Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Bertram Brooker, Avant-Garde Painter

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Bertram Brooker was Canada's first abstract impressionist, and furthermore was the first Canadian to exhibit abstract art. This landmark event took place in January 1927, at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto. The event had been organized by Group of Seven members Lawren Harris and Arther Lismer, even though their art demonstrated very little abstraction at the time. According to Brooker's diary, Harris had said he would give an introductory talk at the opening of the exhibition. At the exhibition, however, it was clear that the paintings were not popular with the crowd. Harris balked, and Brooker's diary attests to his sensitivity to the snub. One good thing came of the exhibition -- Merrill Denison, founding figure of Canada's Little Theatre movement, mused about what Brooker's abstract paintings would look like as theatre. Brooker warmed to the invitation and wrote his play "Within" by November of the same year. This play would end up on stage, directed by Herman Voaden.

Ironically, Harris would eventually embrace abstract impressionism himself -- and spend the last 35 years of his life producing exclusively abstract canvases. Brooker's influence in this shift has been acknowledged by Canada's foremost art scholar Dennis Reid.

In total, Brooker produced over 400 canvases that hang prominently in all of Canada's important galleries. He has no reputation outside of the country, but has become embraced as a precursive figure to this country's avant-garde movements such as the Automatists or Painters 11. He is routinely featured in surveys of Canadian painting, and figures prominently in the narrative of Canadian experimental painting. At the same time, Ann Davis connected Brooker to painters like Emily Carr, Lawren Harris, and Jock Macdonald for the mystical motivation of Brooker's art. Abstraction, after all, is more than just painting weird or pretty designs with colour -- it involves abstracting isolated qualities from experience. It has been compared to a distillation process, or synethesthesia. In Brooker's case, his paintings often abstract his experience of music -- which suggested to him the purity of spiritual realities beneath the sheen of mundane life.

Music into paintings. Paintings into theatre. In his story "The Wrong World" he depicts his protagonist attending an evening of avant-garde, abstract theatre in London: theatre into short fiction. Brooker, in turn, distilled the abstract theatre into a long experimental poem called "Two Modern Dances". You can start to see why critics have had a hard time talking about and understanding Brooker in relation to one specific form of art. He was thoroughly commited to working across the arts, and experimented in everything. Indeed, one of his abstract sculptures is on permanent display at the National Gallery in Ottawa.

This painting is Brooker's iconic "Sounds Assembling", also on permanent display, and definitely one of the treasure's of Canadian art. You can see in the receding planes in this work the transition from what he called "the purity of tone" -- the pure white realm behind all form -- that gradually morphs into geometrical objects, which in turn morph into the explosive bands of colour.

After coming back from Europe, where they celebrate their pioneering artists, I've been thinking about what a possible tribute to Brooker would look like. I think this painting suggests a remarkable and vibrant theme. Imagine, if you like, what Dundas Square would look like if it was remodelled as a reenactment of Brooker's landmark work.

People often claim that he started out experimental, but gradually became a more traditional landscape realist. This narrative of his development is bunk. Brooker began painting seriously in 1925, when he was 37 years old! His first abstractions are shaped by his spiritual modernism, but were limited by his technical abilities. He realized, after a few years of exhibiting (including with the Group of Seven) that if he wanted to progress as an artist he would need to develop his basic skills. This set off a long period of study and interaction with the artist L.L. FitzGerald in which, yes, various landscapes appear. Brooker, however, continued to paint wild and exuberent abstracts throughout his career, as this final image below -- a photo of Brooker in his studio in 1943 -- attests.

If you would like to see more on Brooker's visual art, check out this exhibition.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Gregory Betts

Gregory Betts is an experimental poet, editor, essayist and teacher. He is the author of If Language (BookThug, 2005), Haikube (BookThug, 2006) and The Others Raisd in Me (Pedlar Press, 2009). He has edited editions of poetry by W.W. E. Ross, Raymond Knister and Lawren Harris. His latest book is The Wrong World: Selected Stories and Essays of Bertram Brooker (University of Ottawa Press 2009).

Go to Gregory Betts’s Author Page