Max Stern has grown rich making Canadian painting richer, as

DOROTHY EBER February 5 1966


Max Stern has grown rich making Canadian painting richer, as

DOROTHY EBER February 5 1966

Art dealer Max Stern and his Swedish-born wife-and-partner Iris are seen with a few of the thousands of paintings and sculptures housed in their four-story Dominion Gallery (and home) in Montreal. Stern holds a Riopelle; the walls are hung with works by such other Canadians as Emily Carr, Edward Hughes, Good ridge Roberts.

AN OBSERVER OF the national scene once remarked that Dr. Max Stern, the sixtyone-year-old Montreal art dealer, invented the market for Canadian art — and then went on and invented Emily Carr.

Not noticeably troubled by false modesty, Dr. Stern immediately denies the latter part of this remark. “Fmily Carr is an authentic artistic genius." he says, "the only one Canada ever produced." But he agrees wholeheartedly with the first part. He’s quick to point out that when the fortunes of war caused his arrival in Canada in 1940. Emily Carr had no market at all and a major Krieghoff could be had for a hundred dollars. He believes it's not by coincidence that the works of Canadian painters whose names today are household words began a steady upward climb

in 1942, the year he set up as a professional art dealer in Montreal. "I had not only the drive but the knowledge." he says. "I was very much better trained than any of the people around."

In point of fact, even his detractors — and in the dog-eat-dog world of the art dealer these are not a few — concede that in the forties and fifties he did a remarkable job of introducing Canadians to their artists. A staunch supporter. Fouis Melzack. owner of the Classic Bookstores, the country’s largest bookstore chain, and possessor of a collection of Canadiana valued at half a million dollars, says, “Thank God he came along. Of course, with the country's increasing affluence the interest would have developed eventually. But Stern spurred it on."

A well-tailored, well-set. good-looking man.

Stern is today by his own admission — and also by several of his competitors’ — Canada's most prosperous art dealer. According to Stern, this happy issue was never in doubt. (Stern's sense of his own perspicacity has been noted by many; artist Goodridge Roberts says bluntly, “The man has a Napoleon complex.“) Stern explains, “1 knew exactly what I was doing. Everything I did in Canada I had seen done before in Europe; it was like living twice. I had the experience."

It was as a refugee from Nazi Germany that Stern came to Canada. He had fled Germany in 1937, having sent out before him most of the contents of the Dusseldorf gallery he inherited from his father, and for three years he operated a gallery in Fondon. When France fell in 1940. he was interned and at his own request was sent


on to Montreal with a group of “friendly aliens.” Canada did not seem propitious territory for his talents. The few who bought art bought European. It was not an atmosphere to inspire confidence, but Stern was undeterred although he obviously found the folkways strange (“Men wouldn’t u> a picture that was woman’s work”). A visit to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts had shown him the work of Goodridge Roberts and other Quebec artists and he told novelist Gwethalyn Graham. “I will conquer via the living Canadian artists.” She replied. “You will starve.” Later. wEen time and Stern had proved her wrong, she observed. “Max did more than anyone to bring Canadian artists and receptive buyers together It was a question of the man and the moment.”

An introduction put Stern in contact with Mrs.

Rose Millman, owner of a small gallery on Montreal’s St. Catherine Street. Mrs. Millman (who died in 1959) was an amateur in the gallery business but had a strong interest in Canadian painting and promoted it in her showroom, which she called The Dominion Gallery — the name Stern’s gallery bears today. Penniless at the time. Stern went to work for Mrs. Millman on the understanding that he could buy a fifty-percent interest and that either party would have the option to buy the other out. “I have to praise her very highly,” says Siern. “She gave me a free hand. A lesser woman might not have done so.”

With the free hand. Stern quickly made his influence apparent. He borrowed an eye-stopping Diego Rivera from Gwethalyn Graham and placed it prominently in the gallery window, and he started his campaign to sell Canadian art with a one-man show for Goodridge Roberts. He followed this during 1943 with individual and group shows promoting the work of the Group of Seven, and Guy Viau, Léon Bellefleur, Jean-Paul Mousseau. Stanley Cosgrove, Jacques de Tonnancour, Fernand Léger and Paul-Emile Borduas. The gallery prospered.

In 1944, Stern decided to extend his missionary work into new territory. He would make a journey across Canada, looking for Canadian artists and awakening the market as he went. The Dominion Gallery had cash reserves of fifteen hundred dollars. Stern used $950 to finance his trip.

At the time Stern did not feel that introducing Canadians to their own artists called for subtlety and he had arranged a group showing of Canadian artists in Morgan’s department store in Montreal. On his trip west he pursued the same policy of taking art to the most public marketplace available. In Winnipeg he approached Philip Chester, then managing director of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and persuaded him to allow the organization of shows in most Bay stores from Winnipeg to Victoria.

But for Stern the most fateful occurrence on his trip west was his meeting with Emily Carr in Victoria. "We have many fine artists.” he says today, "but for me. Emily Carr is our only authentic genius.” Stern remembers every detail of this first me&C ing. "I took a taxi and drove out to her house and found her sitting in the sun, cat on her lap. She was seventythree. I said, ‘I would love to see your paintings.’ These w'ere in a large room with one wall entirely stacked with them — there were more than four hundred there. We took them out and I w'as speechless. I knew immediately she was a great artist. 1 said. ‘Now I offer you a show,’ and she told me. ‘You will not sell one painting. My paintings do not sell.' I replied, 'II you let me choose the paintings 1 will make it a big success.’ ”

Later, veteran artist Arthur Lismer cautioned him. "It'll be good tor advertising but you won't sell a single picture.” Stern sold fifty-four ol the sixty shown within fourteen days. He immediately sent Emily Carr a cheque. She wired back, “NEVER SEEN SUCH A FAT CHEQUE,” and in a following letter described it as “a joyful shock.

She died the following March. Her Stern show was the only public success she knew as a painter.

With the war’s end. Stern's fortunes changed radically: old masters and art treasures filling an entire van arrived from his former London gallery, and in 1946 he married Iris Esther Westerberg, a Swedish woman of independent means whom he had met in Canada. In 1947 Mrs. Stern bought out Mrs. Mill man and became a partner. Three years later the Sterns moved from St. Catherine Street to Sherbrooke Street and their present modern gallery. From this vantage point Stern continued to press the cause of Canadian art—he hung the first show of western Canadian art in eastern Canada in 1951—and. with the settling back to normal of the European art markets, picked up his old family connections and began dealing again in old masters and the great nineteenthand twentieth-century Europeans. Today, Stern's gallery is Canada’s largest—and is. in tact, one of the largest on the continent. His clients include galleries, museums and internationally known collectors from Canada, the U. S. and Europe — he sold New York's Museum of Modern Art its first Kandinsky.

Not all Canadian artists receiving I he benefits of Stern's salesmanship have felt their dealings with him worked to their advantage. Until 1950, some artists have claimed, he took two thirds of the sales price of the paintings by the artists in his stable. (Two thirds, it must be said, is not out of line with the commissions taken by many galleries.) Since that date he has offered contracts with yearly salaries (top figure in 1957, six thousand dollars; today, nine thousand) in return for which the painters supply a fixed number of works and make him their sole Canadian outlet. The arrangement has allowed a number of artists to paint full time, but some have felt Stern has profited unduly. One dealer estimates Stern has sometimes made four hundred percent on paintings he bought ten years before and stored in the basement.

Gilles Gauvreau, for fourteen years Stern's assistant and now director and co-owner of the Sherbrooke .Street Galerie Martin, says, “Dr. Stern has not been generous with his pointers and he has profited greatly from them—but it can't be denied he created a good market for most."

Georges Del rue, of the Galerie Fibre, says, “On certain occasions he's bought paintings for very little and then sold them for higher prices. That’s a gamble. We hear about the ones who succeeded but there must be lots of painters in his cellar still waiting. At the end of the contract the painter is free and his prices are up. Then it’s up to him to do what he wants.”

In the middle fifties Stern had what he refers to as “my fight with Goodridge Roberts.” rumors of which still resound mildly through the Montreal art world. Stern's version is that Roberts, who had been receiving a salary under a contract, told him he was going to allow two other agents to handle his work besides Stern and that he. Stern, said this was two too many. For his part. Roberts, who was a part-time painter before he met Stern, says that his arrangement with Stern did give “some help” and “would have been advantageous, but there were too many restrictions.” He estimates he received an average of something like “twenty per cent or less” of the sales prices of his pictures.

Certainly Stern likes to bargain. One artist who bested him was the great Quebec primitive S. Mary Bouchard. She sent him collections of her canvases, with her own prices marked on the back. It's reported that Stern would add up the Bouchard prices, make a deduction, and write out a cheque for the balance. Not satisfied. Mary Bouchard always returned the cheque, and Stern always wrote out another.

Dr. and Mrs. Stern live in quarters on the top floor of their four-story gallery and have a sculpture terrace on the roof above. Their apartment is crowded with their personal collection and the living room bears a remarkable resemblance to some of the galleries below, even the cupboards and back stairs contain pictures. Lord Beaverbrook, to whom Stern sold paintings for his Fredericton gallery, once said he should bring all his clients to the kitchen to “see how a picture should be hung.” Though bombarded with requests. Stern never sells the paintings in his private collection.

Stern sees himself as a protector and promoter of Canadian art. For a dealer, he says, buying is everything. It is what is bought, and at what price, that keeps a dealer in business. “Anyone can sell,” he says. “Not everyone can buy.”

As for dissatisfied artists, Stern considers them part of the natural scheme of things. "Artists praise you one day and forget what you have done the next.” he says. “No one is as difficult as an artist.” Stern is fond of quoting his father, a former vicepresident of the West German Art Dealer Organization. "My father told me, 'Always treat your artists like children. They will only be grateful and recognize what you have done after you have gone!’ ”

Sometimes, Stern homes in on talent in a chase that has the ring of a detective story. In 1951 he was planning a show of western art and he took a two-month trip to find the artists. In Vancouver he hunted through the local art gallery but turned up nothing of interest. “There must be more artists,” he told a companion, and went off to look through the students’ residences at the University of British Columbia. In one, hanging on the wall on loan, he spotted a single picture by an unknown painter named Edward J. Hughes. The picture showed promise but Stern could not find the artist: Hughes had disappeared from his rooms some months before. He did, however, leave a forwarding address.

Stern went in pursuit but the address turned out to be only the first of seven—and the seventh was a dead end: Hughes had left no forwarding address. Desperately, Stern called newspaper publisher Stuart Keate who put a reporter on the story. The reporter suggested contacting the RCMP. The mounties got their man; Hughes and his wife were living at Shawnigan Lake, forty miles from Victoria.

Stern’s eventual visit surprised Hughes—but it also surprised Stern. A glance at the work Hughes was doing confirmed Stern’s first impression of Hughes' talent, and he said, “Tell me, Mr. Hughes, how long does it take you to do a painting?” According to Stern, Hughes replied that it took six months to a year. Stern was horrified. “How can I make you a living? You have to speed up your painting. Perhaps you move too much.”

Hughes today is one of the country’s most successful artists, well known for his vivid and appealing pictures of the tug boats that chug up and down the BC coast. Stern has him up to twelve paintings a year.

Some artists feel that Stern’s contracts put too great a pressure on painters to produce canvases. (Individual artists deny this influence has affected their work but can usually suggest another painter who has found it damaging.) Certainly Stern is not averse to giving suggestions. (“Put in flowers,” he’s been heard to say.) Only once in his career to date has he repeated the runaway success ol his first Emily Carr show. This was with a painter of a very different kind: J. Douglas Lawley, an artist who three years ago painted the wild ponies of Sable Island, a lonely sandbar one hundred and eighty miles from Halifax. When Stern showed the Sable Island pictures in 1962. all but one of the forty-eight were sold (at prices ranging from $65 to $450) in a three-week period. Stern explained this success by saying. “People love horses.”

Don’t scoff at “a nice scene”

Lawley, well known for his numerous studies of horses, once said, “I could do abstract paintings but Dr. Stern won’t let me.” Stern agrees: “I won't. We have too many abstract painters, and besides, he is not abstract in his soul.”

Stern's Dominion Gallery reflects a catholic taste: old masters, paintings by complete unknowns, far-out abstracts and representative scenes. Among the old masters arc some recovered from the Nazis after the war. Two, by Dirk Hals, brother to Franz, and Salomon van Ruisdael, were found through the good offices of Lester Pearson, who forwarded photographs to the Canadian Military Mission in Berlin. The pictures had been lost during the days when the Jews were fleeing Europe; Stern negotiated a passport for his mother by turning them over with his German bank account.

Stern has no difficulty reconciling these different qualities. He says, “My father told me, 'Don’t remove the church from the village.’ We need Strauss waltzes as well as Beethoven. We need the good as well as the great. You can not live by Macbeth alone.” Some dealers won’t have a “nice scene” in the place; Stern declares that a nice scene, if it distills the essence of a familiar subject, will always live. He points out that the once disparaged Landseer, the painter of dogs whom Queen Victoria loved so much, is making a landslide comeback.

"We consider his gallery rather a mixture of tendencies,” admits Georges Deirue of Galérie Libre, “but if Montreal has Henry Moore sculpture and exhibitions by Georges Mathieu, it's by virtue of Dr. Stern.”

One of Stern’s most successful sales approaches has been his insistence that paintings are good investments. He makes short shrift of the old saw, “Art for art’s sake.” “A man must think of his family,” he says firmly. Two years ago he helped The Financial Post prepare a graph showing how the best works of a number of Canadian painters had beaten top quality Canadian growth stocks over a twenty-year period. Certain paintings by Borduas and Emily Carr selling for around thirty dollars in 1942 could fetch more than ten thousand dollars today. A Krieghoff worth five hundred dollars in 1942 was recently sold for twenty-five thousand dollars. An prices continue to rise rapidly and he believes some may jump as much as four hundred to five hundred percent within the next ten to fifteen years.

But Stern also sounds a note of warning. "We’re paying much too much for some Canadians,” he says. Compared with European paintings, a number of Canadians are overpriced. He also argues that Canada is in danger of facing an over-production of poor painters; more students should go into the neglected field of art history. “We urgently need trained people for the museums, universities, schools and art colleges.” he says.

Dr. Stern also believes that abstract art is on the way out. “The great will survive.” he says, “but we’re in a break with abstract painting. Art is changing as strongly as when we turned to cubism.” The swing, Stern believes, is to sculpture and a couple of years ago as a signpost indicating the shape of things to come he placed Henry Moore’s Woman, 1960, outside his gallery. Inside he carries such greats as Rodin,  Arp, Zadkine and Marini.

Stern occasionally talks about retirement. Mrs. Stern would like it. but Stern is not convinced he’s ready to leave his work. “It’s my life," he says. He admits, however, that he’s looking for a top-flight man to run the gallery.

The percentage of business he does in Canadian art has reduced since the forties and fifties when, as Gilles Gauvreau, his former assistant, says, “All the painters w'ere after him to handle their work." Stern estimates the division now as about fifty-fifty Canadian and European. Partly, this is because he’s increasing his international business; partly, it’s because the art climate in Canada has changed. There is such a proliferation of galleries that young artists are courted. Gallery-hopping on a Saturday afternoon is a chic pastime for young Torontonians and Montrealers; paintings form part of the décor in the homes of many families with average incomes and well-developed tastes. “Young artists used to be poor and unknown.” says Goodridge Roberts. "Today they’re well-known and rich.” If this is true — or partially true, for certainly they are richer — some of the credit goes to Dr. Max Stern, who pioneered with audacity and courage when the terrain was as rocky as that portrayed in the Canadian landscapes he promoted. ★