Blending landscape and portraiture
THERE is, to my mind, a riveting, almost intense stillness to this painting. It's as if the viewer, together with the young woman, is being drawn to a vertical tautness by the will of the artist. The man-made structural components, raw and stark, seem to emphasize the upward pull of the picture, with the rocky background serving, perhaps, as a formidable counterforce. Most likely there were many occasions when the painter Frederick H. Varley (1881-1969) wanted to feel the pull toward higher purpose and clearer vision and to yield to it. He was a restless person for much of his life, tormented by incertitude and in several respects overshadowed by his colleagues.
Varley came to Canada from Sheffield, England, in 1912. He had studied at the Sheffield School of Art and in Antwerp and later worked as an illustrator in London. Arriving in Toronto, he got a job at a commercial design studio. Among his colleagues there were Arthur Lismer, who also had recently emigrated from Sheffield, Franklin Carmichael, Frank Johnston, and J.E.H. MacDonald.
These men were to become founding members of the legendary Group of Seven. Much maligned in its early days because of what then was regarded to be its crudeness in the treatment of landscape painting, the group has since become revered for establishing a distinctive Canadian style in the genre.
``We are endeavoring to knock out of us all of the preconceived ideas, emptying ourselves of everything except that nature is here in all its greatness,'' Varley wrote in 1914. It has been phrased more eloquently, but that, in essence, was what the Group of Seven was to stand for. The purpose was crystal clear when members exhibited together for the first time in May 1920.
The intrepid - not to say, audacious - rendering of the Canadian landscape as it had never so thoroughly been done before may have excited Varley, but it didn't immediately win him over: His interests were more along the lines of portraiture.
Varley went overseas as a war artist in February 1918. He returned to Toronto with the express intent of being a portrait artist. Nevertheless his first important canvas, carried out on a trip with his compatriot Lismer in 1920-21, was a landscape: ``Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay.''
In 1924, Varley set eyes on the Canadian Rockies for the first time. He was so taken by them that he moved to Vancouver in 1926. That was the year the Group of Seven hit the pinnacle of its nationwide influence. Varley may, or may not, have anticipated the development; there's no way of telling.
Once in Vancouver, Varley was appointed head of drawing, painting, and composition at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts. Over the course of 10 years he brought new vitality to the west coast art scene and taught a number of individuals who have contributed significantly to Canadian art.
However, there were some tough times. With the advent of the Depression, Varley's salary was drastically cut back, prompting him to establish, with a colleague, Jock Macdonald, the British Columbia College of Arts. The college survived only two years, closing in 1935.
In 1936 Varley moved east to Ottawa, where he undertook portrait commissions, arranged by the National Gallery of Canada, and did a bit of teaching. By 1940 he was living in Montreal where, for four years, he endured a basically lonely, unproductive existence.
He was 64 years old when he found his way back to Toronto, and from all accounts his old colleagues greeted him like a long-lost brother.
Fred Varley never achieved the wide acclaim accorded other members of the Group of Seven, Lawren Harris, for example, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, and J.E.H. MacDonald. He was outshone, too, by associates of the group, notably Tom Thomson and west coast artist Emily Carr. Landscape painting was all the rage. Portraiture, such as Varley practiced, was of limited appeal.
In ``Dh^ar^ana'' I see the artist reaching up, willing himself, as it were, to greater heights.
All the same, his work in portraiture has since come into its own, as specially contributive, and his unreserved, bold manner of painting continues to influence the Vancouver art scene.