Realism with an air of mystery: The life and art of Christiane Pflug
Esther Pflug remembers vividly the day her artist mother, Christiane Pflug (1936–72), painted her portrait in the open doorway of their Toronto home. “I found it quite galling to have to sit there when I could hear my friends playing in the summertime a few doors over,” she said in a 2015 CBC Radio documentary titled Life, Still: The Unbuttoning of Christiane Pflug. “The only way it was possible for me to sit still for the hours that she needed me to do so was to read.”
In the painting, Kitchen Door and Esther, a seven-year-old Esther sits quietly on a step overlooking lush trees and a blue sky. Her pink t-shirt complements the soft colours of the kitchen’s interior, where a cupboard door sits slightly ajar. You can’t see the book that she is reading, but Esther remembers it well. “It was Hans Christian Andersen,” she says, referring to the 19th-century Danish author known for his fairytales, poems and plays. Her braided pigtails hang over her shoulders, while her small body sits perfectly framed in the large doorway. Completed in 1965, the painting is one of three works by Christiane on view in National Gallery of Canada's Canadian and Indigenous Galleries. “I’ve always found the painting really beautiful,” comments her daughter.
Sybille Christiane Pflug was born in Berlin on June 20, 1936 to a single mother – Regine Schütt – a fashion designer from a well-to-do, middle-class family. With the outbreak of World War II and the evacuation of children from the city in 1940, Regine had to move her young daughter to stay with various friends, visiting intermittently, until she found a solution with a domineering widow in Kitzbühel in Tyrol, where Christiane would live for eight long years. The writer and curator Ann Davis in her 1991 biography of Pflug, Somewhere waiting, documents both the girl's childhood writings and her mother's recollections of these unstable years. By 1949 mother and daughter were living together in Frankfurt, where Regine married and gave birth to Christiane’s half-sister Michaela. The family decided to immigrate to Canada, but Christiane preferred to remain in Europe, studying fashion at École Baziot in Paris before returning to Germany.
In Paris, Christiane met Michael Pflug, a German medical student with ambitions of becoming an artist. From the beginning, it was Michael who strongly encouraged Christiane to pursue art. Davis writes, “For him art was an avenue away from banalities, a road towards simplicity, dedication, and respect.” Although Christiane had no formal training, under his guidance on style, colour and technique she soon began producing promising and impressive works. They shared his passion for art, visiting galleries and spending time with Michael's friends, the Portuguese abstractionist Marie Helena Vieira Da Silva and her husband, the abstract painter Árpád Szenes. Christiane was happy, writing to her mother in 1954, “All the days are now so full of so many beautiful things and life is so marvellously rich, so that sometimes I am so happy that I think it is nearly too much and too beautiful.” In paintings from this earliest period, such as Room in Normandy and Palais de Justice, Paris, the 18-year-old’s natural talent begins to take form. In the latter, she was able to capture the intricate lines and form of the 13th-century building along the iconic Seine River in Paris.
Christiane and Michael married in 1956 and spent two years in Tunisia, where their daughters, Esther and Ursula, were born. Here, Christiane began painting and drawing more frequently, consulting books on Picasso and Goya as inspiration and using her immediate surroundings as primary subjects in her work. Her Tunisian Interior of 1958, painted in bright colours, demonstrates an inherent interest in domestic interiors that would continue to infuse her art for many years. Window- and door-framed landscapes, caged birds, small objects, her children and humanized dolls would also make recurring appearances, consistently portrayed anew.
In 1959 Christiane and her daughters joined her family in Canada, with her husband following a year later. Within three years, Christiane was being represented by the prestigious Avrom Isaacs Gallery in Toronto, where her work was shown alongside notable Canadian artists including Joyce Wieland and Michael Snow. Over the next several years, Christiane experienced success, selling every work in her first commercial exhibition in 1962 and mounting a celebrated one-artist exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 1966. In 1967 and 1968, she received grants from the Canada Council, and briefly accepted a teaching position at Toronto's Ontario College of Art and Design.
Christiane’s approach to art was admired by many. She mixed realist scenes with elements of the imaginary, and repeatedly returned to the same subject to alter it slightly or to offer a moderately different viewpoint. In Kitchen Door in Winter II (1964), for example, a doll leans in the same spot where Esther would sit a year later, but with a different backdrop and closed door instead. Christiane struggled with this work, admitting by its completion that she felt exhaustion rather than accomplishment. This could have been due to the fact that she worked very slowly and deliberately, spending hours upon days, weeks and even months at her easel on one work. Her daughters remember this passion, recalling how often they would return from school to find their mother working, feeling pressure to tend to her family amidst a relentless desire to sit in solitude and paint. She expressed, “I can’t paint enough. What I sometimes like is time for myself… time which is uncontrolled and un-administered… The balance is sometimes difficult to find between disturbances which I can’t avoid.”
Christiane’s later works looked beyond the walls of her home, favouring views of the Cottingham School across the street from her Birch Avenue townhouse, horizontal country landscapes and summer scenes from the Toronto Islands. It was here, at Hanlan's Point, that Christiane, who was prone to depression, tragically committed suicide on April 4, 1972, aged 35.
Forty-six years later, Christiane is celebrated as an influential artist. Her work is represented in numerous public collections, including the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada, which holds fifteen of the artist’s works. With a lifelong goal to bring her art to life and to make it meaningful, Christiane’s drawings and paintings are an impressive testament to her talent as a self-taught artist, and evidence of her lasting impact on the Canadian art scene.
Christiane Pflug's paintings are on view in Gallery A113 at the National Gallery of Canada, three of the fifteen works in the Gallery's collection. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page. Subscribe to our newletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.