Defending the Crease: The Canadiana of Ken Danby

Ken Danby, Charter, 1978, egg tempera on panel, 71 x 106.7 cm. Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, Lavalin Collection. Photo : Richard-Max Tremblay

Shortly after the 2007 death of artist Ken Danby, Shelley Falconer was invited to tour his studio outside Guelph, Ontario. In a closet, wrapped in brown kraft paper, she found a manuscript.

“No one knew about the manuscript except his family,” said Falconer, President and CEO of the Art Gallery of Hamilton, in an interview with NGC magazine. “It was an astonishing thing to read. He wrote about where and why he created a lot of his works. And it was, of course, unpublished.”

The discovery sparked a conversation between Falconer and Ihor Holubizky, Senior Curator at the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton, about the love-hate relationship that the Canadian art community has had with Danby’s work.

“He was realist when it wasn’t cool to be a realist,” says Falconer. As well, beginning in the 1960s, Danby was a very successful commercial artist. His painting of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was on the cover of TIME magazine in 1968. His painting of a hockey goalie has become an iconic Canadian image.

Ken Danby, Early Morning, 1965, tempera on masonite, 55.9 x 91.5 cm. NGC. © Ken Danby

Out of Falconer and Holubizky’s conversation arose the exhibition Beyond the Crease: Ken Danby, on view at the Art Gallery of Hamilton this fall. The exhibition brings together more than 70 of Danby’s works from private and public collections for the first time, and commemorates the artist nearly a decade after his death.

A book that includes the images from the exhibition, critical essays, and text from Danby’s unpublished memoir accompanies the exhibition, as do screenings of a documentary about the artist by his eldest son, filmmaker Sean Danby. The National Gallery of Canada is lending Early Morning (1965) to the exhibition, an image of a large, solitary farmhouse in a yellow field, exemplifying Danby’s realistic technique. 

Danby was born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. He enrolled at the Ontario College of Art in 1958, but quit two years later because of the college’s emphasis on Abstract art. He became a photorealist painter, and was inspired by the work of American artist Andrew Wyeth. In 1964, Danby’s first one-man show at Gallery Moos in Toronto sold out.

“Being commercially successful is an eternal problem for artists,” Holubizky said in an interview with NGC magazine. “You can’t get too big. You shouldn’t be too successful or well loved. The avant-garde won’t like it. Indeed, the avant-garde requires the opposite.”

Ken Danby, The Red Wagon, 1966, egg tempera on panel, 106.8 x 81.3 cm. Art Gallery of Hamilton. Gift of Frank H. Sherman in memory of his wife Trixie, 1974. Photo: Mike Lalich

But Danby was widely recognized for his art. He was elected a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1975. Later, he served on the governing board of the Canada Council for the Arts, and as a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Gallery of Canada.

Danby also received significant commissions. He was awarded the commission for the Series III Olympic coins for the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, for which he created images of lacrosse, cycling, rowing, and canoeing.

In addition, Danby was a popular portraitist. He was commissioned by the National Hockey League to paint a portrait of hockey player Gordie Howe, and also created portraits of Tim Horton and Wayne Gretzky. In 2001, he was inducted into both the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada.

When Danby burst onto the art scene, other Canadian practitioners of realism, including Alex Colville, Mary Pratt, and Christopher Pratt, were well-known, but realism itself had “dropped down the food chain,” according to Holubizky. “There was a critical perception that realism was just technique devoid of content,” he says.

The exhibition includes paintings such as The Red Wagon (1966) and Charter (1978), which, says Holubizky, show a compositional style inspired by the symmetry of Flemish art. Though the images appear both realistic and direct, their composition is carefully constructed for a specific effect. “They are coming at you, head on,” says Holubizky.

Ken Danby, At the Crease, 1972, egg tempera on wood, 71.1 x 101.6 cm. Private Collection. Photo: Mike Lalich

Danby’s images captured, and held, the public’s attention. At the Crease (1972), an egg-tempera painting of a hockey goalie viewed from ice level, defending the net, became an extremely popular print. His images of Canadian landscapes and cultural life can be described as Canadiana, though he never courted that term. Indeed, Danby said that he painted subjects that appealed to him as an artist, not those that were representative of a national identity. “Danby didn’t worry about his work finding its place in the Canadian canon,” says Holubizky.

In his manuscript, Danby writes that he painted images from his own life, and that he just happened to be Canadian. “He was also part of the 1960s music scene in Toronto, an art director for the Mariposa Folk Festival, and part owner of a folk music club in Yorkville. He knew Gordon Lightfoot, Ian and Sylvia Tyson,” says Falconer. “And he painted Canada during a cultural moment when the country felt an emerging confidence and new pride in its identity. That might be one reason his work continues to resonate.” 

Ken Danby, Algonquin (in homage to Tom Thomson), 1997, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 127 cm. Private collection. Photo: John Dean. © Ken Danby Estate

Danby died of a heart attack during a canoe trip in Algonquin Park in September 2007. He had depicted the park in Algonquin (1997), a painting inspired by the life of Tom Thomson, the influential Canadian artist who died during a canoe trip in the park in 1917.

Holubizky notes that, while other realist artists were part of different artistic schools, “Danby had his own path and vision.” Algonquin depicts a lone man in a canoe against a forest of dark fir trees, a mild sun hanging low in the sky. The only suggestion of movement is the disturbance of the water, caused by the boat. One wonders if that was Danby’s experience of his life in the arts: a man alone, making his own journey.

Beyond the Crease: Ken Danby is on view at the Art Gallery of Hamilton until January 15, 2017. The exhibition catalogue is a publication of Goose Lane Editions, and is available from the National Gallery Boutique

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