LONDON, ONTARIO – In this excerpt from Three Artists: Kurelek, Chambers & Curnoe (Elmwood Press, 2016) Herman Goodden recounts London artist Jack Chambers’ first encounter with the Old World. As one of very few Canadian artists of his generation who undertook the full regimen of classical training, the 22 year-old Chambers was looking to Europe for nothing less than a total reorientation of his perceptual habits and skills. But before he was truly ready to commit to that process, the ever proud and gnarly artist had to find some way to make clear that while he was indeed submitting to the Old World’s authority in these matters, he would paradoxically do so under his own terms.
In September of 1953 on the night before Jack Chambers (1931–78) headed off to New York City to board a Greek ship sailing to Naples on which he had booked a tourist class berth, he hauled all of his paintings out of his parents’ basement and took them over to Ross Woodman’s house for safe keeping. A professor of Romantics by day at the University of Western Ontario and otherwise a passionate art collector and widely regarded critic whose musings did much to bring coherence and attention to the work of at least two generations of London artists, Woodman (1922–2014) was Chambers’ first champion.
“He asked me to look after them until he got back,” Woodman explained. Asked about the quality of those early paintings, Woodman said, “It was very mannered, stylized work, heavily influenced by other artists. I’m not sure that I thought it was good. The intensity was the most striking thing.”
I asked Woodman if he felt at the time that going to Europe was the right thing for Chambers. “Yes, it was a good move. I didn’t know what was going to happen. But I could see from what he left with me – the crucifixions and all the other kinds of paintings he was doing – that he was seriously involved in that kind of work and Europe was the place to be.”
The last major painting Chambers finished before leaving Canada was the numinous and eerie Self-Portrait No. 2 which depicts the artist with the sloping shoulders and elongated neck, limbs and hands – as well as the cool blue halo – of an El Greco (1541-1614) saint. In many ways the painting is, if not blasphemous, then certainly brash, and yet it intuitively signals not just the eight years he would immerse himself in Spain and the work of its master painters like El Greco but also his conversion in just four more years to the Roman Catholic faith.
Self Portrait No.2 (1953)
In a lengthy interview published by Coach House Press in 1967, Woodman, pretending that he didn’t already know the answer, asked Chambers why he had chosen to leave Canada. “Indifference,” Chambers answered. “The part of Canada I knew was utilitarian, puritanical, indifferent to anything that was not a ‘safe job’ and a ‘proper living’. It was a question of survival. I worked, saved money and left . . . I left Canada with no very clear idea of what I was after or where I was going, but with a determination not to have forced on me what I didn’t want.”
Incredibly, after his Mexican standoff three years before when he’d arrived in a strange country with no solid contacts in place to help him make his way (and so missed out on opportunities) Chambers repeated that maddeningly laissez-faire approach in travelling to Europe. In one of the more preposterous passages of his autobiography he makes a not very convincing attempt to explain his state of mind just before embarking on his leap into the old world:
“Being at school had never taught me to gather information. I probably doubted that there were such places as Italy and Rome. Such places only existed in books. So when I set sail for Europe, I set sail for a strange place whose name I knew but about which I had no information, or if I had information, it had no relation to this adventure or to a destination.”
This passage really does strain credulity. Are we to believe that he can book himself passage to Italy but he has no idea at all what to expect when he gets there? Then why would he choose it as a destination as opposed to, say, Iceland? I think what he has ingenuously expressed here in a form so exaggerated as to be almost a parody, is his long-held distrust of authority of any kind and his determination to avoid whenever possible any sort of mediation in his encounters with life and the world. This radically independent approach would for the most part serve him well but at this juncture I think we see it in its most tiresome form where it actually threatens to do him damage.
He kept mostly to himself during his Atlantic crossing, reading a lot by day and walking the deck in the evening when he loved to watch “the sinister phosphorescent life light a trail in the wake of the ship”. He made friends with a German family who were travelling on to Rome once they arrived in Naples and Chambers travelled there with them, absorbing his first impressions of the older European landscape as it flashed by the train window. That “rawness” of the North American and Mexican landscapes which had made him feel so “uneasy” was not a problem in the old world. In Europe everything had been thoroughly man-handled: “The landscape was wonderful. It did not feel new nor simply self-possessed,” he wrote. “Something of the humanity of centuries had rubbed off on it. It was not threatening.”
In Rome his shipboard friends helped him secure lodgings and then they carried on north to Germany, leaving Chambers with a few tips and suggestions about how to make his way and what to check out but otherwise completely on his own in a strange land. Chambers stayed on in Rome for a couple of months, going out for extensive sketching walks each day, taking in the streets and piazzas with their spectacular fountains and the riversides and the racehorses going through their paces down at the Villa Borgesa, and then returning to his tiny rented apartment each night to work on half-length self-portraits and still lifes. While he doubtless absorbed a lot of details and fresh scenes during his daytime rambles, he wasn’t making much use of them in his evening routine which was identical (even down to sitting on the edge of a bed as he sketched out his likeness in a mirror) to that which he pursued back in London. Perhaps it was still too early. Regarding his stay in Rome, Chambers wrote another one of those-too-naïve-to-believe paragraphs in his autobiography:
“One day I came up a long, modern looking avenue. It looked new and clean and only for pedestrians. At the end of it I could see a huge domed building and huge pillars enclosing a large circular plaza. It was immense. St. Peter’s Cathedral and the work of Raphael. [These likely would have included his immense 16th century masterpiece, The School of Athens; for most people, a highlight of any tour of the art treasures of St. Peter’s and The Vatican.] I didn’t care for Raphael, but I went inside the cathedral and stared up at some wall paintings. It was dark and cold inside and the ceiling was very high. I never saw the ceiling. I came out. Years later, it came to me: Michelangelo; the Sistine Chapel. But then Rome was behind me and I had missed that part of it.”
Ross Woodman at first seems inclined to believe that Chambers really didn’t know what he was missing during his flying visit to perhaps the single greatest repository of classical art in the Western world. “He’s the only person I’ve ever known who went into the Sistine Chapel and never looked up,” Woodman told me incredulously. But then he added a few more words, suggesting that perhaps there was more going on here than ignorance. “I was outraged at the way he treated Europe initially. How could anyone go into the Sistine Chapel and not look at the ceiling? How could you do that? When you’re in there, everyone else around you is looking up.”
Chambers’ agent and good friend, Nancy Poole, believes the oversight (or should that be undersight?) was a bit more loaded than that. “Visiting the Sistine Chapel and not looking up,” I asked her. “What was Jack expressing there?”
“His orneriness,” she replied, with a weary sort of growl in her voice.
In a 1973 interview with Avis Lang, Chambers recalled how belligerent he could be when it came to acknowledging other artists, saying that when he was younger and was asked whose art he liked, he would often answer, “Nobody’s but my own.” Nancy Poole remembers him dropping into her gallery on some sort of business when another artist’s work was being displayed and disdainfully sniffing the air; “As much as to say, ‘Why do you bother with this?’ Oh yes, he had all the necessary arrogance that an artist must have.”
And we’ve also seen repeated instances of his wariness about allowing himself to be influenced by other artists, dead or alive. But after five years’ intensive study of art at various schools, not to mention his freelance plundering of glossy art books from the London Public Library, is it even remotely credible that Chambers could’ve stood in that space and not known what was overhead? If indeed he didn’t look up, I, like Poole, believe it was an act of negative will, not ignorance.
Chambers had travelled to Europe because he felt that his art education was incomplete and lacking any sort of classical foundation but for the first few months over there, he wasn’t taking any sort of action to address or correct that. At least to start, his modus operandi seemed to be to hurl himself into the deep end of Europe and drink in whatever impressions came his way by purest happenstance and then worry about digesting those or putting together some sort of plan for getting that education once he’d seen a few things for himself and acclimatised himself to the place.
And speaking of matters climactic, towards the end of November in Rome, Chambers’ Canadian-made inner barometer was out of sync with his environment and he felt a powerful physical need to experience snow and cooler weather. Following up on another contact he’d received from his German shipmates, Chambers headed for higher and more northern ground by travelling to the outskirts of the town of Graz in Austria.
There he lived in utter old world rusticity for about a month with a woman named Berta who owned a ramshackle two-storey farmhouse outside of town where she lived with her two teenaged children, her mother and her aunt, all of whom she provided for by teaching English. Chambers took over an unheated out-kitchen to use as his studio and finished a number of paintings and sketches there, including a gentle 1953 graphite sketch of Berta from behind, her hair held in place by a kerchief tied under her chin, which was given to the Art Gallery of Ontario by the Chambers family in 2007 and featured in that Gallery’s 2011-12 retrospective.
The artist earned his keep by chopping wood and cleaning the floors and helping out when the town butcher came around to slaughter two of the goats that Berta raised. This was an experience that made a very deep impression on his mind and was vividly recalled in his autobiography. “The first one he smacked on the forehead with the butt of an axe. I have never heard a sound like the one this stricken kid made. It was a very high-pitched scream of absolutely pure and helpless surprise. As a witness I felt that something in me had been violently assaulted. The butcher took the other kid into the shed and there was no sound except the smack of the axe. Later, we took the butchered animals in a box on a sleigh to have sausages made at a shop downtown.”
One calls to mind here Chambers’ mesmerised boyhood sighting from the York Street Bridge of a drowned child being fished out of the Thames River. And one also looks ahead to the use he would make in his paintings and his films of creatures that are put down as nuisances or slaughtered for food or religiously sacrificed for the expiation of sin. Of course, any thinking being finds death troubling and compelling but with Chambers that dark fascination seemed to run even deeper. Indeed, he confessed in a 1971 article by an anonymous writer from The Sarnia Observer, that he had long found death strangely attractive.
“I can say that from my very early teens, I had the feeling of death being something that I really looked forward to. That wasn’t that I wanted to end my life, but it was something that was going to come at some unknown moment and it was going to be a completely different, altogether ‘other’ experience.”
A few years before that, when a CBC TV film crew came to London in 1966 to film a report on the city’s lively arts scene, Chambers (along with Greg Curnoe and James Reaney) was part of a coterie of artists and hangers-on who assembled around a table at the York Hotel for an interview with host William Ronald. In one rather jarring segment of their conversation, Chambers coolly gazed at Ronald (an abstract artist of some renown and decked out in an ascot) and asked him matter-of-factly: “Do you think a person should have the opportunity to die on TV? . . . A lot of people don’t want to die alone, so this is an opportunity to die observed by all your fellow men.”
By early January of 1954 Chambers’ inner barometer had been restored to some sort of equilibrium and deciding he had had quite enough of winter, he said his farewells to Berta and her kin and boarded a train for the sunnier climes of France. He fell into conversation and played a few rounds of chess with a priest, who, hearing that Chambers was looking for a good art academy, recommended the one in Vienna. “‘Where is that?’ I asked,” wrote Chambers. “He pointed back the way we had come. ‘It’s here in Austria,’ he said. Once again I had suffered from a lack of information. ‘Well, we’re going the wrong way now,’ I said, and we played some more.”
Chambers may have been unaware that Vienna was in Austria or that the world’s most celebrated religious mural was situated just over his head while visiting the Sistine Chapel, but as his train pulled into Cannes he tells us, “I knew that [Pablo] Picasso lived in Vallauris. It is a village a few kilometres above Cannes. Perhaps he’ll teach me something, I thought, and I walked up to Vallauris.”
Arriving at the great man’s walled villa in the evening, Chambers was informed by the porter in the gatehouse that Picasso was away in Nice. Chambers wasn’t sure he believed that and rented a room in Vallauris for the night, returning to the estate the next morning before nine with a package of freshly purchased sausage to distract the Great Dane that patrolled the grounds. Throwing the meat to the dog, Chambers scaled the wall at the back of the house and knocked at a screen door.
For a 1970 Saturday feature for The London Free Press (at the time of his first retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario, a show which had travelled from the Vancouver Art Gallery) Chambers recalled his encounter with Picasso to Lenore Crawford: “In a couple of minutes Picasso came out in his underwear and sort of said in French, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’”
More frightened of Picasso’s demeanour than the Great Dane’s, Chambers haltingly tried to summon up enough scraps of French language to let the older man know that he was an aspiring artist just over from Canada in search of a good art school. This seemed to soften Picasso’s wrath and the older artist laughed a little, saying, “Go to the school in Barcelona,” and “Come back later this afternoon and we can talk.”
Then, incredibly (and Crawford’s account makes this much more clear than Chambers’ own retelling of it in his autobiography) Chambers did not return in the afternoon for that extended talk with Picasso – an opportunity most aspiring artists would’ve killed for: “But I told him I was in a hurry. So I went down to the train station. I think I must have felt I was closer to where I was going and I wanted to keep on.”
Nor did he take the older artist’s advice. Yes, he took the train to Barcelona and stayed there for two days but he never bothered to check out the school that Picasso recommended. Then, on a bit of a whim, he took a boat ride over to Majorca where he laid low for a couple of months before enrolling at the Escuela Central de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. So if he didn’t take his advice and didn’t even take up the great man’s offer to return for a more extensive conversation, then why did Chambers go calling on Pablo Picasso at all?
Nowhere else in his writing does Chambers cite Picasso as an influence or a figure he particularly looked up to or might wish to consult for advice. But at that time Picasso unquestionably was the best-known living artist in the world; simultaneously the most famous and the most notorious, the most admired and the most reviled. On reflection I have come to consider Chambers’ assault on Casa Picasso as a kind of bookend to his snubbing of the world’s most famous classical artist in the Sistine Chapel. In his autobiography Chambers presented the ‘visit’ to Picasso as a kind of homage being paid but I find it hard to construe it as such considering that he, in effect, broke into the place, caught out the old man in his underwear and then stood him up, rejecting his invitation to return for a private audience.
Indeed, as Ross Woodman said, the way he was treating Europe was utterly outrageous. Within three months of setting foot on European soil this aggressive little upstart from London, Ontario had managed to beard the world’s foremost artistic lions – both ancient and modern – in their very own dens. Now, with these little gestures of defiance out of the way, would Chambers be able to stop flitting about and get down to acquiring that classical education he’d crossed an ocean to find?
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