Fine art

Fine art has attracted me throughout my life. I confess I use the expression somewhat broadly – and deliberately – to embrace not only what is commonly considered the more famous or expensive renditions (such as one commonly sees in museums) but also specifically what is produced by local artists. No doubt my affection for local fine art springs measurably from its affordability (though not always) but equally from my personal acquaintance with the artist and the connection I see between the artist and his or her creation.

In European academic traditions, fine art is art developed primarily for aesthetics or beauty, distinguishing it from decorative art or applied art, which also has to serve some practical function, such as pottery or most metalwork. In the aesthetic theories developed in the Italian Renaissance, the highest art was that which allowed the full expression and display of the artist’s imagination, unrestricted by any of the practical considerations involved in, say, making and decorating a teapot. It was also considered important that making the artwork did not involve dividing the work between different individuals with specialized skills, as might be necessary with a piece of furniture, for example.

The creativity of the artist is always – or should I say, most often – the clue to the allure of fine art.  I corrected myself to say “most often” because there are unquestionably moments when the attraction is very much as would characterize a piece of furniture or an ornamental object; that is, the piece somehow “goes” with the intended environment, for example, a peaceful drawing room or an archaic study.  Then it is possible that a photograph or “fake” oil production (and there are a lot of very good ones) would be just as adequate for the purpose and does not therefore contaminate the strength of fine art. Normally however the division between ornament and art is beyond debate even to the casual observer.

My uncle in Fredericton, New Brunswick was a fine art dealer.  At least he collected original pieces and then sold them to retailers like Dominion Gallery in Montréal for public display and purchase.

Dominion Gallery, Canada’s oldest and most prestigious private art establishment, was directed for some 50 years by the late Dr. Max Stern who introduced Canadian collectors and institutions to a great deal of important international art. The gallery was purchased by Canadian art dealer
Robert Landau in 2001 and reopened its doors in October 2005. This Victorian landmark provides a stunning showcase for modern masters as well as an exciting ensemble of contemporary international artists including Yves Zurstrassen, Christoph Kiefhaber, Xander Spronken, Manuel Cancel, Chun Kwang-Young and Tony Scherman. Landau Contemporary is also the exclusive North American dealer for the Austrian master, architect and artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. This contemporary collection at the Dominion Gallery has been called “the most spectacular commercial gallery not only in Montreal but likely in all of Canada.”

I recall having been in Dominion Gallery and invited to see the recondite collection on the top floor. My obvious pleasure in the experience – as well I am certain as my incomparable ignorance of the singularity of the experience – fuelled a subsequent revisit.  I saw a sculpture which instantly caught my attention.  It was a Rodin. When I enquired of the price, the agent said, “Eighteen” to which I replied, “Well, that’s pretty good!” (a statement which I couldn’t help but notice immediately inspired some excitement in my listener). I said however that I would have to think about it. When I later returned to talk about the purchase it instantly became clear that the price was not $1,800 as I had assumed but rather $18,000. I decided I could bear the deprivation.

The Dominion Gallery of Fine Art, first located in the Keefer Building on St. Catherine Street West in Montreal, was founded by Rose Millman in December 1941. Max Stern, a recent émigré from Germany, joined the Gallery as managing director in October 1942. He became Millman’s business partner in 1944 and purchased the Gallery outright in 1947. In 1950, Stern moved the business to 1438 Sherbrooke Street. From the outset, the Dominion Gallery mainly promoted art by living Canadian artists. The inaugural exhibition at the gallery, held in March 1943, featured paintings by Goodridge Roberts (1904-1974). The Roberts exhibition was the first in a series at the Dominion Gallery during the 1940s devoted to contemporary Canadian artists, Jacques Godefroy de Tonnancour (1917-2005), Paul-Emile Borduas (1905-1960), John Lyman (1886-1967), Emily Carr (1871-1945), and Stanley Cosgrove (1911-2002) among them. The Dominion Gallery was the first gallery in Canada to provide artists with a guaranteed annual income, allowing them to devote time to their art without the necessity of having to earn a livelihood by other means. In all, the Dominion supported thirty-two Canadian artists with contracts, including P.V. Beaulieu (1910-1996), Stanley Cosgrove, Jean Dallaire (1916-1965), E.J. Hughes (1913-2007), Goodridge Roberts, and Jesús Carlos de Vilallonga (b. 1927).

One of my friends from undergraduate studies at Glendon Hall in Toronto was Martha Davis whose family lived in Rockcliffe Park in Ottawa. One evening Martha asked me to drive her to a nearby household where she wanted to collect something.  When we entered the place I was struck by what at the time I considered a hugely peculiar condition; namely, there were oil paintings covering almost every particle of the walls. It was such an obvious exaggeration as to border I thought at the time upon the vulgar. I have since learned to accommodate the excess.

I have also learned to employ fine art for ulterior purposes.  My erstwhile compatriot John Francis Fitchett and I would make a point of spending an uplifting early afternoon at the Musée des Beaux Arts on Sussex Drive then retire to the patio of the Château Laurier Hotel overlooking the locks of the Rideau Canal filtering into the Ottawa River below while sipping vodka martinis. The confluence of the two is forever memorable!