"Mount Cathedral from Lake O'Hara"
Walter J. Phillips, "Mount Cathedral from Lake O'Hara," 1926. Watercolour on paper, Collection of the Pavilion Gallery Museum, Gift of Mr. John P. Crabb, 1998.
WALTER J. PHILLIPS, "Water & Woods"
Feb 12 - June 5, 2011
Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton
By Jeffrey Spalding
Walter J. Phillips may be the penultimate chronicler of early 20th century western Canada. While other Canadian artists during that time expended their affection upon the back country forests and ‘savage wilderness’ of central Canada, Phillips paid loving, tender homage to his homeland in Canada’s west from Winnipeg to Victoria. For this exhibition, the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA) has gathered from public and private collections, 79 watercolours and woodcut prints. Although there is no catalogue, the exhibition provides a most welcomed, rare opportunity to experience a range of his art spanning his fifty year career.
Phillips’ art is a sensitive response to the distinctive physical and social character of his places of residence, travels and time. As the exhibition text panels remind, Phillips was:
“an avid naturalist for whom the pursuit of beauty was the ultimate aim of art. ...his subject matter ranged from the cottage country of Lake of the Woods, to the vernacular architecture of small Prairie towns. He captured vistas from popular hiking trails surrounding Banff, and scenes of aboriginal, European and Japanese fishing villages in British Columbia.”
Enthusiasts of Phillips’ art may be somewhat dismayed that the AGA wall texts apologetically rehearse all the customary verities, so unhappily familiar to western Canadians. They steer our thoughts about Phillips’ art, tethering it to a conservative, colonial past. Peppered throughout are comments that allude to Phillips’ Englishness, European training, and alignment with the ‘19th century Picturesque.’ Apparently, to his detriment, Phillips was:
“disinterested in representing Canada as a “wild” place, his landscapes of rural areas typically integrate figures and buildings, depicting the intersection between the natural and built environment, …a vision that put him at odds with a growing sense of nationalism in early 20th century Canada.”
Presumably, axiomatically, this is a bad thing.
We are encouraged to admire Phillips, but only within certain proscribed limits. The texts observe that he was not an enthusiast of ‘modern art.’ For this and more he is described as “a key but unrecognized figure…out of step with Canadian patriotism …out of touch with the Canadian Art Scene.”
Patriots from western Canada may respectfully differ with the offered facts pertaining to this assessment. Showcased in important national and international exhibitions, purchased for public collections, rather unique for the times, Phillips earned a living from the sale of his art. For decades revered as an influential teacher, Phillips was a prominent, leading figure in the Canadian west. His art is a perceptive, genuine reflection of the lived reality of western Canada in the 1920s -1940s, fully cognizant of the conflation within his world of nature, culture, agriculture as well as First Nations. With due apologies to the oft-recounted opinions of central authority and our dismissive, parental National Gallery of Canada, Phillips’ personification of life in western Canada is in fact pertinent. Phillips’ art is a poignant exemplar of the Canadian experience. His vision and world view is no more time-bound, local or contested than the art that celebrates Toronto’s hinterland.
With exquisite delicacy and remarkable understated refinement, Phillips’ art calls our attention to life’s little glories. Without equal, it captures the unmistakable, inimitable, even clarity of the light of the prairies; the mystic atmospheric allure of the mountains. His work is moderated by an introspective gentle temperament, nature and culture delicately intertwined: a place where deer roam Banff Avenue. We grant license to celebrate Milne, Carr and Fitzgerald as Canadian independent spirits; why not Phillips?
This exhibition is the first in the AGA’s new Alberta Early Masters Series – a series they are to be heartily congratulated for. Through this important initiative, we can confront, discuss and debate the merits of the principal founders of our artistic heritage.