Saturday, May 28, 2005

Edwin Holgate by Jacquline Mabey


Earlier this week
, a bunch of us went to see the Edwin Holgate exhibit at the Musée des Beaux Arts. I asked everybody to write down what they thought. This one is graciously supplied by Jacquline Mabey.

Edwin Holgate Retrospective at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

I went to the Edwin Holgate Retrospective at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts knowing little about the artist and expecting less from the show. Perhaps it was Holgate’s connection with the Group of Seven that tainted my opinion, put off, as I am, by their strangle hold on the common cultural consciousness of what defines Canadian art, and my own apathy towards landscape art in general. Or maybe it was vague associations of Holgate with female nudes in landscape settings, which set off my “problematic image” alarm, developed from years of art historical training.

Whatever the source, I went into the show with low expectations, but found myself pleasantly surprised by many of his works. The retrospective is arranged chronologically which, I suppose, is the odd and wonderful thing about a show like this: the luxury of watching an artist’s style change and (hopefully) grow, all in one convenient location. Holgate’s early works, such as On the Dkierpr, Ukraine (1914), a small oil on canvas, are marked by a noticeable uncertainty of formal handling, a seeming unease of execution. Filled with the artist’s work from the interwar period, the following two rooms are the sites of Holgate’s most compelling work. At a time when landscape painting dominated the artistic scene, Holgate’s portraiture reveals, not some representation of mythic and transcendental “Canadianness,” but the psychology of several very specific Canadians. Even when the artist takes up “Canadian types,” such as in the painting Paul, Trapper (1929), Holgate holds the treatment of an archetypal theme in tension with the depiction of an individual identity. Here, balance is achieved through the inclusion of the subject’s name in the title and the compressed visual frame.

Indeed, Holgate’s most compelling portraits employ a compressed frame, which creates a feeling of intimacy and concentration. My particular favourite, Ludivine (1930),

depicts the sitter in a ¾ length pose, seated on a couch. The lack of objects around her, the minimal palette, the direct lines and abstracted forms focus all emphasis on Ludivine. Her intense stare confronts the viewer with an almost awkward honesty. Evidently, Holgate made the portrait shortly after a death in the sitter’s family. The strain is evident in the manner in which she holds her hands and her stiff posture, and her weary look. All elements come together to create a meaningful psychological portrait and, perhaps most importantly, a dialogue between the artist/ viewer and the subject.

This dialogue is sorely lacking from his wartime paintings. While often formally inventive- see, for example, his innovative and dynamic use of line and colour in Ship Building in Sorel (1942)- these paintings lack the individuated personalities of his earlier works, although this is understandable given their function as war records. Holgate’s post war pieces, created in Morin Heights, lack the spark and conviction of the work of the interwar period. That said, Holgate’s wood block prints were a revelation. Works such as Pierrot Hung (1923) are both technically deft and formally original. Here, Holgate is able to convey a sense of injustice and sorrow with minimal line, creating a uniquely accessible and powerful image. Without the inclusion of the prints, the show would have been, overall, a disappointment. Their inclusion revealed to me a side of Canadian art that deserves more attention.
[Update, June 4, 2005: Sari Mandel on Edwin Holgate]

And if you want my thought's on Mr. Holgate, click here.

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