The Canadian Art Database

Ross Woodman

Greg Curnoe's New Drawings: Homage to Van Dongen
The Isaacs Gallery, March 20 - April 7 1976

artscanada #204/205, April / May 1976.
[ 1,797 words ]

Greg Curnoe calls his recent drawings of the nude Homage to Van Dongen, an artist who, while retaining certain elements we associate with German Expressionism (one of Curnoe's early influences), belongs to the Fauvists, whose exuberant and expressive use of colour has always been an inspiration to him. Van Dongen, then, brings together some of the painterly influences which, next to comic strips and commercial labels of all sorts, have been among the chief sources of his highly individual art, an art so minutely and particularly his own that no one, as yet, has succeeded in fully defining or explaining it.

Curnoe's traditions in and out of art appear to cancel each other out since they are seemingly so antithetical. What, after all, do Dick Tracy and Matisse share in common? Or Don Messer and Wittgenstein? The answer is a Curnoe canvas or a Curnoe drawing where they dwell happily together, sharing in the instruction they offered him. Graduating from one to the other did not involve leaving one behind in favour of the other. Education does not work that way. Curnoe paints or draws the way he grows, and his art today, which is still evolving, offers a record of it. Bikes he now paints because now bikes are where he's at. One day he may outgrow them, but only in the sense of an outgrowth from them. The bikes, like Matisse, Dick Tracy, pop bottles, Morandi, commercial labels, are here to stay, if in a different form.

Some artists are like a force of nature (Picasso, for example), and while I would not equate Curnoe and Picasso, there is in that respect a resemblance. Curnoe's ability to slip into art is as natural as most people's ability to slip into life. Art for Curnoe is what is there and has always been there. Not in galleries (which he avoids as much as possible), but there in the sense of everywhere. Art for Curnoe is the world he lives in, as accessible as eye-shot or ear-shot, as immediate as the accidental sounds on the tape recorders he used to leave running until a painting was done. In some ways that's as good a definition as any: Curnoe's art is a tape recorder he turned on long ago and is not likely ever to turn off. Attaching these machines to his paintings remains his most authentic signature to date. It underlines his consistent unintentionality.

Partly because of their colours, partly because of their postures, and partly because of the bits of clothing (shoes, for example, black stockings, or, better still, a tight necklace about the neck), Van Dongen's nudes are among the horniest in the whole modern canon. Curnoe, I think, is also paying homage to that. Except that, for me (who is always struck by Curnoe's 'innocence'), Curnoe's nudes are rather more chaste, despite the poses his wife, Sheila, was persuaded or encouraged to strike and hold while Curnoe's drawing pen moved swiftly and knowingly upon the white sheet like a licensed and roving hand rediscovering what might have been familiar territory. Not all the results Sheila apparently liked, and those she did not do not appear. What is here 'bares' the visible signs of her presence and her approval, a husband and wife act of considerable elegance and beauty that makes Picasso, by contrast, look like the exhibitionist he obviously was.

Curnoe has wisely avoided the distraction of coloured mats that have always seemed to introduce a mechanical and formal note alien to the spirit of his work. Even perhaps a certain anxiety or hesitation, an unwillingness to let the drawing stand by itself: an all too unnecessary prop. Curnoe might argue (as I think in fact he has) that the coloured mats serve to isolate the drawings as objects. If that is the intention, I still disagree: the kind of isolation that a Curnoe drawing achieves is in itself far less radical, and a good deal more subtle, than that. Its special coexistence or cohabitation with all sorts of environments is something to leave alone.

These nudes are nudes in the full sense, a single line replacing the two or three that would hide, disguise or cover the hard-soft outline of body. Gone is all the evidence of Curnoe's endearing clutter, which may account for the chastity I have in mind. Some that I saw in the studio had a fully articulated face that largely got in the way and stopped the eye from roving where the line would have it go. Traditionally the nude offers, in one way or another, an idealization of the human figure. Those articulated faces put an end to that. You come across them like a sudden resistance to art.

Which brings me to something in these drawings that I still cannot quite define. Curnoe's art has always been for me an art of document and record. Seen or not seen, heard or not heard, the written or spoken word has always been there. To include it, as he for so long and so often has done, is merely to call attention to an entirely apparent fact, the art of the apparent being what his art is about. In these drawings there are no written or spoken words. Silence at last. Pure drawing at last. No footnotes, diary, comment. Though the model is his wife, it is his wife in the context of art. She has not been discovered or captured in the midst of her daily things, but removed from them, isolated from them. Not wife but artist's model, the possibility of line and form, an abstract impersonal thing called into new existence with the freshness of Van Dongen or Klee.

Curnoe in many of these drawings appears to have crossed, however tentatively, some invisible barrier separating art from life. And it's very curious, because it's a barrier I thought he had already removed, if ever it existed at all. But, then, I may be wrong. Perhaps it's his choice of art's sole surviving object, the nude itself, drawn without those life-style accessories that one expects to find in Curnoe. Sheila naked, without a coke. At any rate, these nudes at first appear to exist in a place more aesthetically autonomous than the one he regularly inhabits. The artist who banished aesthetics seems here to be re-calling it.

Once the eye settles down to work, however, the perennial Curnoe is there. December 7, 1975, and January 21, 1976, were obviously good days for drawing, and about 10:30 at night (the kids in bed and asleep) the right hour. Four drawings in the show were done on the first date and five on the second. Earlier ones go back to September. Some of these preserve more of the defining awkwardness, and even a certain incongruity, as if he were not certain whether to continue in the manner of the illustrations for The Great Canadian Sonnet [David McFadden's fanciful novel first published by Coach House Press in 1970-71 and reprinted for the AGO's Curnoe Retrospective in 2001 — available online at] or push on in the direction of Matisse. The sensual line of the body, for example, may gather to crudely stubbed fingers which are all there is of a hand. Matisse and comic strip wound into each other. Sheila enacting his own history.

But also enacting art, though in a thoroughly Curnoesque way: the figure on her back, legs raised, bending down from the knees; the figure squatting on all fours; the figure standing erect like a Greek Kore; the figure reclining on a striped lounge, hands behind head; the figure with skin wrinkled below the breast and wrinkled sheets below the thigh; the figure with an open blouse, legs parted and sharp vagina (perhaps the 'homage' he had in mind).

Two drawings done consciously after Van Dongen are both in their way virtuoso pieces, though I hasten to add that Curnoe is not a virtuoso in any traditional way. Curnoe seldom takes off. He remains essentially grounded by an awkwardness that disallows either a step or a turn without all sorts of random intrusions that traditionally have nothing to do with art. His figures rarely execute a dance (which he saves for riding his bike), but lie or move about in positions that may at times remotely suggest something French, North African and languid, but at second glance turn out to be London with the dishes still in the sink. If it's time out, it's time out with Molson's Blue and Saturday night hockey with the sound turned off. That kind of elegance and beauty, which is elegance and beauty yet, though of a distinctly Canadian kind. South London. Clapboard interiors.

Their honesty is inevitably disarming, though it's not necessarily the honesty of art. After Mika Nue sur un Divan comes directly from Van Dongen's painting, which reveals that idealization typical of the nude in art. The left arm is raised above and placed behind the head, sacrificing human comfort to a thoroughly aesthetic line extending an ideal curve. Curnoe's nude settles for human comfort with its built-in 'to hell with art'. Van Dongen's languid grace seduces the eye with a single sweep. In Curnoe it stops at the face, explores its detail, and then willfully decides to go on. Sheila maintains a certain indifference to whatever are the demands of art; Mika retreats into form.

The standing nude of January 13 / 24, with its Van Dongen necklace, is stiff, head up and proud, as if now defiant of art. The face flows into the body, but in a way and with an emphasis (or expression) that declares an indifference to body when exposed to the artist's pen. Curnoe drew it on January 13. On the 24th he returned with a razor blade and raised the navel half an inch. I suspect it had as much to do with Sheila as it had to do with art.

The nude of February 27, 1976, is in some ways the most powerful of the lot. The forward thrust is aggressive and the sacrifice of head puts the action where in the nude the action should be. At the same time the art comes through as art: Sheila (beyond the appearance) transformed into line, the hands like a Hindu dancer, the left fingers twisted and curled, the toe held on its aesthetic point. Here power and grace combine with a mastery that in Matisse works all the time. Perhaps it could in Curnoe as well. Knowing that or sensing that can only increase my respect for what, again and again, he partially refuses to do.

artscanada #204/205, April / May 1976.

Text: © Ross Woodman. All rights reserved.

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, in Book of the Artists, New York, 1867, 632.