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Arni Runar Haraldsson

Harold Herbert Elliott

at the Or Gallery, Vancouver

C Magazine #12, Winter 1987.
[ 1,016 words ]


Often an artist's oeuvre reveals a complexity of repetitions linked in chain-like fashion progressing from one body of work to another. A thematic whole may be interpreted, in part, through the noticing of certain recurrences. To this extent, repetition discloses the multiple relations that lie outside a given work: the artist's life; psychological, social, or historical reality; other works by other artists; motifs and themes from the mythological or fabulous past, etc. The body of work produced by the late Harold Herbert Elliott (1890-1968) lends itself to interpretation through the identification of recurrences: Elliott repeats in one painting, forms, figures, scenes and themes from his other paintings. Isolated, they maintain a sense of presence but their power is in their numbers. Out of the five thousand or so paintings Elliott claimed to have executed, one could almost say that he only painted five paintings, repeating each a thousand times — of course, with some variation.

A one-time teacher, lawyer and landlord, Elliott took up painting late in life: in 1948, while in his late 50's, he was encouraged by his doctor to pursue painting as therapy following a heart failure. Thus began Elliott's final, most rewarding career as a sort of local idiosyncratic maverick in painting. His eccentricities included being a closet transvestite. Dressed in long flowing garbs, akin to those worn by the old masters, Elliott, like an actor, would assume different personaes (often of his own conceiving and at other times loosely based on his idols: Rembrandt, Turner, Emily Carr); all this in an effort to place himself within a certain creative frame of mind. He demanded outrageously high prices for his works, many of which he absolutely refused to part with. Later, he would sign and re-sign his paintings 'Van Volkinburgh' — being the aristocratic name of his Dutch mother, and resembling that of his early influence: Rembrandt van Rijn.

Perhaps Elliott's height of recognition was his inclusion in New Talents B.C. (1964, Vancouver Art Gallery), curated by Doris Shadbolt, which included painters such as Claude Breeze and Geoffrey Rees. It was through his acquaintance with Shadbolt that Elliott attempted to secure a posthumous recognition for himself: he insisted on giving her a hundred of his paintings (later billing her for the frames). Shadbolt recalls Elliott bringing to her attention various documents (letters, notes, etc) he claimed to have been written by Emily Carr which, upon examination, turned out to be forged. In time, the acquired paintings were relegated to the basement of the VAG where they remained until 1985 when artist / curator, John Anderson expressed interest and was thereby given the paintings in trust by Shadbolt, under the auspices of present curator, Scott Watson.

Painting Against Time, curated by Anderson and Jennifer Kostuik, brought together eighteen of Elliott's paintings. Only three bore a title: Scene On the Moon (1949), The Western Prairie (1951), and Lonesome (1958). On the whole, these paintings are dream-inspired, wild and passionate with a consciously 'unlearned' look, pervasive in much of today's painting. Their contemporaneousness is only diminished by scale; these are small works, most often constructed on cardboard, contributing toward their decrepitude. Granted that Elliott's naïveté and eccentricities may have worked against him, it is still surprising that he should have sunk into virtual oblivion, considering that his work does bear resemblance to that of present, not to mention other, West Coast artists who have recently undergone a de-marginalizing process (the repetitive paintings of a bill bissett come to mind here).

The earlier works depict briefly rendered, ghost-like figures at dusk (or dawn) amidst a windswept landscape of trees, cliffs and mountains with a darkly coloured sky in the background. The moon recurs throughout, often executed in the same manner as the featureless faces of the figures; a blotch of bright paint in the form of a circle. In fact, what strikes one most about this work is not only the sense of melancholy and apocalypse but also the obsessive recurrence of circular shapes. The later painting (1958-66) continue this obsession, depicting large faceless figures with magnified blank eyes (appearing like holes through the head) that, together, repeat the circle, recalling the moon and round heads from earlier works.

The expanse of colour in the landscapes suggests the approach of a turbulent movement that will, in turn, transform the whole into a circle. No longer does the mass of colour partake of representing the elements, of playing a compensatory role in the background; instead it emerges to the foreground where it forms a contour, enveloping and imprisoning its subject. The figure in the landscape takes place within the larger circle of nature.

Elliott's dream-induced visions — his momentary lapses into a trance state — resemble arrests or snapshots from an entirely other place. Recomposed, the image restores the scene as it freezes the synthetic movements of an unreal nature in all its simultaneity of serenity and violence. The majority of the landscapes trace the promenade of two or more figures who, having wandered to the edge of an abyss, are enveloped by the signs of an approaching storm. Yet, the unknown is never made known; the ensuing drama of apocalypse never takes place. The possibility of danger, of death, is forever warded off, captured and contained within the image.

Having glimpsed that other place veiled in darkness, having heard its muffled voices echoing across the distance, Elliott, like Quixote, constructed an imaginary life lived in a non-existent place, in the same sense that dreams make for us a strangely powerful affective memory of a reality that never really happened as such. This journeying to the edge of an inner-landscape may have provided Elliott with the comforting vision that some day, some place 'Van Volkinburgh' would live on alongside that of Rembrandt van Rijn. Perhaps this was the dream that sustained him to the end.


C Magazine #12, Winter 1987.

Text: © Arni Runar Haraldsson. All rights reserved.

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