Saturday 12 May 2012

Renouncing Renown

As she became better established during her first years in Toronto, both as an artist and as a teacher, Bertha looked to a wider stage.

In November of 1909 she exhibited a painting in the Thirty-first Annual Exhibition of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (RCA). It was entitled "Did you lay that?", and although we don't know exactly what it looked like, it was likely contemporary with the sketches in pencil and oils, shown here.

In March of 1910 she had two paintings in the Annual Exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists (OSA): one was the same picture that had been exhibited at the RCA a few months earlier, and the other was called A Corner of the Barnyard. The barnyard theme of these choices is interesting, given that by then she had done many fine pictures of a wide variety of people and places. It has occurred to us that she may have been influenced by her association in those years with Elizabeth A McGillivray Knowles, for whom colourful barnyard poultry was a favourite and recurring subject.

In November of 1910, in the Thirty-second Annual Exhibition of the RCA, she showed a painting called When the World is Glad and Gay.

After this apparently promising start, something must have happened to change her outlook on this way of publicizing her work. We don't know precisely what it was, but we do know that she never participated in these Exhibitions again.

Part of the reason,
 I believe, was that she was by nature a private person, as well as a strongly independent one. We know from her letters that she was uncomfortable in large exuberant gatherings. I suspect she didn't seek or need approbation from others, apart from the friends and colleagues she chose and respected most.

An insight into her character comes from these extracts from notes written about her by our mother (Bertha's niece) in the late 1950s:

About seventy years ago Bertha had polio. This finished her formal education ... because one leg stopped growing and was too weak to carry her the long distance to the schoolhouse. Activity passed her by because energetic Grandma knew nothing of psychology, and ‘Bert’ was constantly reminded “You can’t do that.” ...

Painting, reading, playing the piano and writing poetry were the things she loved to do. And she had to do them alone. The family was poor, and her brothers and sisters too busy with their own lives and livelihood to spend time with their crippled sister. So the violet was thrust aside to shrink from view and they never knew it was really an orchid. ...

... Her love is for everyone and for life itself. She is simply self-reliant. She pays no lip-service to others’ opinions. Hers are based on her own thoughts and standards, and her criterion first, last and always is what is right. ...

In 1912 the Art Gallery of Ontario (then called the Art Museum of Toronto) began to send questionnaires to Canadian artists, asking for basic biographical information and lists of their exhibitions and awards. The practice continued over many decades, expanding in scope to encompass a wide variety of interesting materials. The resulting Artists Files are accessible to the public, upon request, in the Edward P Taylor Research Library and Archives at the AGO. In 1912, having exhibited so recently at the RCA and OSA, I believe Bertha must have been invited to fill out and return a questionnaire, but there is no file for her. It appears that kind of recognition had become of little interest to her.

All this helps to explain, I think, why she is so undeservedly unknown, today. Self-promotion and public recognition were never her highest priorities. She devoted her life and most of her energy to her family, her close friends, and the development of her art according to her own interests and standards.

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