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"Queen Charlotte Summer 2/83"
Takao Tanabe, "Queen Charlotte Summer 2/83," 1983, acrylic on canvas, 26" x 60". Collection of the artist.
By Brian Brennan
A retrospective launching this fall in Victoria will take the “beautifully grand” landscapes of West Coast painter Takao Tanabe across the nation.
In the spring of 2002, Takao Tanabe told a Victoria newspaper reporter that he didn’t think he would ever be the subject of a major retrospective in a public gallery. Even though he had received the Orders of Canada and British Columbia among other honours for his contributions over a 50-year period as a painter and printmaker, this dean of Canadian landscape painters forecast gloomily that it “won’t happen in my lifetime.” It seemed he was regarded primarily as a “painter’s painter” — without the public profile of such better-known West Coast artists as the late Toni Onley or the late Jack Shadbolt — and thus didn’t warrant a retrospective. That situation changed in March 2003, however, after Tanabe received the prestigious Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts. The Victoria and Vancouver art galleries announced immediately that they would co-sponsor a touring retrospective of Tanabe’s works in 2005-6. “The offer came out of the blue,” says Tanabe today. “Not many artists get retrospectives, you know.”
Adrienne Holierhoek, marketing and public relations manager for the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, acknowledges that the Tanabe retrospective is long overdue. “We realized as an institution that it wasn’t a project we could handle on our own, so we reached out to the Vancouver Art Gallery and asked if we could do it together.” The retrospective, featuring more than 60 Tanabe works and curated by Ian Thom of the Vancouver Art Gallery, is on view in Victoria from October 7 to January 2, after which it will show in Vancouver from January 14 to April 17, 2006.
The news about his 2003 Governor General’s Award caused few in Tanabe’s hometown of Seal Cove (now part of Prince Rupert) to sit up and take notice. He had grown up in the northwest coastal community under a different name. Born Takao Izumi, the son of a commercial fisherman, he carried that surname for the first 15 years of his life. Then, because his father had agreed at marriage to take his wife’s last name since she was an only child, he became Takao Tanabe.
Like all British Columbians of Japanese descent, the Tanabe family was removed from its home after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and shipped to a so-called “relocation camp” in the BC Interior. The experience, said the artist, “ruined my life for a long time” but years later he decided there was no point in remaining angry forever. “I’m over it,” he said in an interview in 1999 when he was 72. “And I want the rest of the world to be over it.”
Tanabe spent two years in the Slocan Valley detention camp and then joined two older siblings in eastern Manitoba, where they had been forced to spend the last part of the war slaving as indentured workers on a sugar beet farm. He worked as a labourer, cutting peat moss, until he was accepted at the Winnipeg School of Art in 1946 — initially to study commercial art. Commercial artists, he noted approvingly, “sat in clean offices, wearing clean clothes.” He paid for his classes by working part-time as janitor at the art school, and as a casual labourer at a Winnipeg iron foundry.
During his second year at the Winnipeg art school, Tanabe took classes from Joseph Plaskett, who had studied in New York with Hans Hofmann — one of the seminal figures of abstract expressionism. That inspired Tanabe to become an abstract artist himself. By 1951, he was studying with Hofmann in New York, in between summer stints working as a handyman at what is now The Banff Centre for Continuing Education where he also took the occasional art class.
In 1953, Tanabe was awarded a $1,200 Emily Carr Foundation scholarship which allowed him to spend two years in Europe studying, painting and working part-time as an art teacher at a girls’ school in London. When he returned, he settled in Vancouver and worked as a graphic artist while exhibiting what he called his “white paintings” (abstract impressions of nature) at galleries across Canada. Four years later, he was on the road again, this time on a $2,000 Canada Council scholarship to Japan, where he studied traditional sumi-e painting and calligraphy.
Between 1968 and 1972, Tanabe lived and worked in Philadelphia and New York. He painted hard-edged geometric abstractions, and worked under the table as a non-licensed plumber and electrician. “I was barely selling enough paintings to cover the rent,” he explains. His hard-edged abstractions gradually evolved into semi-abstract landscapes and eventually into representational landscapes. “I guess I was always a landscape painter,” he said when he came back to Canada in 1973 to reorganize the art program at The Banff Centre and put it on a more professional footing. Twenty years earlier, when Tanabe took classes at The Banff Centre, the English painter William Scott had identified Tanabe’s abstract expressionistic work with real or imagined landscapes.
Tanabe worked and painted at Banff for seven years, turning away from the mountains to capture the big skies and folding landscape of the prairie grasslands in a series of introspective paintings called The Land. In 1980, he quit the Banff job and returned to British Columbia. “I was born on the west coast and feel most at home here,” he says. Today, at age 79, Tanabe divides his time between Vancouver where he has an apartment and where his wife Anona works as a statistician with the Canadian HIV Trials Network, and the Vancouver Island community of Errington, near Parksville, where he has a home, a studio and an eight-hectare property. Here he paints coastal and other landscapes that the Toronto critic John Bentley Mays says, “deliver a sense of place almost too inhumanely vast, too beautifully grand for comfortable human dwelling.” In the catalogue that the Victoria and Vancouver art galleries have co-produced with Vancouver publisher Douglas & McIntyre in conjunction with the current retrospective, curator Ian Thom writes the following about Tanabe’s recent work: “The images that Tanabe has produced of the province of British Columbia are amongst the most important images of this region, and are a remarkable testament to the exceptional vision and skill of this artist.”
After the show closes in Vancouver it moves to Halifax, where it will be on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia from May 27 to August 27. In early 2007, it goes to Kleinburg, Ontario, where it will be seen at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection from January 27 to May 21. After that, the organizers hope to bring the retrospective to Winnipeg.
The Takao Tanabe retrospective runs October 7 to January 2 at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and January 14 to April 17, 2006, at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Takao Tanabe is represented by Equinox Gallery in Vancouver, Paul Kuhn Gallery, Calgary, and Mira Godard Gallery, Toronto.
Brian Brennan is the author, most recently, of Romancing the Rockies: Mountaineers, Missionaries, Marilyn & More, published by Fifth House Ltd. His profiles of Western Canada’s distinguished senior artists appear regularly in Galleries West.