Our world-famous “unknown” master artist
While Philip Aziz remains unknown to most Canadians, his talents are sought eagerly by opera stars
MONSIGNOR J. A. FEENEY, the husky, handsome rector of St. Peter's Basilica at London, Ontario, decided in 1958 that it needed a new chapel — the Lady Chapel. It would be modest in size and cost, furnished with things already on hand, but would have to have above the altar an impressive picture of the Madonna. He commissioned Philip Aziz to do this.
When Aziz completed his six - by - nine - foot Mary, Queen Of Heaven, painted in the Italian Renaissance style with egg tempera highlighted by gold leaf, and framed by Aziz himself in fused, jewel-like fragments cd glass, it made the wall behind it look dull and shabby. So the monsignor had Aziz create a new wall of iron, bronze and opaque glass with a cross-and-crown motif. The magnificent painting and the lovely wall made the altar look drab, so Aziz's next task was to design a new altar— white statuary marble with clean modernistic lines—and a new tabernacle with gold doors with a dove pattern.
Each improvement led to another. Before Aziz was through, he had hired a crew of twenty and designed and fashioned a marble floor inlaid with black terrazzo, crownlike chandeliers, bleached-oak chairs and kneeling benches, a gold, silver and crystal chalice and communion plate, and even the vestments of the priests.
His work was barely completed when, early on a January morning in 1959, he heard a radio news bulletin: St. Peter's was burning. He threw on a coat and sped to the basilica to find that Monsignor Feeney, at great risk to his life, had saved the huge multimillion-dollar building by crawling through a smoke-filled passage to turn off the electric fans that were blowing flames through a defective heating system. In the Lady Chapel, Aziz's Mary was slightly smudged and cracked but easily reparable and devout people knelt in the rubble giving thanks that their painting was safe. Aziz stood alone and unnoticed. deeply touched by the emotion his picture had stirred. “I was proud,” he remembers. "No finer tribute could have been paid me, for it is an artist's art. not the artist, that matters.”
Aziz is a compact, athletic, articulate forty-two-yearold bachelor. While curiously unrecognized in his own Canada, he is winning international renown and has lately completed a life-sized portrait of Eugene, Cardinal Tisserant, dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals. He recalls, as vividly as the scene in the Lady Chapel, a conversation with Lewis E. York, chairman of painting in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at Yale's School of Fine Arts, the day he was graduating. "If I'd gone in for medicine or law or engineering," he told York. "I'd have it made. I'd have all sorts of offers. But how does an artist set up shop?”
"Get your name before the public as much as you possibly can.” said York. “Exhibit your stuff, good or bad. in every exhibition, big or small. Get your name in the newspapers, get publicity, get the public interested in you."
"By doing that," Aziz argued, “you put your personality first, your art second. It may take longer, it may be slower, to put your art before your personality and develop the quality of your work to / continued on pane 35
continued on pane 35
Philip Aziz inspects the chapel he designed for St. Peter’s Basilica in London, Ont., and at right works
•and religious leaders, and in his studio in London, Ontario, he fills commissions worth up to $15,000
in spacious studio by completed portrait of Eugene, Cardinal Tisserant, “prime minister” to the Pope.
For Aziz, the long slow way led to a cardinal, Carmen and handsome fees
OUR “UNKNOWN” ARTIST
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a point where it must be accepted on ids own merit, but I think this is a better course.”
“That,” said York, "is what 1 hoped you would say.”
So Aziz has gone it on his own. the long slow way, but it has brought him to a point at which he has as much as he can do, at fees ranging from five thousand to fifteen thousand dollars a picture.
The Tisserant portrait—Tisserant at cighty-one is. in effect, prime minister to the Pope and is rumored to have heen twice nominated for the papacy— was commissioned by a wealthy patron who will present it to the church. Aziz spenf a week at Tisserant s mansion in Rome doing sketches of him, first in charcoal, then in oil. It took him six months to translate these studies into a six-by-seven-foot painting. It is a work that seems to be a mirrorlike image of the cardinal but incorporates the distortions and techniques of sophisticated painting so skillfully that, without being discernible, they emphasize the character of the subject. Tisserant is wearing a simple black cassock, red cap and red sash. His eyes are Gallic blue and piercingly shrewd, his full grey beard is patriarchal and looks as though each hair had been painted individually, and his large hands rest commandingly on holy books. The background is abstract — blue and white arches tinged with yellow sunshine and symbolizing current trends in the church by subtly suggesting a new dawn. This dawn illuminates a sheaf of paper inscribed, “Most Holy Ecumenical Conference Vatican II.” The frame, by Aziz, is basswood overlaid with antique silver and gold leaf, so that it resembles heavy metal.
The cardinal, at first, was reluctant to pose. “But Eminence,” Aziz told him, “what I’m really painting is the Holy See you represent — you as the servant." From then on, he had a willing and disciplined sitter. The
portrait is now in Aziz’ studio near the University of Western Ontario campus at London, crated, weighing four hundred and fifty pounds, and awaiting shipment to Europe.
While Aziz has established his reputation chiefly by liturgical art — defined as a picture you can pray before — he has ventured successfully
into vastly different fields. His painting of Rise Stevens, the mezzosoprano, in the role of the gypsy enchantress Carmen, will hang in the Metropolitan Opera House at New York's Lincoln Center when its construction is completed in 1966. She and her husband. Walter Surovy. saw an Aziz portrait in New York and
Surovy asked Aziz to paint his wife in her greatest role. Aziz painted her in the New York studio of his friend Yousuf Karsh, the photographer.
At the unveiling, Aziz stripped the curtain off with a dramatic flourish, his eyes on Miss Stevens, his thoughts on how she would react. She gazed at her likeness — a Carmen with long
hair falling over bare shoulders, one breast exposed, and a she-devil look on her face. “Oh, Carmen — you bitch!” she cried, hurling herself at Aziz and hugging him. Another of his close friends is Erik Bruhm, the Danish ballet dancer who has danced with the National Ballet of Canada, whom Aziz admires for his physical strength, his masculinity. This may be a key to his character and his work. He dislikes modern art that is “sick” or effeminate.
“Art,” Philip Aziz insists, “must have an intellectual as well as an emotional content. It must be intelligible to the viewer. Artists must experiment, but experiments in art, as in science, belong in the laboratory. Some very good artist will come out with a new and completely experimental idea. Other artists, who have not his talent or insight, get on the bandwagon of his style or concept. They can’t paint but the experimental nature of the idea, plus their beards, their tawdry mistresses and the fact that they are pursuing what is the fad of the moment, get them an acceptance their talent never could win for them.”
While he says today’s experiments will ultimately improve art, he adds that the picture buyer should distinguish between experimental work and valid art likely to have permanent value.
The kind of artists he condemns as “ulcerated men and silly women, quasi-amateurs,” respond that he is a technician, that he should be using a camera instead of a brush, and that
he has painted women’s breasts with golden nipples. He has, in his Three
Fecundity is a recurring Aziz theme. His Surge Of Apples shows split halves of the fruit falling through space — the fallout of seeds. “My aim is to portray regeneration,” he says. He himself has thus far shunned family ties; he twice came close to marrying but, he says, “would have been divorced or sent either one of these women up the wall.”
Aziz has drawn on the Bible for many of his subjects, among them The Creation Of Adam, The Incarnation, The Resurrection and The Second Coming. He strives to interpret and emphasize the divinely liturgical aspects of religion, and says of such pictures, “They belong near or over an altar. You can pray to them. But they are undenominational. They could hang in any church.”
“It’s a kind of genius”
“Philip Aziz is the best unconscious theologian I have ever met,” says Roman Catholic Bishop G. Emmett Carter, of London, Ont. “He is not learned in dogma or liturgy but whenever he paints something religiously symbolic, it is exactly right. It’s a kind of genius.”
An early painting by Aziz, Pieta, is an altar piece in the monks’ chapel in St. Bruno, Que., while another, The Nativity, is in the mother house of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Hamilton. For Lady Eaton, he designed the white-marble altar, shaped like a tri-
umphant arch, m the west chapel of the Timothy Eaton Memorial Church in Toronto, and on the rear screen he painted a symbolic deer, peacock and phoenix.
Aziz, son of Lebanese parents, turns easily from interpreting religion to interpreting nature, and his panels, The Four Seasons, are perhaps the most eye-catching items in the spectacular new Detroit building of Michigan Consolidated Gas where they hang at the entrance to the employees’ cafeteria. Another Aziz mural decorates the loggia of the Grosse Pointe mansion of Mr. and Mrs. A. D. Wilkinson, prominent Detroiters.
Animated, excitable, with bright brown eyes and black hair beginning to thin on top, he exercises vigorously to stay in trim. He can entertain his friends — who are usually rich, influential, intellectual or all three combined— for hour after hour with his anecdotes and pungent philosophy. He was brought up in London, Ont., where, although Greek Orthodox, he attended Roman Catholic schools and, occasionally, Anglican church services. “At twenty-one you can adopt the religion you want,” his father, Charles Aziz, told him. He still takes communion only at the Greek Orthodox church.
He knew, when he was six, that he would be an artist, and can recall exactly when and how he reached the decision: “Our teacher, a nun, asked us to draw a flag. I looked around and saw all the children pressing hard with their colored crayons. But a flag, 1 felt, needed to be softer, so I sketched it lightly, with delicate shadings. 1 also saw that the children were drawing rectangles, but flags fly in the breeze and have soft furls in them, so I drew mine to suggest a flag waving against a blue sky. Just as I was trying to finish it, the sister picked up my sketch in one hand and held my face in the other and said, ‘Philip, you are going to be an artist.’ ”
In high school he took a special art course, and in 1941 he was hired by Eaton’s display department in Toronto. But the war was on, so he enlisted as a “war artist” in the RCAF, which transformed him into an instrument technician. In 1944 he was in New York on leave and dutifully telephoned an “aunt” (his father’s cousin). “Come to me immediately,” she commanded.
So he hurried to Park Avenue, to a jewelry salon called “The Little Shop of T. Azeez,” which had a man with a
musical-comedy uniform standing by its bronze gates. Inside, his father’s cousin sat like an old prophetess and said, “You are the image of my father. Since I have no son, you will be it.” Her name was Madame Marie el-Khouri, but she had been nicknamed “Arabia” by a customer. Lord Dunsany, the Irish author, and went by that. She was short and dark and had lost an eye. She knew everybody, introduced him to fashionable New York, took him to dinner with
Vanderbilts and Du Ponts. After the war, he enrolled at Yale, and at weekends he and “Aunt Arabia” were wined and dined and chauffeured from place to place. They spent winter holidays at Palm Beach, where she had a second store, and he helped her design such jewelry as a one-hundredand - fifty - thousand - dollar diamondand-emerald necklace.
When he graduated from Yale, he and Arabia did the grand tour of Europe and the Middle East and had
a private audience with Pope Pius XII. Aziz’ Thousand And One Nights in Manhattan ended abruptly when he refused to take over and run the jewelry shop as a career. Arabia never forgave him. She left her money to Princeton and to the Institute For The Blind.
Aziz returned to Canada and lectured in art for five years at the University of Western Ontario while he was establishing himself as a painter. Within a few months, he had
sold his Pieta to the monks at St. Bruno for five thousand dollars and Lady Eaton herself had opened his first one-man show at the T. Eaton Fine Art Galleries in Toronto. Her son’s wife, Mrs. John David Eaton, opened his second one-man show at the same galleries in 1957. Meanwhile, he had done portraits of other members of the Eaton family, of Yousuf Karsh, of John Bassett, publisher of the Toronto Telegram, and other prominent people, and commissions for religious paintings were arriving more and more frequently.
He had attained financial independence, quit his lecturing post to devote all his time to painting, and remodelled a seventy-five-year-old house on a brow of land by the University of Western Ontario Campus, overlooking the Thames River. The old house is painted white, with black shutters, and its rooms are filled with priceless antiques and Aziz’ own paintings. Among the antiques are a Louis XVI desk, an intricately carved fifteenth-century Italian cabinet, rosewood chairs and an Arabian inlaid end table. Across a brick-walled courtyard—-he laid the bricks himself— is his studio, where light flows in from a skylight and a thirty-fivefoot window. The floor is of maple, marble, stone and ochre brick, with a garden in the middle that has an hibiscus tall enough to touch the splitbeam coiling. In the studio there are more antiques, and a record player, and a grand piano that Aziz “plays at by ear.”
An important half inch
And there are, of course, the tools of his trade, and more paintings: strange, wonderfully executed, controversial paintings in egg tempera, bright clear pigments and gold leaf — part Italian Renaissance, part abstract, part intellect, part emotion, part reverence, part fun, and wholly Aziz.
Scattered around outside the studio are the capitals, or ornamental tops, of Corinthian columns, rescued from an old bank that was torn down. Sitting on them, looking out over his broad lawn bordered by a grove of trees, and catching fleeting glimpses of his pheasants, chickadees, tanagers, jays and scarlet cardinals, which he feeds each day, you may hear him tell how, in 1940, the fact that he was half an inch under five feet nine caused the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to turn him down when he tried to join them. It may be recognized, when Aziz’ paintings can be seen in perspective, as the most important half inch in the history of Canadian art.
Then, again, it may not. For who is to judge so soon the art of a man who paints for the ages, combining the techniques of the past and the future?
How does he appraise himself? “I call myself ’Aziz, the Picture Maker,’ as in Omar, the Tent Maker,” he says. And, as an afterthought: “I get red in the face when a kookie says, 'I owe nothing to the Judo-Christian traditions. It’s all in myself.’ I tell him civilizations arc founded on religions. not on hamburgers and sunbathing.” ★