The Library of Fritz Brandtner: Art, Education and Social Reform

Fritz Brandtner, Notebook, cover and inside page

Fritz Brandtner, Notebook, cover and inside page, c.1950–58. Library and Archives, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC Library and Archives


Writing in his notebook, artist Fritz Wilhelm Brandtner observed, “Art can find beauty in ugliness and significance in horror. It can hurt and it can heal. It can praise and condemn. It can enchant and exasperate. There is honor, trust, faith and hope, there is good and evil in life, and art can express all this.” The handwritten journal is one of 172 items – also including exhibition catalogues, periodicals and teaching materials – that were donated in 2006 by gallerist Paul Kastel to the Library and Archives collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Not only does this group contain valuable monographic works on the arts, but it also provides insight into the life of this important Canadian artist.

Brandtner was an artist and teacher known for his contributions to German Expressionist and Abstract art of the 20th century. Born on 28 July 1896 in Danzig, Germany (now Gdańsk, Poland), he served in the First World War, spending months in the trenches of the Somme until being captured as a prisoner of war in 1916 and held until his release in 1920. He returned to Danzig and became assistant to artist August Pfuhle, who introduced him to oil painting, drawing and stained glass. He also worked as a commercial designer and taught life drawing at the University of Danzig. Recognizing that his opportunities were limited in an economically devastated Germany and sensing oncoming troubles, he emigrated to Canada in 1928.

Fritz Brandtner, Buildings in Winnipeg, 1929, pen and black ink with watercolour over graphite on cream wove paper

Fritz Brandtner, Buildings in Winnipeg, 1929, pen and black ink with watercolour over graphite on cream wove paper, 19.2 x 13.8 cm. Gift of Paul Kastel and Anthony Nevin, Westmount, Quebec, 2009. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Initially settling in Winnipeg, Brandtner worked as a commercial artist by day, while continuing to produce his own art. Shortly after his arrival, he had his first Canadian exhibition at the Winnipeg School of Art, albeit to mixed reviews. A fortunate encounter with local artist Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald developed into a lasting friendship and, with it, a suggestion to move to a more cosmopolitan area, where Brandtner’s artistic style might be better appreciated. Following this advice, Brandtner moved to Montreal in 1934, where he was introduced to art critic Robert Ayre, who in turn introduced him to numerous Montreal-based artists. Shortly thereafter, he exhibited in the Art Association of Montreal’s Spring Group Exhibition, where his painting Sunflower was purchased by the surgeon and collector Norman Bethune.

Fritz Brandtner, Beaver Hall Square, Winter, 1938, gouache on buff wove paper

Fritz Brandtner, Beaver Hall Square, Winter, 1938, gouache on buff wove paper, 51 x 70.2 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Brandtner and Bethune soon discovered that they shared similar social concerns, such as the rise of Fascism, the potential for war and the issue of poverty, especially among children. Brandtner recorded in his notebook: “Despite the unparalled [sic] industrial development of Canada, the modern trend is to become rich whilst others remain in the most abject poverty.” These concerns propelled an exhibition of Brandtner’s work in 1936, sponsored by the Canadian League Against War and Fascism. Brandtner, Bethune and others soon founded the Children’s Art Centre in Beaver Hall Square, where free art classes were offered to children from low-income households. They further expanded their art programs to include children with special needs, held at the Children’s Memorial Hospital of Montreal. As Brandtner wrote “I am satisfied that there is no boy or girl who cannot benefit to some degree from the experience that the study and practice … in art offers.”

The artist would spend the next twenty years of his life teaching and making art. He became director of the University of New Brunswick’s Summer Art School and served as vice-president of three artist associations: the Canadian Society of Graphic Art, the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour and the Canadian Group of Painters. He had some fifteen solo exhibitions and participated in numerous group exhibitions, while also contributing illustrations to art periodicals. Brandtner painted in oil and watercolour, but also created images in graphite and encaustic. He produced landscapes, cityscapes, portraits and still-lifes, with themes that included anti-war imagery, workers, poverty, city life and nature. His painting Procession of Unemployed Leaving the Factory of c.1939, in the Gallery's collection, illustrates this focus on poverty and industrial workers.

Fritz Brandtner, Procession of Unemployed Leaving the Factory, c. 1939, gouache and ink on wove paper, varnished and mounted on masonite

Fritz Brandtner, Procession of Unemployed Leaving the Factory, c. 1939, gouache and ink on wove paper, varnished and mounted on masonite, 16.1 x 22.8 cm. Gift of Paul Kastel and Anthony Nevin, Westmount, Quebec, 2009. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Largely a self-taught artist, Brandtner was an avid reader, who read voraciously about artists with whom he identified and from whom he felt he could learn. He had brought some of his library of German art history books to Canada and continued to expand it. A survey of his book collection, as it survives, and his notebook highlight his affection for Expressionism, Abstraction and Modernism, but also shows his interest in philosophy, theory, architecture, education and literature. A book on Lyonel Feininger, published in 1924, most likely came with him from Germany. While most of his art books cover European art, they also span African, Oceanian, Mexican and Canadian art. He also collected books on or about people whom he met in Canada, including Norman Bethune and Robert Ayre. 

One of the first items purchased by Brandtner after arriving in Canada was Marius Barbeau’s The Downfall of Temlaham. Published by the Macmillan Company of Canada in 1928, Brandtner signed and dated the title page (1928) and wrote “Winnipeg / bought after the fire / on Main Street / for 10 cent.” The artist protected this book with a cloth wrapper that he decorated with an ink drawing of a Haida house post.

Fritz Brandtner, Protective book covers for Marius Barbeau's The Downfall of Temlaham (1928) and Herbert Read's Contemporary British Art

Fritz Brandtner, Protective book covers for Marius Barbeau's The Downfall of Temlaham (1928) and Herbert Read's Contemporary British Art (1951). Library and Archives, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC Library and Archives

Several of the books are annotated with Brandtner's notes and sketches. Some have ephemera laid in, and the majority have protective wrappers created by him. Although most are plain, some are uniquely decorated. Unlike the cloth wrapper fashioned for The Downfall of Temlaham, most wrappers were created using water-resistant paper, which has resulted in less paper deterioration and better preservation of the original book jackets. Of those with decorated covers, some depict the subject matter of the books themselves. Leon Underwood's Figures in Wood of West Africa, for example, shows Brandtner’s take on African sculptural images. Joseph Watterson's Architecture: Five Thousand Years of Building is more architecturally themed, while Herbert Read’s Contemporary British Art is protected by a red-and-black wrapper with abstract figures – abstraction, in particular, being a love of the artist's.

Fritz Brandtner, Riders, c. 1945, colour serigraph on wove paper

Fritz Brandtner, Riders, c. 1945, colour serigraph on wove paper, 28 x 38 cm; image: 23.3 x 32 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

His notebook, itself protected by one of his cloth designs, captures his thoughts on many topics, including the importance of education, the arts and nature, as well as Canadian culture and society. He warns of the harms of nationalism and materialism, expounding the importance of democracy, and shares his feelings on the ills of war and poverty. On the first page of the notebook, he had declared: “this book is an attempt to bring together some ideas on art, the way I see it. some ideas on life itself.”

Brandtner died on 7 November 1969, leaving behind a legacy of innovation as both an artist and a teacher who helped shape the Canadian art landscape over thirty years. The Fritz Brandtner Library at the Gallery's Library and Archives is a unique and valuable research resource that not only highlights his art, but also gives insight into the life and thoughts of this artist, who believed “The world would be a better place if there were more painters in it.”

 

The Fritz Brandtner collection is part of the Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada. For details on opening hours for the Gallery's Library and Archives, please see the Access page. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.

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