everything he took for granted changed. He was a fine craftsman who had worked his way up through the system. His chief, and for all intents, only, customer was the state. The State took care of his needs and he supplied its needs. His work is placed in villages and cities throughout the Soviet Union. Anatoly was no party hack; his work, for what it is, is very good. Like many Soviet artists, he had become slightly schizoid with his work, doing, as he said: “One for myself and one for something to eat.” I saw photos, and a large maquette, of a very interesting, and unusual for the time, 18 metre high abstract sculpture commission that he completed in 1972 for a war memorial at a site near the Black Sea. Now, however, there is no work for monumental sculptors, like Anatoly, whatever their talent. Perhaps, if Russia, and the rest of what was the USSR, ever gets back on its feet, public sculptors will be put back to work replacing with Capitalist sculpture all of the Communist sculpture that has been torn down by the people, but I doubt it. Capitalism and sculpture have never been such good friends as Communism and sculpture. Until the unlikely event of a rebirth of public art, sculptors, like Anatoly, will have to sit it out or find some other line of work.

The evening train from Leningrad to Novgorod was not in the same class as the other trains I took. It was a local; the trip took three hours, and the rolling stock had seen better days, but it got you from point a to b. We were met at the station, in the rain, by Alexey Komarov, the young curator of art at the Novgorod Museum. He took us to our hotel and met us the next morning, with his wife Yulia, who was also a curator at the museum. We spent three days in this Halifax-sized ancient Russian city which is filled with many churches and a historic kremlin. Kremlin, by the way, is the Russian word for walled city or fortress and there are many in Russia besides the one in Moscow. The Novgorod Museum, which is both a historical and art museum, is located within the city’s kremlin. It was a very interesting museum due in no small measure to the work of Alexey and Yulia. It was clean, well lit and the displays were well planned. This was certainly not the case in many of the art galleries and museums I visited. Novgorod’s collection of historic art was nothing to write home about, but the care in which it was shown made it much more interesting than other displays of much `better’ art at other more famous museums I visited in Russia and Ukraine.

The more contemporary art of Novgorod was interesting as well because it gave me a chance to see art of a more regional nature than that of Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. As might be expected, Novgorod’s contemporary art is generally even more out of step from current trends in the West than the larger centres in the USSR, but it was here that I found paintings by one of the most interesting artists that I have seen in my Soviet travels. Vladimir Ryabov, who was born in the region in 1932 and is largely self-taught as a painter, is a very good artist by any measure you would care to use. His thickly painted still-lifes and portraits had a life and originality that was lacking in most art that I have seen in the USSR. The sad part of this discovery is that Ryabov is very ill with diabetes. He, like most other Soviets, can not get proper medication. He has lost the use of his legs, he can not afford to get a wheel chair, and he can no longer paint. His friends, the museum, all try to help, but to little avail. Ryabov’s tragedy, like so many similar stories, makes me question if the total collapse of the USSR is as wonderful as many in the West think it is. Harsh economic medicine might sound good to the Michael Wilsons of this world, but one wonders if the suffering it brings to real people, like Ryabov, is worth the cost.

It is difficult not to try and make comparisons between the ‘deconstruction’ of the Soviet Union and the attempts to do the same that are currently going on in Canada. The glue that held the USSR together was the power of the Communist Party. Not too long ago, you would have been labelled a fool, or worse, if you had predicted the events that have come to pass in the Soviet Union. Those of us who have had a window into the East over the years, thought that Communism was an idea, however bad, that was going to be around for a long time. How wrong we were. Communism is gone, but it has left a vacuum–a void–into which something far worse could end up in its place. There is no history of democracy in Russia. The line between extreme left wing demagoguery and that of the extreme right wing is very narrow. I am not optimistic about the possibilities of the USSR becoming a mirror image of a western, market driven, democracy. What is happening in the Soviet Union should provide lessons for us in Canada, but I fear that we are too concerned with our own problems to look abroad. There is a kind of Humpty Dumpty effect with the breakdown of nations like the Soviet Union, and, God forbid, Canada; once the egg breaks, it is hard to put it together again. What remains, at best, is a kind of bad omelette.

I will continue my Soviet journey in the next issue with my visits to Kiev and Moscow.

10 November 1991 © VIRGIL HAMMOCK
Sackville, N.B., Canada