Category Archives: Painting

More Chagall

Chagall’s “Birthday,” 1915

Further to Michael’s previous post:

It goes without saying that Frye’s encyclopedic range of interest in and knowledge of the variety of art forms that make up a society’s imaginative culture is remarkable, unmatched by anyone I can think of. A good example is his essay “Literature and the Visual Arts” in CW 18, originally published in Myth and Metaphor. Frye’s wife Helen, of course, had a blossoming career as an art historian before Frye became a going concern and all hell broke loose; doubtless her interests, and of course his interest in Blake, helped to awaken his own affinity for the visual arts.

It is worth mentioning that the Art Gallery of Ontario is hosting an exhibit of Chagall’s work (and some Kandinsky), October to January. You can check it out here.

The AGO, by the way, has had a great new face lift, and is really worth visiting. I caught the New York Abstract/Expressionism (Pollock et al) this spring, and it was a real treat. The new CEO of the gallery, Matthew Teitelbaum, seems to have a magic touch.

Marc Chagall

A beautifully assembled collection of Chagall paintings, with music by Maurice Sklar

Today is Marc Chagall‘s birthday (1887-1985). Maybe one of the gentlest people ever to be a great artist, who was rewarded with an extraordinarily long life.

Frye in a single-paragraph review of The Art of Russia, in Canadian Forum, December 1946:

A very useful collection of black and white reproductions illustrating Russian painting from medieval icons on. It appears from it that after the seventeenth century, Russia become the Eastern colony of European art as America became the Western one, and Russia like America lost the ability to resist cultural invasions at the same time that she gained the ability to resist military ones. All the European fashions in painting seem to have rolled over Russia in waves, most of them dyed with a strong Germanic tinge by the time they arrived. The Revolution helped release a tremendous burst of creative energy, and the art of Lissitsky, Malevich, Chagall, and Kandinsky was the result; but, following a directive of Lenin, this energy was soon gleichgestaltet [forced into conformity] and a rather corny “socialist realism,” supposed to be directed more directly to the masses, took its place. The same development occurred in America under the WPA, where however, a more relaxed policy permitted the growth of more variety. (CW 11, 114)

Salvador Dali


The persistence of memory: Dali in a commercial for Lanvin chocolate. “Je suis fou de chocolat Lanvin!”

Today is Salvador Dali‘s birthday (1904-1989).

From “Men Walking as Trees,” a review of a surrealist exhibition at the CNE in the October 1938 issue of Canadian Forum:

Yet surely, in the balanced mind, the critical consciousness is the interpreter of the symbols produced by the creative imagination, and symbolic art in consequence has to strike a medium between the unintelligible chaos of private associative patterns and the dead conventions imposed by a Philistine religion. For this reason, surrealist art is certain to develop in the direction of more explicit and fundamental symbolism, from which consistent commentaries can be more easily inferred; one thinks of the development of the highbrow classical allegories of the Renaissance, now forgotten, into the art of Botticelli and Mantegna. Revolutionary painting today, at any rate in the hands of such a master as Orozco, depends upon this communal symbolism, and in such a picture as Dali’s Autumnal Cannibalism, deeply felt and universally shared feelings about the autumn as a time both of the maturity and of the dying of the world and its connection with the approaching butchery of the human race, perhaps as a necessary prelude to its rebirth, are what appear on canvas. How far the surrealists can go in their apocalyptic attempt to make the human mind create a new heaven and a new earth [Revelation 21:1], no one can say. But it’s worth trying. (CW 11, 95)

Dali’s Autumnal Cannibalism after the jump.

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Group of Seven

Fred Varley, “Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay”

The Art Gallery of Ontario opened its first exhibition featuring the Group of Seven on this date in 1920.

From “Canadian Scene: Explorers and Observers”:

[T]he primary rhythm of Canadian painting has been a forward-thrusting rhythm, a drive which has its origin in Europe, and is therefore conservative and romantic in feeling, strongly attached to the British connection but “federal” in its attitude to Canada, much possessed by the vision of the national motto, a mari usque ad mare. It starts with the documentary painters who, like Paul Kane, have provided such lively and varied glimpses of so many vanished aspects of the country, especially of Indian life. A second wave began with Tom Thomson, continued through the Group of Seven, and has a British Columbia counterpart in Emily Carr. (The romantic side of the movement is reflected in the name “Group of Seven” itself: there were never really more than six, in fact there were effectively only five, but seven is a sacred number, and the group had a strong theosophical bent.) One notices in these paintings how the perspective is so frequently a twisting and scanning perspective, a canoeman’s eye peering around the corner to see what comes next. Thomson in particular uses the conventions of art nouveau to throw up in front of the canvas a fringe of foreground which is rather blurred, because the eye is meant to look past it. It is a perspective that reminds us how much Canada developed as a passage or gateway to somewhere else, being merely an obstruction in itself. Further, a new world is being discovered. There is an immense difference in feeling between north and south Canada, but as north Canada is practically uninhabited, it exists in Canadian painting only through southern eyes. In those eyes it is a “solemn land” as frightening and fantastic as the moon. (CW 12, 423)

Emily Carr

“Haida Totems”

Today is Emily Carr‘s birthday (1871-1945).

Frye was deeply interested in painting, and as a young reviewer seemed to have little patience for sniffy art criticism.  See, for example, his 1939 Canadian Forum review, “Canadian Art in London,” which begins with an observation so dry that any hint of condescension would be immediately desiccated: “The Canadian Exhibition at the Tate Gallery was opened by a somewhat puzzled Duke of Kent, who said, according to the Times, that Canadian painting was very interesting, and that the really interesting thing about this exhibition was that it gave the English a chance to see this painting” (CW 12, 7).

Frye clearly enjoyed reviewing Canadian artists — not necessarily because he had any sort of patriotic bias, but because (knowing that all of the arts have deep roots in their native environment) he shared with them a Canadian experience that allowed him to see past the imperial prejudices of self-congratulatory more advanced tastes.

Here he is in the Christmas 1948 issue of Canadian Art, “The Pursuit of Form”:

Most painters choose a certain genre of painting, which in Canada is generally landscape, and commit themselves to the genius of that genre.  Their growth as painters is thus a growth in sensitive receptivity.  In comparing early and late work of a typical landscape painter, such as Arthur Lismer, once can see a steady increase in the power of articulating what he sees.  The early work generalizes colour and abstract form; the late work brings out every possible detail of colour contrast and formal relationship with an almost primitive intensity.  Emily Carr seems to go in the opposite direction, from the conventional to the conventionalized, from faithful detail to an equally intense abstraction.  Yet there too the same growth in receptivity has taken place, the same power to express all the pictorial reality that she sees.  (CW 12, 85)

Francis Bacon

“Self Portrait,” 1976

Today is painter Francis Bacon‘s birthday (1909-1992).

Frye in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”:

It is vulgar for the critic to think of literature as a tiny palace of art looking out upon an inconceivably gigantic “life.”  “Life” should be for the critic only the seed-plot of literature, a vast mass of potential literary forms, only a few of which will grow up into the greater world of the verbal universe.  Similar universes exist for all the arts.  “We make to ourselves pictures of facts,” say Wittgenstein, but by pictures he means representative illustrations, which are not pictures.  Pictures as pictures are themselves facts, and exist only in a pictorial universe.  It is easy enough to say that while the stars in their courses may form the subject of a poem, they will remain the stars in their courses, forever outside poetry.  But this is pure regression to the common field of experience, and nothing more; for the more strenuously we try to conceive the stars in their courses in non-literary ways, the more assuredly we shall fall into the idioms and conventions of some other mental universe.  The conception of a constant external reality acts as a kind of censor principle in the arts.  Painting has been much bedevilled by it, and much of the freakishness of modern painting is clearly due to the energy of its revolt against the representational fallacy.  (CW 21, 73-4)

Edgar Degas


“Ballet Dancers on the Stage”

Today is Edgar Degas‘ birthday (1834-1917).

Frye in notebook 31:

Aesthetics seems, as I say, to rest on the fallacy of idealized forms.  We idealize a slender, youthful naked woman’s body & call that beautiful, so when Degas claims for “beauty” a study of haggard ironing women or thick-arsed middle-aged matrons washing their hairy privates, we get horrified.  One of the functions of satire is to break down these external theories of beauty, which at bottom are always theories of property & decorum.  (CW 15, 91)

Frye in The Modern Century, “Improved Binoculars”:

Impressionism portrays, not a separated objective world that man contemplates, but a world of power and force and movement which is in man also, and emerges in the consciousness of the painter.  Monet painting Rouen cathedral in every aspect of light and shade, Renoir making the shapes in nature explode into vibrations of colour, Degas recording the poses of a ballet, are working in a world where objects have become events, and where time is a dimension of sense experience. (CW 11, 32-3)

Frye and the Mona Lisa


Further to Michael’s post

“I must run across to the Louvre now, as it is getting late. The mob always goes straight to the Mona Lisa as the greatest drawing card. I’m a little annoyed with Leonardo just now. That miserable Bacchus and John the Baptist—which are of course open to doubt as to their authenticity—with their sickly smiles and their rather cloying chiaroscuro” (Frye to Helen Kemp. 25 September 1938)

Two years earlier Frye had reported to Helen on his visit to the Art Institute in Chicago: “The Art Institute has a special exhibit which I have visited twice, once with [my sister] Vera, once with Eleanor [Craig].  Renaissance painting–Tintoretto, Titian, two Leonardos‑‑one called the “Madonna of the Yarn Spinners,” a magnificent Italian Madonna, with the same inscrutable Mona Lisa smile, and the freshest and rosiest youngster I have ever seen.  Some of the representations of the Christ‑Child are almost blasphemous‑‑he looks sometimes like a manikin of forty, sometimes like a wizened old priest.  One Raphael‑‑very simple but breath‑taking‑‑a man dressed in black.  Two Botticellis‑‑one I could have sworn was modern French.  Our old friend Lippo Lippi, and one of his incubi, Fra Angelico.  (Try your hand at Fra Lippo Lippi sometime, contrasting the medieval type with Early Renaissance in initial letters or marginal designs.)  The Renaissance pictures were all very soft and quiet in color.  But the medieval ones were different.  Nearly all of them had gold backgrounds, and the figures were splashes of brilliant reds and greens.  The haloes were bewilderingly ornamented.  Poses stiff and architectural, often notably Byzantine.  But a sort of quaint childlike humor all through.  One picture of the Last Supper shows a little spaniel in the foreground gnawing a bone.  One Madonna and Child shows the latter with his fist stuck in a dish of candy.  A weird one of John the Baptist’s head brought to Sabine has a moving picture effect.  The head appears twice, and so do three attendants, at different stages in the procession.  I liked these medieval pictures best of all, I think.  Then the Dutch school.  Some rare humor here too.  One a young group of smokers trying to blow rings.  A beautiful Rembrandt‑‑“Girl at Half‑open Door” and a portrait of his father.  Several Franz Hals‑‑all the “Laughing Cavalier” type.  And an exquisite picture of a “Woman Weighing Gold.”  And so on.  The Dutch primitives disappointed me a bit.  There is an English room‑‑several graceful Gainsboroughs, a Romney, Reynolds, Raeburn, Zoffany, and Hogarth.  American colonial painting, including the two famous Gilbert Stuart portraits of Washington.  Whistler‑‑the great portrait of his mother‑‑one of the biggest attractions‑‑a superb picture in gray and black.  And the Thames “nocturne”‑‑the one that started the row with Ruskin.  Sargent‑‑a lovely study of an Egyptian nude girl‑‑surprisingly slim for the Orient.  Modern French too‑‑a room full of Matisse and Picasso.  That man Matisse knew how to handle color.  A picture of Picasso’s of a youngster eating out of a bowl called “Le Gourmet” is very popular‑‑Eleanor said it was her favourite” (Frye to Kemp, 1 July 1933).

From Northrop Frye’s Student Essays: “The relation of the artist to the scientist boils down to one very similar to his relation to the moralist or propagandist.  The scientist explains, and his words and images denote; the artist suggests, and his words and images connote.  No two people will look at a picture in the same way; and if I am looking at one, all the other possible reactions to it, which I may or may not share, form a sort of nimbus around my head, which I try to get away from.  If I am looking at Mona Lisa, for instance, I withdraw into myself in order to escape from both Walter Pater, except by responding to a meaning in the picture essentially “evocative” and “spell‑bearing” (CW 3, 377).

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