Robert Bruce, "Group Portrait," circa 1960
monoprint on paper, 17.5” x 14”
Group portraits typically fill a documentary role, preserving the identity of a family or an assortment of friends or colleagues at a particular point in time. True, there are four figures in Group Portrait, an early monoprint by Winnipeg artist Robert Bruce, but the impulse seems more expressive than archival, the figures largely unrecognizable, the colours a mix of vibrant pinks and reds and a contrasting washed-out green, the surface even appearing scratched in places. The group is split vertically – a central male figure, a woman to his right, and two smaller female figures to his left. It’s an unusual image, and one that does not yield its secrets easily.
Howard Gurevich, owner of Gurevich Fine Art in Winnipeg, which handles Bruce’s estate, has his own theory, but emphasizes that it’s mere supposition. “I think it is Robert in the centre,” he says. “I think these are women he had friendships with. But, I have to reiterate, that’s my interpretation of what’s going on in the piece. There’s no history behind it that we can find anywhere.”
Bruce became interested in monoprints in the 1960s. “Usually he started by dying the paper a rich hue,” Mary Jo Hughes writes in The Art of Robert Bruce, produced for a 2004 retrospective at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. “He inked his plate and then laid down the paper and drew on the back with crayon. Wherever he drew, the pigment adhered to the paper. For each colour he cleaned the plate before adding new ink. To create further interest he varied the plates according to the textural effect he sought.”
Bruce grew up in Winnipeg and studied for a time under Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald, before heading to Europe, and then New York, where he attended the Art Students League and worked as a freelance illustrator. With a family to support, he turned to teaching, eventually ending up in Winnipeg, where he taught for two decades at the University of Manitoba. After retiring in 1976, Bruce split his time between Manitoba and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where he died in 1980. Gurevich is planning a show of his work next summer.