Art for the Canadian soul
by Barbara Black
Sandra Paikowsky is the curator of a touring exhibition that does Montreal proud. The art historian, professor and editor/publisher created Goodridge Roberts Revealed, the first major retrospective of the artist in 30 years.
The exhibition opened January 31 at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, the Toronto-area gallery best known for its stunning Group of Seven collection, and will be there until June 14.
From there, the exhibit will tour Fredericton, Quebec City, Montreal (the Museum of Fine Arts, spring 1999) and London, Ont. The McMichael opening was accompanied by a three-page advertising feature in The Globe and Mail, thanks to the show's sponsors, Investors Group of Winnipeg.
Goodridge Roberts' richly coloured landscapes, portraits and still-lifes are familiar to Montreal art-lovers, though perhaps less known outside the city. Paikowsky said that while collections across Canada are filled with his later works, she considers his first 30 years "his classic period."
"His landscapes are not like those of the Group of Seven," she said. "They're anonymous, not heroic, though he obviously loved the land. They represent his reactions to what he saw, to the changing light. He may have come from an era influenced by the Nature poets, but his paintings are not romanticized."
Roberts was a true cultural aristocrat, born in 1904 into a Fredericton family of famous writers and poets which included Sir Charles G.D. Roberts and Bliss Carman. His parents were not well off, but they encouraged his artistic ambitions.
He studied in New York, where he was influenced by some of the best art teachers of the 1920s, including John Sloan, of the so-called Ashcan School, and Max Weber, a friend of Picasso. As a result, Roberts evolved a style that combined American pragmatism with the international trend called "conservative modernism." He settled permanently in Montreal in the early 1930s.
Roberts' work drew approving notice and sold quite well during his lifetime. In 1970, the National Gallery mounted a Roberts retrospective, an unusual honour for a living artist. He died in 1974.
Paikowsky read Roberts' correspondence and talked to his family and friends to write a substantial essay for the show's sumptuous catalogue. Though the letters are mainly business correspondence with galleries, they are beautifully written. Roberts was a charming man with a great sensitivity to language and a love of poetry, Paikowsky said.
Finding the 117 works for the show was fun, she added. Roberts was prolific, producing about 3,000 works. Paikowsky knew where many were, but she found others by serendipity.
At a reception given last spring by the Faculty of Fine Arts, she met a woman who showed her a painting in her home that went into the exhibit. Others came from public, corporate and private collections, including two paintings from Paikowsky's own walls. "Lending a painting for two years is not a small thing," she said. "I know, because I miss mine."
Paikowsky deserves much of the credit for establishing the excellent reputation of Concordia's art gallery. She was registrar of the Sir George Williams Art Galleries from 1970 and 1972, and curator of the Concordia Art Gallery from 1981 to 1992.
It was a period of vigourous growth, as Paikowsky raised funds to support exhibitions and research programs, and attracted major gifts of modern Canadian art. Much of her effort went into exposing the gallery's visitors to Canadian art from beyond Montreal, filling a vacuum in an inward-looking art scene.
She also helped to design the new gallery in the J.W. McConnell library complex, which opened in 1992 as the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery. Even though she's satisfied with what all agree is a beautiful, accessible space, she remarked tartly that the University should acknowledge that a new gallery requires financial support.
A full professor in the Department of Art History since 1995, Paikowsky continues to teach and to run the Canadian Journal of Art History, which she co-founded in 1974.
In a world that sometimes seems obsessed with employability, art history continues to draw students, she said. In fact, it is attracting those who want to know not only about art, but about how the world works -- the sort of students who might have chosen the humanities.
"Art history really gives a multidisciplinary perspective," she said, "and I'm in favour of anything that increases the audience for art."