Bertram Brooker

"Great art is essentially useless, in the practical sense. It appeals purely to the spirit."
(Bertram Brooker, 1929)

A painter, illustrator, sculptor and novelist, the energetic Bertram Brooker pursued a career primarily as an advertising executive. He was the first Canadian to exhibit abstract art, and for two years wrote a syndicated newspaper column on the arts, titled "The Seven Arts." He was closely associated with the Group of Seven, especially Lawren S. Harris, with whom he shared a mystical view of nature.

Self-taught as an artist, and with a keen interest in music, Brooker left school at the age of twelve. He came with his family to Canada in 1905 and settled in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, where he worked at several jobs and learned clerical skills at night school. In 1921, he moved to Toronto to work as a magazine editor, soon joining the Arts and Letters Club, where he met members of the Group of Seven. He began experimenting with oils, creating abstract shapes and forms, and by 1926 was painting seriously and working as a freelance journalist. The following year, he held his first solo exhibition of abstract works, and in 1928 exhibited with Group of Seven.

On a trip to Winnipeg in 1929, Brooker met and befriended LeMoine FitzGerald, whose figurative work immediately inspired him. He abruptly turned away from abstraction in favour of form and structure, moving to landscapes, realistic figure work, and later, still lifes. His 1931 nude painting Figures in Landscape caused an uproar at the Art Gallery of Toronto, which refused to hang it. A founding member of the Canadian Group of Painters, Brooker participated in the group's first exhibition in 1933.

Brooker's early abstract work includes Alleluiah (c. 1929), which demonstrates the influence of Kandinsky in its abstracted forms representing music. Later figurative work includes Torso (1937), remarkable for its powerful composition, and The Cloud (1942).

Brooker edited the inaugural 1929 issue of the Yearbook of the Arts in Canada, as well as its 1936 issue, and was awarded the first Governor General's Literary Award for his 1936 novel Think of the Earth.

Photography: M.O. Hammond Collection, National Gallery of Canada Archives