The Canadian Art Database

Joyce Zemans

The art and Weltanschauung of Bertram Brooker

artscanada, February/March 1973, #176/177, pp. 6568.
[ 2,555 words ]

In spite of the fact that he was the first artist in Canada to paint abstractly, Bertram Brooker's work has never really been evaluated or understood in the context of Canadian art. Dennis Reid's forthcoming monograph and the retrospective exhibition of Brooker's paintings that he has organized for the National Gallery should help to remedy the situation. This exhibition which opened in Sarnia's Public Library and Art Gallery in November 1972 and which will travel across Canada before it arrives in Toronto's Hart House in November of 1973, poses as many questions as it answers. (1)

In the mid20s of this century Bertram Brooker was living in Toronto, a central figure in the art scene of that city, close friends with members of the Group of Seven, and painting abstract work. One considers Brooker's work and then wonders why none of the documents published until now have examined the role that Brooker played in the ambience of these years, although during this time he was not only painting but writing a syndicated column on the arts which appeared throughout Canada. (2) What was his influence? Did his paintings or his column in which he discussed such subjects as nationalism in Canadian art, and the influence of music and mathematics on art, or the ideas he exchanged with such friends as Lawren Harris on the subject of abstraction, significantly alter the course of Canadian art? Such interactions have yet to be extensively explored.

The exhibition itself represents especially well Brooker's early abstracts at the end of the 20s and his work of the 30s. But there are no works which suggest the artist's earliest painting and but sparse representation of the work from the last decade of his life. None of his drawings have been included although these represent an exceptionally important aspect of his work. The main focus of the show is upon the abstract paintings of the 20s and, for this viewer, it poses a question which it doesn't answer: How did Brooker arrive at abstraction when his compatriots were still working out their relationship to the Canadian landscape in the mode of the Group of Seven? A letter from J. E. H. MacDonald dated January 25, 1927, gives us some idea of the reception Brooker's paintings must have received:

...but I do feel, that art in general, nowadays is being made too complex a matter. Intellect is squeezing the life out of it, in order to see how it is made, and I regret that I find few simple understandable things said about it.

So I would like anything of the occult or secret doctrine avoided in it, if possible — a simple lead in titles for any honest soul to follow as far as he liked in interpretation, and a great liberality in modes of expression.

I cannot understand your process of working, at present, for I do not think I have any capacity of clearing my mind. I see better past memories and sensations, in that intuitional state (very rarely, of course) but I get no blanks to return from. However I haven't time for this now.

No attempt on your part is necessary to make me like your things. I think them admirable, but (unless I know what I'm getting) mostly as design and colour. More hours to your elbow and God bless us every one.

In an unsympathetic environment his close friendship with such people as Lawren Harris, Fred Housser and Roy Mitchell and their interest in art and its relationship to spiritual questions made it easier for Brooker to explore his ideas:

Talk with Merrill, Roy, Hahn and Percy Mitchell about Canadian art. Something stirring in Toronto which we think of as Canadian but which is not found outside. We go about looking for it, expecting people to be awake to it, but they are not.

Sometimes we run across somebody who has also forsworn the European conventions but is working in a different way. They feel a kinship. But there can hardly be a Canadian art a homogeneous thing. And nobody really wants it. They simply want people living in various parts of Canada to react to their own environment. This would produce art native to certain sections of the countryand would be Canadian in the sense that it could not have been done anywhere elsebut not Canadian in any uniform sense
.  (3)

Brooker undoubtedly knew of the European avantgarde. He may have known of Kandinsky's painting and writing even before he arrived in Toronto in 1921. The Brooker family recounts that while he was working on the railway in the early part of this century, Brooker was nicknamed 'little Kandinsky.' (4) Was it because of his conversation about Kandinsky and his ideas? In the Yearbook of the Arts, which he founded and edited in 1929, Brooker wrote, '. . . our artists [Canadian] cannot, even if they would, remain entirely unaffected by the unintelligible tendencies so rife abroad' and he refers to such artists as Mondrian, Kandinsky, Man Ray, Epstein, Joyce, Gertrude Stein and T. S. Eliot, whose work he knew. (5) After his arrival in Toronto in 1921 he travelled frequently to New York City and remained in touch with the art scene there. Every aspect of Brooker's character suggests a man who wished to be richly informed in the arts. His letters reveal a passionate interest in Blake, Dostoevsky, Walt Whitman, Dante and the Bible. Many of these works were illustrated by Brooker during the late 20s and early 30s. He not only painted, wrote a syndicated review column on the arts and carried on a successful career in advertising, but in 1936 won the Governor General's Award for one of his novels, Think of the Earth. Once informed, he was a man it seems who preferred to draw his own conclusions. Clearly, Brooker's painting and writing make evident the fact that he was absorbed by the questions of who the artist is and what art must be and was prepared to explore all avenues to find his answer. 'Art and literature on the grand scale is never narrowly contemporary.'  (6)

The paintings in this exhibition begin with a deep plunge into a metaphysical quest. Like Mondrian, perhaps more than Kandinsky in purpose, Brooker sought to express in his painting the highest universal statement:

. . . manifestations of a great unified realm of being whose every part depends upon or gives birth to every other part, in an endless and subtly interrelated 'becomingness'. (7)

In The Dawn of Man, a semiabstract canvas painted about 1927, we find a single figure, no doubt symbolising the artist, standing at the shore of an unknown world. He pulls aside vertical narrow columns to reveal a landscape that relates only vaguely to this planet — though its purity of form and coolness of colour might suggest a dream vision of a northern landscape. I was struck by this painting and its rich metaphorical allusions to the theosophic penetration of the true meaning of the universe, a representation of the artist at the threshold of discovery.

Brooker, like Kandinsky, found in music a source of energy parallel to that of painting. One viewer of 1927, surprised by the sight of one of the early abstracts, exclaimed 'It's music by Brooker.'  (8) That viewer was G. D. Atkinson, the director of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Music and musical forms are integral parts of the artist's views on painting and many abstract paintings of this period are given musical titles like Toccata. Carl Schaefer recalls discussions with Brooker and Lawren Harris of Bach's music and the way that music can be visually interpreted. It was perhaps the structural, solid quality of Bach that Brooker sought to represent in such paintings as Sounds Assembling, 1928.

Endless Dawn is a cool and pure landscape, white mountains and blue green sea — a harmony of landscape and human forms, a personal interpretation of the Canadian landscape, a search for that state of 'becoming ness' he desired. Integrated into the foreground is a pair of figures intertwined, merging inextricably with the hills: contours of human flesh echoed by the mountains and hills — its mood serene. One cannot but recall Mondrian's Dune Landscape in which the reclining female forms and the rolling dunes become interchangeable. A study of Creation, Abstraction Music, Endless Dawn, Green Movement and the Dawn of Man, all works in the exhibition painted about 1927, shows the evolution of forms in this period when landscape elements and human figures evolve into totally abstract statements.

The most eloquent of these works is Allelujah, 1929, one of the most successful of Brooker's sometimes strident abstract compositions of this period. The resolution of ideas in this canvas is an exquisite event — the soaring forms, strength and freshness of the colour echo the music of the spheres with a singing tension. Surely this is the culmination devoutly to be wished by Brooker, a fulfillment of Kandinsky's definition of the art of painting:

Painting is a conflict of different worlds . . . intended to create the new world, which is called the work of art. Each work of art arises . . . in the way the cosmos arises . . . which from the chaotic roaring of the instruments finally creates a syphony, the music of the spheres. The creation of the work is the creation of worlds. (9)

With the painting Striving, 1930, Brooker seems to have changed direction. It is as if the painting is a visual statement of the painter's position that he defines in the article 'When We Awake':

. . . art gathers its energies from the heroic exemplars of a past time and leaps forward at such a pace and with such herculean stride that it overshoots the present . . . . Its essential grandeur is in this tremendous arch from past to future which swings high over the dwarfed concerns of the 'present' of each generation that catches up to it. (10)

Reminiscent of Boccioni in form, and Duchamp in its cubistically fractured figure, Striving is nevertheless a powerful and personal declaration.

Subsequent paintings of the 30s abandon abstraction and the metaphysics of the universe for a more personal utterance. The drawings of this period (ca. 192932) give us a clearer insight into Brooker's interest. The pen and ink drawings of the late 20s are abstract studies for paintings; the drawings of 1929 and 1930, especially the pencil studies from nature, show an excitement with drawing for its own sake.

In the 20s, Brooker's drawings were largely devoted to preparatory sketches or to illustration of those authors whom he admired — illustrations for The Ancient Mariner, Walt Whitman and the published drawings for Elijah. (11) In these and the later Crime and Punishment and Les Misérables series we find the artist occupied with subject matter and often enmeshed in details — although technical mastery of spatial relationships and above all the depiction of the vital energy that pulses in each drawing are apparent.

By 1930, Brooker had become more singleminded in his approach to drawing. Pencil replaced pen and ink and simple natural forms became subjects for fascinated contemplation. A letter to LeMoine Fitzgerald from 1932 may indicate the source of this new concentration:

I have learned more from you about drawing than anyone else [except] perhaps the swelling quality in Blake.

In his travels through Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba during the early 30s Brooker sketched from nature, but for him:

. . . the tree might just as well be a carrot or an elephantin other words not so much an object as an attempt to search out the organization of any living thing. It was not really a thing, it was a verb — a picture of living.  (12)

And in his studies, a tree, seen daily in the artist's backyard, assumed anthropomorphic manifestations — breasts, limbs and human features suggest themselves in these sensuous contours. In his paintings it is the objects in his studio that fascinate him. He wrote of Georges Braque:

Braque paints rum bottles, guitars, grapes . . . . He abstracts from them but think of how much more he puts backout of himself. All these things have their own beauty.  (13)

Brooker attempts during this period to invest in the simplest objects: ski poles, chairs, fruits, their own essential qualities, while examining the relationship of art to life.

I hope you will feel that something new has been added, and that the aim of such additions is to express the experience of the artist in observing or meditating upon certain natural forms. (14)

The very handsome Egyptian Woman, which Dennis Reid here dates 1942 but which cannot have been painted after 1939, is characteristic of this period (15) . Like Braque, Brooker takes the subject matter of his everyday environment to create his work of art. Not a living form but a plaster cast, not a dramatic landscape but the backs of several canvases serve as subject matter, subtly invested with a dignity beyond their ordinary status. The 30s seem for Brooker a period of reevaluation and reaffirmation; a need to come to terms with his technical abilities, and with his relationship to the act of painting. The still lifes, landscapes and nude studies from this period reflect the interests of such contemporaries as Holgate, Schaefer and Fitzgerald, men with whom the artist exchanged ideas and even on occasion canvases. The reason for the change from abstraction to realism has never really been resolved and we see the echo of his interest in the spiritual in such paintings as the 1937 Entombment, a dramatic religious statement in which each figure is treated abstractly. Dramatic spatial relations and tension between circular forms dominate. The work becomes a powerful symphony expressing the mood of the mourners. In the haunting Surrealistic canvas Driftwood, 1945, the spirit of Georgia 0'Keeffe is evoked; but one never feels the artist to be merely eclectic in his investigation.

In a letter to LeMoine Fitzgerald, Brooker says of this canvas:

It began with tree stumps, drawn quite realistically, but without realistic colour and placed in spatial relationships which were far from real. It was at this time that I became aware of painting verbs. A picture of a stump was not an object, but a picture of floating.

The small canvas, Symphonic Forms 1947, from the McMichael Collection, indicates that Brooker never totally abandoned abstraction. (16) Yet, after 1930, the majority of his work was devoted to realistic subjects in which he sought to invest ordinary objects and scenes with new meaning and new perspectives. Whatever his subject, Brooker approached it, as he approached all of art, with 'the highest faculty of the artist . . . essentially a religious sense — a sense of the mystery of the whole of life.'  (17)

Brooker's painting evolved through total abstraction in the late 20s to realism, and such an evolution (the reverse process from the ordinary) has made it easy for critics and historians to overlook or discount his art and ideas in the context of Canadian painting. The exhibition which Dennis Reid has organized provides the basis for a long overdue evaluation; and it is my belief that we will continue to discover evidence of Brooker's subtle but sustained impact on art in Canada.

Text: © Joyce Zemans. All rights reserved.

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