Commentary by York Wilson
The two small water colours in this exhibition,
The Ward and Corner of Richmond and York, were
first shown at the juried Montreal Spring Show in 1932. The
Ward was subsequently invited to the next National Gallery
Annual selected exhibition. These sketches were done during lunch
hours from the roof of Brigdens Limited, Toronto, where
at 17 years of age I was apprentice earning 5 dollars for 44 hour
My art training has been second and third year of a four year course at
Central Technical School in Toronto. In those days, art training was little more than an
introduction to art materials, a smattering of drawing, and some elementary hints about
colour. There was little or no direction in the study of art history or philosophy. As a
result, these early sketches were done with no more thought than just that of getting an
attractive impression of the subject.
At this time Charles Comfort, Will Ogilvie and Fred Finley were artist at
Brigdens and in carious ways they helped me to move in the direction of fine art.
Charles Comfort frequently criticized my sketches and paintings and he also suggested
philosophical readings and classical music studies. Fred Finley, who had just come from
Juliens Academy in Paris, encouraged me to draw regularly from the figure. Probably
because of this early practice, I still draw realistically from the nude a half day every
week, in spite of the fact that for several years my painting has been almost completely
From 1924 to 1928 I worked as a commercial artist in Toronto and Detroit.
I was a weekend and evening painter, continuing to study art on my own through books and
museums. With the exception of several graphics that appeared in two Canadian National
Exhibition shows, I did not exhibit again until 1939
By 1938, not only was I ready to paint larger works, I felt I had
something to say and was ready to begin exhibiting. In the meantime I had become aware of
the great variety of painters from all periods. The ones I admired were as disparate in
styles as Breughel, Piera della Francesca, Degas, Bellini, Seurat, Gauguin, Vermeer and
The first large canvas was to be called Burlesque No. 1. But after weeks of work
it turned out so badly that I burned it and started another larger one. For that reason,
my first large canvas is entitled Burlesque No. 2. It was juried and accepted for
the Ontario Society of Artists exhibition in the spring of 1939. Later that year the work
was exhibited with the Canadian Group of Painters at the New York Worlds Fair.
From 1939 to 1949 I was concerned with a very realistic social
commentary type of painting. The titles suggest the subject matter: Welfare
Worker, National Affairs, Public Library, Local Dance, Blood
Donors, The March Past, Beauty Contest and After Dinner Speaker.
Concurrently with these were interspersed a series of Burlesque paintings, Lovely
Ladies of the Ensemble, Dressing Room and Backstage. Oddly enough, although
I was sketching landscape on a regular basis, I did not enlarge on any of them except Indian
Barn Window is a unique piece for me. The actual barn window was so perfect a
piece of design and texture that I literally copied it as accurately as possible. I am
often tempted to do more of this kind of realism but I am afraid it could lead into a type
of painting that only interests me technically.
Hedley Rainnie is one of a dozen or so portraits that I have
done, usually for my own enjoyment. The strain of having to get a likeness and to satisfy
client would prevent me from accepting commissioned portraits even if they were offered.
Entrechat was one of a series of ballet paintings. After painting
ballet for a year or two, the subject had became so popular that if I had continued, the
public would never have allowed me to paint anything else. Therefore I was not surprised
to find that when I stopped, sales dropped off very sharply, because as many erstwhile
collectors said, They were not interested in my paintings of other subjects,
and proved it by not buying.
Cocktail Party is different from the other social commentary
paintings. I had thought that caricaturing a subject made communication much stronger. But
now I believe that caricature makes it ludicrous and thereby makes a work less acceptable
as serious painting.
Sunlit Street was the major turning point in my painting. Before
this time I could appreciate abstract painting, but was unable to find the exact point of
departure for myself. It was while doing the sketch for this painting that the meaning of
abstraction became amazingly clear. The whole scene in front of me became visually a
related environment. The mountains had the same basic form as the roofs of the houses. The
rebozos on the figures in the street repeated the same form. The markings on the street
and the sky and all the elements of the scene seemed to complement one another. Even
though today this painting seems to be very slightly abstracted, nevertheless for me it
was the key to abstracting form. This later led to my ability to also abstract
It was shortly after this discovery that I began to study picture construction per se.
Prior to this time, a composition was limited to what could only be described as
tidying up the elements. But now there was a conscious effort to orchestrate
each painting so that even without any recognizable subject the painting would be complete
as a work of art. En route to Canary Islands in 1958, we spent many days at the Louvre in
Paris and at the Prado in Madrid. It is a fact that during the time spent in these museums
I developed an insight into abstraction through the work of artists like
della Francesca, Beughel, etc. The understanding that I derived from them was much clearer
than from any contemporary painters.
Facade is another painting done in Mexico. At this time I was
involved in numerous discussions with Rico Leburn about various art theories, one which
was that of trying to make each painting timeless. In this case I painted a fašade that
was not a specific one, but rather the idea of the meaning of a timeless visual fašade.
Corner of Venice is an impression derived from numerous sketches
done in Italy. Again I was attempting to create a timeless statement. We lived in Italy
for a year and took advantage of the opportunity to study the history of the Roman Empire
and to experience and enjoy the vastness of the subject. Mount Etna, with
the usual cloud formation over the volcano, evolved from a sketch done that same year.
A Propos de Shaka is one of several collages I did from brown
papers, newspaper and India ink. Graeme Wilson wrote the following poem about the
Here in a shieldshape isihlangu,
Of mirror-glass and marker stones
The sorcerers of Shaka Zulu
Cursed and cast their lucking-bones.
Here are the days with Dingiswayo,
The IziCwe, their queasy eyes;
And here the swaying vulture-shadow
Over the shields and assegais;
Scarred cattle-hide; Mzilikasis
Hidden cattle; muscle-gloss
And Sorghum stains like blackened daisies
Starred on the orgy-hard kaross;
And here, the blood already gnarling
Sunblack in the ochre light,
Are Dinggans dirk and Shakas snarling
Boneshapes in the Kraals of night.
is an impression of Adriatic fishing boats on the Island of Chioggia near
Venice. And Reflection developed from sketches done in the city of Venice.
The title of Lepanto should really be The Battle of Lepanto,
after a naval engagement in 1571 between Turkey and the Christian League. This canvas is
typical of the creative progress that is almost automatic. A canvas is started without a
specific idea or subject in mind. At some point while painting, past experience or even
impressions of things read start to take over subconsciously and determine the end result
of the work. For this reason it is difficult to title a painting that contains elements
derived from experiences in various countries over a period of several years. Braque, when
asked if he could visualize the end result before he started a painting answered, Of
course not. If that were possible there would be no reason for painting it.
Le Figaro Construction was produced when we had just moved to
Paris. At that point I didnt know where to buy art supplies. As we were getting
settled we bought furniture, which was delivered in large sheets of brown paper. And every
day there were one or two newspaper. Almost inevitably, collages began to develop from the
brown paper, newspaper and India ink. This medium became so fascinating that canvasses
continued to appear for about six months. From time to time it is still interesting to use
In 1965-1966 my wife and I traveled for a year. During the trip I did
many sketches in oil, completed 180 paintings (12 x 16) and five sketches books of
black and white drawings. Mogul Bridge is developed from one of the drawings. The
bridge is on the Kralian Canal near the City of Sringar in Kashmir. This bridge is
surrounded by medieval-looking buildings that were influenced by the Moguls (Mongols).
Another painting that emerged from the drawings I did on this trip was Cave on South
Canal. It depicts the entrance to a building on South Canal Street in Singapore. Small
Wall of China was painted in Hong Kong. My imagination was stirred by the sight of a
wall covered with the remains of posters. The natural patterns of the posters with bits
and pieces torn off intrigued me and the result is a fairly figurative rendering of the
scene as I perceived it.
Safari and Paean to Autumn are two of my geometric
paintings. My geometric period was the result of two dreams. My wife and I had arrived in
Paris in July 1966, on the last leg of our round-the-world tour that had started in Japan
the year before. My mind was brimming with millions of new impressions that had not yet
been the cause of the dream. However, one night I dreamed about a geometric painting in
colour. There was no story-line to the dream, just the painting. I had never been much
interested in this kind of thing, and the dream was unlike anything I had ever seen. The
next morning before breakfast I did a pencil sketch. The after breakfast I decided that
the colour was important too, so I did a colour version. It took me all day.
The next thing I dreamed of another very clear geometric painting. The following day I
went through the same procedure; pencil sketch before breakfast, then all day doing a
colour sketch. I didnt dream on the third night, but I was still so intrigued that
the next day I found myself experimenting with a third geometric painting. The result was
that from July 1966 until sometime in 1971, I was unable to paint in any other style.
My geometric phase stopped as suddenly as it had started, and since that
time is has been completely impossible for me to do anything like it again, no matter how
hard I try. It is because of experiences like this that it is so difficult to understand
the creative process.
Tribute to Arthur Lismer is dedicated to a good friend. It was
painted just after Lismers death in 1971, with his painting Islands of Spruce
particularly in mind.
Kashmir Facade was painted from a sketch I did while living
briefly on a houseboat on the Jehlum river, new Sringar.
The title of Mediteranean Reflection is ambiguous. It is a
reflection on reflections. As I discussed earlier, this type of painting emerges from a
myriad of impressions. It is enough that they appear automatically on canvas. To discover
their respective sources would be beyond even the ability of psychoanalysts.
Game is a tapestry commissioned for the Simpson-Sears
directors dining room. For that reason, game (rabbit, deer, elk, bear, grouse,
pheasant, duck, fish, crab, turtle, etc) that might appear on the dining table is the
subject of the tapestry. Both tapestries in this exhibition were woven in the Gobelin
technique at Atelier du Marais, Paris.
The collage Design for a Square No. 2 is related to so many
subjects, both Oriental and Occidental, that it can have no real explanation. The work
evolved out of many ideas that had been on my mind for a long time, and they emerged all
at once. The colours and textures are related to things like walls, landscapes, people and
clothing. However, in the final analysis this piece, like all works of art, should be
interpreted by the viewer.
>page 1 | page 2 | page 3 | Catalogue