The Canadian Art Database

John Porter

Artists Discovering Film: Post-War Toronto
[Grant Munro, Evelyn Lambart, Jim McKay, Bryant Fryer, Michael Snow, Graham Coughtry, Joyce Wieland, Bob Cowan, William Ronald, Dennis Burton, Gordon Rayner, Richard Williams, Richard Gorman, Robert Markle, Don Owen, Warren Collins, George Gingras, Michel Lambeth, Arthur Lipsett, George Manupelli, Al Sens, Louis DeNiverville, Carlos Marchiori and George Dunning]

Vanguard, Vol.13 #5-6, Summer 1984.
[ 3,336 words ]

When recounting Canada in the 1950s there seems to be one overriding feature — that of foreign influence, especially American. To this day there has never been room in Canada for a commercial feature film industry to develop but Hollywood did allow us a successful short film industry, usually contained within government agencies. One atypical example was the Canadian Cameo series (1932-54) of 85 commercial shorts produced by Associated Screen News of Montreal. These were entertaining Hollywood-style documentaries and stories directed by Gordon Sparling, creatively photographed by Alfred Jaquemin and distributed internationally. Rhapsody in Two Languages (1934) was a 'city symphony' about Montreal inspired by those popular experimental films from Europe and complete with optical effects, rapid cutting, negative images and a dizzying climax.

In the 1930's The Vancouver Film Society was formed and like other such societies it held private screenings of foreign 'art' films. Members rarely made films, except the occasional message or joke film meant for the society. One wonderful exception to this rule was and, made by V.F.S. members Dorothy Fowler and Margaret Roberts in the mid-40s. Fowler had worked for the National Film Board (NFB) in Vancouver and obviously had seen Norman McLaren's work. This short 16mm film contains an array of experimental techniques — painting and scratching, negative and reversed images, chaotic camera movements, and holes punched in the frames that were then filled with other images. In the late 40s Dorothy (Fowler) Burritt and husband Oscar moved to Toronto where they helped found the Toronto Film Society (T.F.S.) which in its early years under her guidance would greatly influence local film artists by holding the only Toronto screenings (albeit private) of 'art' films, and by sponsoring personal visits of established experimental film artists / apostles from New York such as Maya Deren and Hans Richter. (See The Funnel Newsletter, Nov / Dec '83).

In 1950 Maya Deren presented her lecture-demonstration at the Royal Ontario Museum Theatre, including the screening of four of her films. The following year she returned to conduct a production workshop with T.F.S. members, which involved two weeks of group meetings and then a 'mad weekend' of round-the-clock shooting sessions at the Queensway Studios. Both visits were emotional, chaotic and largely frustrating for everyone because the naïve Torontonians were incapable of understanding and appreciating her entire approach to film. Her film project Ensemble for Somnambulists couldn't have succeeded and after one token screening in Toronto she took it back to New York (to this day sitting in storage at Anthology Film Archives) and re-shot it later as The Very Eye of Night. She was an extremely eccentric and sensitive artist, a graceful and sensuous 'cat-woman' (William Ronald) with terrific presence, who used her sex to communicate. Of the few Torontonians who appreciated her, most were men.

Norman McLaren was already an experienced experimental filmmaker when, in 1941, he arrived at the NFB in Ottawa from Britain via a two year stay in New York where he associated with some underground filmmakers. He was hired at the NFB by John Grierson — a Briton who in the 1930s had been McLaren's employer at England's General Post Office Film Unit, where filmmakers were given much freedom to experiment. Film technicians were almost nonexistent in Canada in 1940 and Grierson, as first head of the NFB, proceeded to hire experienced Europeans and Americans like McLaren but, as founder of the animation department, McLaren searched locally for young artists to train. His first employees were Réné Jodoin and Jean-Paul Ladouceur from Montreal's School of Fine Art. In 1943 he hired Ontario College of Art (O.C.A.) alumni Grant Munro, Evelyn Lambart, Jim McKay and George Dunning. With the same freedom to experiment on their own films that McLaren had received from Grierson, they all developed very personal styles. They trained themselves in movement by experimenting with jointed cutouts, which was very quick and cheap. Dunning, following McLaren's example of making the most of the least, applied this device with 'immense imagination, freshness and vitality' (1)  to his early films like Cadet Rousselle (1946) which 'show an individual style, perhaps more strongly than any other of the NFB animators except McLaren'. (2)  Some tenuous but interesting connections may be made between this particular technique and local film work. Of course the device dates back to the origins of cinema but its most accomplished practitioner was Germany's Lotte Reiniger, whose silhouette films influenced Toronto artist Bryant Fryer to make several similar films in the late 1920s and early 30s. His films were never distributed and probably were not seen by other local artists. For ten years Reiniger had worked with Berthold Bartosch whose own style of experimental cutout animation influenced Dunning's later work. Later in the mid-30s Reiniger worked at the G.P.O. Film Unit when McLaren was there. In the 1950s Dunning and McKay would pass this technique on to Michael Snow and Graham Coughtry. At the NFB in the 1960s and 70s Evelyn Lambart developed a variation of the technique for a series of her own films, then in the 1970s Reiniger spent a year as guest artist at the NFB. In 1950 Dunning and McKay moved back to Toronto and with business partner John Ross started their own company, Graphic Associates, at 56 Grenville St. By the next year they had built their own studio in Kleinburg where Maya Deren visited and showed some of her films. All that McKay remembers about her is that she admired their cats.

At this time, due to heavy U.S. investment, Canada was the third fastest growing nation in the world. Toronto was 'Boomtown, North America', but the expansion was qualitatively limited, problematic for the aspiring modern artist. The O.C.A. approvided sound basic education — but most teachers in the Drawing and Painting Department were Group of Seven adherents and didn't encourage experimentation. (Conspicuous exceptions were Fred Hagen and Jock Macdonald.) Thus styles conceived in Europe and established in New York inspired the experimental artist. Commercial art offered good training and work — a traditional way of earning a living for the Canadian artist and seemingly an eternal fate. The annual juried exhibitions held by organizations like the Ontario Society of Artists, the R.C.A. [Royal Canadian Academy] and the Women's Committee of the Art Gallery of Toronto supplied the only venues for emerging talent. Accepted artists were required to pay an entry fee and matte and frame their own work. There were hardly any art patrons. There were only two commercial galleries — Roberts and Laing — and they were conservative. 'The Toronto art world, including film, was at least fifty years behind...It was unbelievable! Here we were 600 miles from New York, which was on fire with ideas, but it might as well have been six million miles.' (William Ronald)

One of the first to enter this void was Joyce Wieland. She and her sister lived on their own — perhaps prompting the strong sense of the independent woman which would carry her through future years in the male-dominated Canadian art scene. From early childhood she developed an interest in drawing and movies, influenced by American comics and frequent visits to the King's Playhouse cinema at Queen and Dovercourt to see exotic costume dramas like Buck Rogers, Snow White and The Charge of the Light Brigade (she hated the NFB animations). These interests manifested themselves in a fascination for her toy movie camera-projector and in her comic strip creation, female superhero Agent X9. In the art course at Central Technical School in the mid-40s she was in heaven, a discovery of what art could be. Her teachers, such as Doris McCarthy, were mostly women. They would dare to play music in class and were acknowledged as being better than those at O.C.A. At the age of 16 she entered the barren landscape of the Toronto art world and after her initial cold exposure she settled into the secure job of graphic art at E, S&A Robinson. Its weekly drawing classes with live models helped her to endure for four years but there were fifteen others there all wanting to be independent artists and with no place to go. 'In 1950 I could walk with my girlfriend Mary from Broadview and Danforth to Keele St. and we wouldn't see anything. We made suicide pacts. We would say "This is life and this is what happens to you so we might as well jump off the bridge" (Bloor Viaduct), and we were considering it because there was fuck-all! There was an art gallery and a few people but no feeling.'

But around this time there was a small loose community developing around the O.C.A. and Greenwich (Gerard Street) Village — Toronto's provincial miniature bohemia. Michael Snow and Bob Cowan had been young rebels around their Rosedale and Kingsway neighbourhoods respectively. Their early interests were drawing (Snow's own comic strips were Slammer Samson and Aeroplane Ace, 1938) and music, which evolved into a passion for jazz while they were both attending Upper Canada College Preparatory School in the mid-40s. Movies were not prominent in their early lives. While at O.C.A. from 1948 to '52 they were increasingly drawn to New York culture. Cowan took Jock Macdonald's class trips to N.Y.C. and as Toronto Film Society members, he and friend William Ronald attended Maya Deren's 1950 lecture-demonstration. 'I didn't understand what I was looking at and nobody else did. Everyone seemed to dislike what she was showing except me but I couldn't defend her because I didn't know what I'd been through. She was hypnotizing, but positive.' (Cowan) Other 'beats' associated with this OCA / NYC / Jazz community were Graham Coughtry, ex of the Montreal Museum School of Art and Design; Dennis Burton from Alberta and Pickering College, whose father exposed him extensively to comics, jazz and all the most American-male pop culture; Gordon Rayner and Richard Williams, both from the art course at Northern Vocational School; Richard Gorman; Robert Markle; Don Owen and others.

In 1951, ex-University of Toronto economics student, Avrom Isaacs, opened his Greenwich Art Shop on Hayter St. where he met these young artists and showed interest in their work. He hired Cowan in his shop and dared to display paintings by such unknown beginners as Snow and Coughtry in his window. Later in 1955 he was encouraged by these neglected artists to open his Greenwich Gallery at 736 Bay St. — Toronto's first avant-garde gallery. In no time he was responding to artists' requests to hold public poetry readings and later, mixed-media events. During these early years there were excursions to Buffalo's Albright-Knox Gallery to see New York abstract expressionist and action paintings by deKooning and Pollock. There were long journeys to New York and even Europe — Cowan studied in Paris in 1952, and in 1953 Wieland, Snow and Coughtry were all travelling around Europe separately. Richard Williams, who had worked at Graphic Associates, moved to England (crossing over with Coughtry) to eventually become a world-recognized commercial animator. There were all-night jam sessions and theoretical discussions laced with drinking. They were living in garrets and shared houses, and some were receiving their first public exposure. Although they wouldn't meet until 1955, Snow and Wieland were each included in separate society exhibitions at The Art Gallery of Toronto in 1952. In 1955 Bob Cowan and William Ronald moved to New York, Ronald staying briefly with Maya Deren, and Cowan attending talks with her. Snow and Coughtry had a much-publicized exhibition at the Hart House Gallery, which was attended by George Dunning from Graphic Associates — now located at 21 Grenville St. Dunning was hiring young artists to train in animation just as McLaren had done, so he hired both artists, noticing that Snow's paintings were animation-related (e.g. the Paul Klee influenced A Man With a Line, 1954) although Snow himself hadn't noticed and never even considered film until working at Graphic. Then Dunning hired Wieland (introducing her to the others for the first time) whose paintings were also film-related (sequential) but she knew it and she definitely was looking to work in film.

The new camera-operator at Graphic was Toronto-born Warren Collins, who had diligently trained himself from early childhood in several film-related arts. He and his brother each had his own workshop in their Rosedale home and at age seven he was building puppets and model theatres. His early film influences were similar to Wieland's — Disney's animated features, and musicals with extravagant sets and costumes. From age ten he was taking weekend and summer courses and jobs in acting and stage production. While at Malvern Collegiate he joined the after-school drawing and design course, and the photography club, using his own camera and home darkroom. After leaving school he worked at Ashley & Crippen Portrait Photographers where he first operated a movie camera, shooting weddings. He joined the Toronto Film Society and in 1949 attended Hans Richter's experimental film screening and lecture. In 1951 he bought his own cherished 16mm movie camera and made a commissioned film Canoe Trip Diary for Taylor Statten Camps. While working at Spence Caldwell he learned animation and in 1953 he made The Shaggy Bear, first of his many personal films, which usually combine artistic techniques with Toronto art scene subject matter. This incredible puppet film is about a bear who visits a Les Fauves exhibition complete with Collins's miniature replicas of the Art Gallery of Toronto and famous art works. Collins introduced his Graphic Associates colleagues to personal filmmaking by filming their activities, casting them in his spoofs, and assisting their own productions. Some of his films were Jazz Party at Mike Snow's (1954); Salada Tea Commercials (1955/56) starring Snow, Coughtry and Wieland; A Salt in the Park (1956) with Snow, Wieland and Cowan; OSA Opening Ceremonies (1956) with Snow, Wieland and Burton; and Joyce Wieland's Opening at Here & Now Gallery (1960). With Collins's camera, dining-room table and assistance, Snow made his first film A-Z (1956), an erotic animation using Paul Klee influenced cutouts of furniture and dishes. Another Graphic employee who received help from Collins was George Gingras who made several ambitious spoof films in the late 1950s starring his colleagues.

The free-for-all activity at Graphic was fun and inspirational but not business-like. Jim McKay had left in 1955 complaining of Toronto's lab facilities and before long founded his own company, Film Design, which to this day he runs at 299 Queen St. West. In 1956 Wieland and others were fired for fooling around too much, leaving Snow (as head of animation) and Gingras just before the company folded. Dunning moved to England to establish another company that became famous for producing The Beatles' TV series and Yellow Submarine. His own surrealist works include The Wardrobe (1959), The Flying Man (1962), The Apple (1962), and Canada is My Piano, a triple-screen cartoon for Expo '67. The CBC Graphics Department purchased all the equipment and hired Collins at the same time, where he remains today. Coughtry had already been hired there and along with Dennis Burton stayed several years and helped to earn the department international recognition for innovative animation. Conversely, Coughtry's paintings reflected his pre-cinema style of animation. The only film of his that he has saved is Unk (1959), a two-minute cutout animation.

Through the late 1950s around Isaacs' gallery and a few other emerging adventurous galleries, these painters were kept quite busy producing, exhibiting and performing their groundbreaking work. Around 1958 Gordon Rayner was starting a family in Rosedale and he bought an 8mm camera for home movies. This was his first film work and as a visual artist he naturally began experimenting with the aesthetics of black and white (more expensive than colour), minimal lighting, graininess and contrast. One example was Jekyll & Hyde starring himself with self-applied make-up. He built a simple animation stand to film his paintings. In the early 1960s, with a 16mm camera, he shot twenty hours of footage toward a feature film Enjoy It and Then Be Sure It's Out, starring John O'Keefe and Nobuo Kubota. Much of his film stock and processing was obtained from CBC donations and The Canada Council's first film grant (1960), which was awarded to Rayner after he lobbied against their neglect of film art. In 1966, posing as the press, he shot a film of the Rolling Stones in their Maple Leaf Gardens dressing room. In 1967 an undetermined amount of his footage and equipment was lost in a studio fire, which discouraged him from further film work.

In 1959, Wieland and Collins bought her first camera (a used 16mm) and they shot her first film (other than some painting-on-film and cutout experiments done while at Graphic). Dog Story is a couple of hours of footage about the variety of pet dogs, but after editing one short sequence they realized that they couldn't agree on an approach and the film remains unedited in Collins's possession. In 1960 during her solo exhibition at Dorothy Cameron's Here and Now Gallery, Wieland organized what may be Toronto's first public screening of personal films by local artists. It included films by Graphic artists and Michel Lambeth, and Robert Fulford reviewed it. Around this time Wieland and Snow were making frequent and extended visits to New York, staying with friends such as Bob Cowan. Snow was beginning his Walking Woman series and experimenting with photo-documentation, and consequently was planning a Walking Woman film. A New York acquaintance, Ben Park, financed Snow's first attempt at this but Park grew dissatisfied and repossessed the unedited footage, except for a very short sequence with Wieland and Marcel Duchamp, which he gave to Snow. They eventually moved to New York in 1962 just when the underground film community there was exploding. Cowan had already been an active part of it, attending and projecting at seminal screenings. About 1961 he had begun making his own films, some with William Ronald or the infamous Kuchar brothers, and he also performed in several Kuchar films. His early films — Rooftops, Child, Drum-waters, Mythos, Solo, and Go Out With Anyone Because They May Have Interesting Friends — were regular 8mm which was a crude and frustrating medium for someone so serious about soundtracks and dense imagery, so he switched to 16mm and doesn't show the 8mm's.

From 1963 to 1965 Wieland shot her own series of 8mm films — Lorry's Recent Behaviour, Peggy's Blue Skylight, Patriotism and Watersark. In 1964 Snow produced New York Eye and Ear Control (16mm), which was his second Walking Woman film (completed this time) and which caused uproars among seasoned audiences at initial screenings in New York and Toronto. Again, their paintings, etc. were film-related (e.g. Wieland's Four Films, 1963, oil on canvas, and Snow's entire Walking Woman series, which is like a snapshot repeated thousands of times, often in sequence).

Back in Toronto, which Cowan, Snow and Wieland would visit frequently, there had been several 'Neo-Dada' shows including happenings, film installations and other mixed media. In 1964 on Coughtry's suggestion, Isaacs had Collins organize two public screenings of artists' films, mostly Canadian, including those of Dunning, Snow, Wieland, Collins, Gingras, Coughtry, Cowan, Arthur Lipsett, George Manupelli, Al Sens, Louis DeNiverville, Carlos Marchiori, and others. Held in February and November, these repeated screenings were extremely popular and received much press coverage. Obviously artistic film activity in Toronto was exploding right along with New York. Within the next few years various forms of independent film production, distribution and exhibition would be permanently established in Ontario and Canada.

Vanguard, Vol.13 #5-6, Summer 1984.

Text: © John Porter. All rights reserved.

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