An Artist’s Library: Books from the Collection of Fritz Brandtner

Fritz Brandtner, jackets for five books from his Library. Photo: NGC Library and Archives

“Prof. Marshall McLuhan’s medium-is-the-message philosophy is just hokum and hogwash,” wrote Canadian artist Fritz Brandtner (1896–1969) on his copy of McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). We know this, because the volume in question is now one of the 172 books, exhibition catalogues, periodicals, notebooks and binders of teaching materials that comprise the Fritz Brandtner Library—a special collection within the National Gallery of Canada Library.

A selection of items from the collection is on view in the Library’s foyer exhibition area from 14 January to 25 April 2014. Not only do the books include Brandtner’s handwritten remarks (which are not always as disobliging as the example above) and his original drawings on some of the pages, but many also have homemade decorative wrappers, lending a striking splash of colour to the show.

Anyone familiar with German Expressionist art of the early 20th century will recognize the kinds of painters (Franz Marc, Ludwig Kirchner) who inspired Brandtner when he was growing up in Danzig, Germany (now Gdansk, Poland). But Canadians will also respond to the First Nations imagery that inspired him after his move to Canada in 1928, at the age of 31. Like many German children of that era, he had revelled the adventure stories of Karl May, which romanticized the lives of North American “Indians”—apparently, he was also fascinated by totem poles in the Danzig Town Museum.

None of Karl May’s books survives in the collection, though there are other titles that accompanied Brandtner on the ship from Germany to Halifax. It is quite possible, however, that the first book he purchased in Canada was based on ancient Gitksan oral traditions: The Downfall of Temlaham by Marius Barbeau (1928), with illustrations by A.Y. Jackson, Emily Carr and others. His copy survives in the jacket he made for it himself, of coarse cloth, decorated on the front with a motif in coloured ink, inspired by Haida housepost designs.

The subject matter of Brandtner’s books ranges across art, architecture, theory, education, technique, crafts, history, natural history, fiction and reference. There aren’t that many books on Canadian artists; in fact, altogether there are more books on Mexican art than Canadian, and none specifically on the Group of Seven. Nevertheless, quite a number of volumes are catalogues for National Gallery of Canada exhibitions.

But perhaps the jewel in this collection’s crown is the book Fritz Brandtner wrote himself: his personal notebook. This small exercise book, dating from the 1950s, is crammed with statements of a personal credo, observations about his professional life, historical analysis, comments on the Canadian art scene, drawings, and a variety of quotations—from Freud to Abraham Lincoln, and from Confucius to Louis Armstrong.

Here are some examples:

“Being an artist and being a teacher are two conflicting things. When I paint, my work manifests the unexpected and, if I may say so, the unique. . . . In teaching, it is just the opposite: I must account for every line, shape and colour, and I am forced to give an explanation of the inexplicable and account for the variety of styles the students present.”

“Artists in Canada have just as much vitality, originality and creative force as their brothers in Paris or New York have.”

Sometimes he contradicts himself, as though he was preparing notes for a debate. For instance, on one page he writes:

“Throw overboard all mental baggage. Cut loose the ropes and strings that bind you to preconceived ideas about art and beauty.”

But on another:

“Drawing is indeed the fundamental element in all great picture-making, just as grammar is at the root of all good writing; therefore, it is the beginning of everything in art and, not having it, one has nothing.”

At one point, he quotes the philosopher John Dewey: “Our museums should be platforms for the presentation of still-controversial painters and sculptors. We need museums and galleries that are open-minded and unafraid.”

So, if you are in the vicinity of the Gallery anytime soon, why not stop by to enjoy the exhibition? And, if time permits, by all means pay a visit to the Library while you are there. But please don’t write in the books.

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