How Lismer grew beyond Group of Seven

Klinkhoff Gallery’s annual non-sale show pays tribute to Canadian master

DOROTA KOZINSKA
THE GAZETTE, MONTREAL
Sep 6, 1997 – p. K.2

The story goes something like this: During a 1966 exhibition of his works, AY Jackson, the great Canadian painter and founding member of the Group of Seven, who loved to talk about his work, stood next to one of his paintings surrounded by an adoring crowd, which was hanging on his every word.

Arthur Lismer, another member of the seven, came in. A tall man, famous for his sense of humour, he crouched behind the crowd and, disguising his British accent with a southern drawl, exclaimed, ”Gee, I love that frame!”

Incensed, Jackson whirled around to dress this person down, only to see Lismer pop up with a mischievous grin.

The anecdote comes courtesy of Eric Klinkhoff of the family-run Walter Klinkhoff Gallery, where the encounter took place. And he has many more stories about the many artists who’ve passed through Klinkhoff doors, which he’d be glad to share.

And if Lismer is your man, you’re in luck.

Each year, faithful to a tradition that has been continued for more than two decades, the gallery organizes a non-sale exhibition of works by established Canadian painters who have left a mark on this city. This year it’s Lismer’s turn.

The idea originated with Walter Klinkhoff, and has been carried on by his sons, Alan and Eric.

Both admit to thoroughly enjoying the two-week event, which takes many months to assemble. The works are on loan from museums and collectors across the country, and the brothers personally pick up and return each painting.

The exhibitions, which cost thousands of dollars to organize, bring no proceeds to the gallery. There are, however, benefits of a different kind.

”We get to study the artist ourselves, and that’s important,” Eric Klinkhoff said. ”It’s good for our knowledge and our own understanding (of art). We now have a niche; we’re called on by the museums for our expertise.”

”And,” he added, ”it is obviously a very, very long term public relations.”

The shows have been growing in popularity and the Klinkhoffs, buoyed by the response, extended their research into the artists profiled, so that now modest catalogues accompany the exhibitions.

”Another evolution is the level of surveillance we provide,” Alan Klinkhoff said. ”In the earlier days we did not have the quality security system we are able to offer today. I can recall that for one of our exhibitions, Eric and I were so nervous about the responsibility of taking care of other people’s paintings, that we alternated nights sleeping at the gallery.”

To date, the gallery has had retrospectives shows for Marc-Aurele Fortin, William Goodridge Roberts, Anne Douglas Savage and Lilias Torrence Newton among others.

Lismer, an artist who made Montreal his home for more than 30 years, strangely enough has not had a major exhibition in this city since his death in 1969.

He is known mainly as one of the original members of the Group of Seven, founded in 1920. The self-proclaimed group of proto-modernists who took their easels and paint boxes into the Canadian countryside, creating a unique school of landscape painting.

But Lismer was also a great teacher and an artist who continued to evolve, changing his style quite dramatically.

As if in anticipation of this evolution, Emily Carr, another great painter of that era, wrote about Lismer’s works on meeting him for the first time in 1927: ”Lismer’s last two pictures gave me a feeling of exhilaration and joy. All his works are fine, but he is going on to higher and bigger things, sweep and rhythm of the lines, stronger colours, simpler forms.”

”He was extremely nice,” she added.

Lismer left a similar impression on Walter Klinkhoff, who knew the artist.

”Always joking, invariably kind and courteous, Lismer never said anything critical about another human being, especially another artist. One of those people who always do more for you than you can do for them, his generosity was constantly in evidence. Parents of his students would often find a work of Lismer’s that they had admired handed to them casually as a gift. They would bring it to my gallery, pleased but somewhat unaware of the value of the gift and the generosity of the giver,” Klinkhoff wrote in an introduction to Bright Land: a Warm Look at Arthur Lismer, by Lois Darroch.

Lismer taught at numerous schools across the country. He was the principal of the Nova Scotia College of Art and vice-principal of the Ontario College of Art. Later, in Montreal, he was assistant professor of fine arts at McGill University and principal of the School of Art of the Montreal Art Association.

Lismer was particularly fond of instructing children. In 1933 he founded the Children’s Art Centre in Toronto, and in Montreal he spent many hours teaching art to children at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which honoured him with an exhibition of child art done at the Children’s Art Centre.

Like his artist friend F.H. Varley, Lismer was born in the industrial English city of Sheffield, in 1885. He was trained at the Sheffield School of Arts and at the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp.

He arrived in Canada in 1911 and was instantly enamored of the rich landscape of this country, so different from the environment in which he grew up.

His earlier works are one vast expanse of sky over a distant landscape, wind-swept trees dotting the horizon. Gradually, however, he begins to depart from the imagery associated with the Group of Seven, heading toward abstraction.

The sky begins to disappear, as the land and its coat of rocks and trees gains in power, the focus zooming downward, until the ground resembles a jumble of shapes and colours.

The Klinkhoffs have gathered 35 of Lismer’s works for the exhibition, opening today, which comprehensively illustrate the transition taking place in his art.

It begins with a 1914 painting of “Algonquin Park” and a 1917 oil titled “Winter in Nova Scotia”, both typical of the Group of Seven, with sparsely-limbed trees against a rich textured landscape.

A magnificent view of a “Quebec Village, St. Hillarion”, painted in 1928, attests to Lismer’s great talent as a landscape painter. The canvas is one great orgy of shapes and colours, with clouds and buildings, mounds of earth and slivers of water, all vibrating with a wonderful energy.

The details begin to give way to more abstract treatment of the flora in a 1951 oil titled “Forest Giant, B.C.”, which focuses on a tree trunk, like a dark obelisk in a mass of branches. A white light is pouring from above, illuminating the scene and adding to the monumental dimensions of the work.

In “Beach Texture II”, from 1952, Lismer has left any resemblance to the group’s style behind. The canvas is writhing with shapes, pebbles and seaweed in a tangle verging on abstraction.

The exhibition is complemented by samples of Lismer’s graphic work, including several amusing cartoons, poking fun at himself and fellow artists, making it a unique and pleasantly satisfying look at one of Canada’s great modern artists.

– Arthur Lismer: Retrospective, is on until Sept. 20 at the Walter Klinkhoff Gallery, 1200 Sherbrooke St. W. Information: 288-7306.

Copyright © The Gazette, Montreal

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