ART

Forging a visual language

Robert Enright November 2 1981
ART

Forging a visual language

Robert Enright November 2 1981

Forging a visual language

ART

Robert Enright

In 1926, art critic F.B. Housser described Frederick Horsman Varley as “a sort of art gypsy.” He did not intend it as a compliment; Varley’s career, with its protean changes in style and subject matter, was an untidy departure from the landscape-oriented art movement that Housser was determined to champion. Varley remained a burr on the pant leg of the Group of Seven for 50 years, where his presence was explained as an inevitable side effect of a walk through the hallowed ground of Canadian landscape painting.

F.H. Varley: A Centennial Exhibition, organized and circulated by the Edmonton Art Gallery (with the assistance of the National Gallery and the Canada Development Corp.), will go a long way toward salving any patches of irritation. The show will be on view in Edmonton until Dec. 6 before travelling to Victoria, Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto. Christopher Varley, the painter’s grandson and the curator for the 175work exhibition, has used the show and its comprehensive catalogue as a “tribute and farewell” to his grandfather. He has included enough work to allow his ancestor to emerge, finally, as a complete, if imperfect, painter. Varley, who died in 1969, would be delighted to be separated from the pant leg of the Group. He was always more mercurial than his associates and became more mystical and, ultimately, self-obsessed. Where Lawren Harris’ spirituality

could be expressed in the painting of a simple lighthouse, Varley, as always, looked inside and was his own best beacon. He was perennially an outsider.

However, he was not entirely a renegade from the attitudes that later provided a focus for the Group of Seven. One of his early enthusiasms was the search for a visual language that could accurately reflect the northern landscape. He wrote to his sister in 1913 that Canadian art was a “strong, lusty child, unfettered with rank, musty ideas— possessing a voice that rings sweet and clear.” His consequent work in this tradition was impressive: Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay (1920) embodied the new visual language of the North. In the eyes of his critics, however, its success made his later work appear unfocused. Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay was not his best painting, but it remains his best-known.

In one sense, Varley came to his subjects with a willed naïveté, as if he had no memory of the things he had painted. Each painting was a unique encounter, but Varley wore his influences on his sleeve for critics to peck at. Trained at both the Sheffield School of Art and the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp, Belgium, he picked up diverse interests in school and throughout his life: Chinese painting, the expressionism of Munch and Nolde, English portrait and watercolor painting, the “manners” of Tissot, even a tincture of Renoir. By not focusing on a single style for a long enough period of time, he never fully exploited his con-

siderable abilities. But his best paintings in watercolors— Three Clouds and a Tree (1930), Fireweed (1932-35), The Trail to Rice Lake (1935) and Woodnote (1944)—are flawless. With its swirling profusion of colors, The Trail to Rice Lake conjures up an intricate pantheism. Varley is most effective with intimate scale, as if these landscapes had been absorbed and then recomposed as diary notes from nature.

His portraits are no less remarkable and work best when they insinuate some degree of confrontation. Able to paint well only when he was engaged in his subject, Varley was never a neutral portraitist. His subjects, such as the mining executive and photographer Harold Mortimer-Lamb (1936), look back at us as much as we look in at them. Varley activates his subjects, and the results are not always comforting.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the numerous portraits of Vera Weatherbie, where Varley galvanized his talents. She was an art student and would-be painter whom Varley met in Vancouver in 1927. He used her almost exclusively as a model from 1930 to 1936, and it is tempting to read these portraits as progress reports on the nature of their relationship. In Vera (1930) he painted the best portrait of his life: a forthright, audaciously colored canvas that is as complex a revelation of feminity as Picasso’s Dora Maar Seated (1937). But in A Portrait (of a Girl) (1933) the features are more diffuse, the face seems to be falling apart and the dangerous passivity of the earlier portrait has changed to malevolence, or even boredom.

Varley was no less ruthless when he painted himself. His Self-Portrait (1919) is a rigorous, even brutal work: his face seems less painted than carved out of pigment. But his eyes carry the tangible weight of fear and possibly a hint of terror. This self-portrait articulates a telling paradox; Varley traces an astonishing spectrum moving from arrogance to self-doubt. In his first version of Liberation, a large oil on canvas composed six years after Vera, his portraiture reached an apotheosis. Varley’s stylized depiction of himself as Christ is remarkable; the figure is both present and transparent, not so much a whole being as a two-dimensional assemblage. As his wounds radiate greens, blues and reds, you get the impression that the crucifixion was a scheme to allow the resurrection of colors. The male figure also bears an uncanny facial resemblance to Vera; they appear not so much spiritual siblings as genetic ones. Liberation is really about spiritual and esthetic overreach; Varley and Vera, the male and the female, form and color, are all contained within Christ’s image. Ultimately, the painting of the self-por-

trait was an act of self-love, a mystical auto-eroticism.

Varley’s career is a collection of solitary triumphs and explosive clusters of activity. From the beginning he was preoccupied with finding a voice through paint, and ultimately he succeeded. At his most inspired he spoke in tongues; at his worst—and too often— he stuttered. Finally, Varley is a painter-manqué who wanted to remain precocious even in his dotage. By the late ’40s his work had become benign and prettified. In 1940, he wrote to Vera that his drawings were far ahead of his early work: “I’ve no fears or doubts now. I just draw and when I draw too nicely I muck it up.” Somehow in the passage of time, Varley lost his nerve and the edge to his art fell away. He drew so nicely that he forgot he was his own most important saboteur.