On Bertram Brooker.


Glamour of the Underfolk.

“There is so much heat in my heart, that Humanity cannot escape being scorched, no man shall escape the heat of my heart. […] I am the overflowing scourge whom God has sent down to chasten the earth. […] I am the champion of the Underfolk.” (Brooker, 155-156)

Unlike the majority of Canadian artists working in the first half of the twentieth century, Bertram Brooker wrote voluminously about his own work and that of his contemporaries, expounding and elaborating his aesthetic theories in different milieus. His attempt to articulate a peculiarly Canadian form of Modernism that could respond to the demands of his adopted nation frequently involved a mildly antagonistic engagement with the specifically English strains of Modernism, embodied, at least in his mind, by Wyndham Lewis, who he refers to as a pessimistic and reactionary humanist (Brooker, 215). And while the influence of Vorticism is clearly present in much of his work, and the critique of the Time Cult is also echoed, Brooker’s answer to the issues which Lewis raised were very much his own.

Brooker’s aesthetic theories echo, if in a minor and less shrill or explosive tenor, the Lewis of the Blast period. In many ways, they read, with varying degrees of deliberate irony, as a parody of Nietzsche. It is rather hard to discern just how seriously his self-consciously Messianic hyperbole is meant to be taken as Brooker spreads himself from approving nods at G.K. Chesterton to swipes at G.B. Shaw. But rhetorical failings aside, he certainly cast his net broadly as he developed these ideas over time. Brooker sought to do no less than to reach into the ‘theatre of [his] brain’ (Brooker, 153) and draw out a vision of history. This involved a struggle between the forces of destruction (the negative ‘isms’ which included everything from socialism to positivism) and those of construction. Constructive force itself could, and necessarily would, be simultaneously destructive as it moved through the processes of construction. What differentiated it from the destructive was that it recognized something about the world-as-it-is as ‘somehow good’ and worth fighting for (Brooker, 166). The three great moments of constructivism were Agnosticism, Protestantism and Commercialism. Brooker found himself in the age of the latter and insisted that Commercialism could lead to a democracy of ‘world patriots’. “The cure to negativism is to be found in Cosmic-Patriotism.” (Brooker, 166) Where Christian universalism had failed to unite all people, the age of Commercialism would succeed. Brooker even claims that its reign had brought greater peace than religion. (Brooker, 66) Defending a phenomenon that was usually considered ‘sordid’, he insists that “…commercialism is concerned with life, here and now – life as a means to larger life here, and for our children.” (Brooker, 166-167) For the poverty-born Brooker who would one day become a powerful advertising executive, commercialism also made possible rapid social and cultural change. The businessman of the future would be a special kind of artist whose role in the world had the capacity to introduce the unity of unities. In the here and now, the bridge to this enlightened principle could be constructed through the conjunction of intensified activities. “Brooker insists that advertising must pursue a ‘principle of life.’ Whereas early advertising theorists generally focus on the attention-compelling properties of products, Brooker transforms the commodity from a static cynosure into a dynamic object of desire. “These […] are not ‘products.’ They are activities! They are not dead things put up in cartons at so much a dozen. They are living states of mind or activities of the body.” (Lauder, 83)

Brooker "Blue Nude" (1937)

Brooker “Blue Nude” (1937)

The here and now would become a more complicated problem for him. Brooker would go on to complain that young people were stuck in a here and now that seemed to have no past and no future. They had been rendered an ‘invalid generation’ (Brooker, 205) trapped in a democracy of mere ‘cleverness’ (Brooker, 169) and devoid of greatness because they lacked dignity and authority; they had no excessive or gratuitous spirit and no sense of unified historical experience, a problem acutely felt in Canada where there was no geographic or racial unity. Among artists this pathology was the worst. He complained of the artist as a mere eccentric who had fallen completely out of touch and become unintelligible (Brooker, 202). They had become the victims of scientific and rational thinking, which he regarded as the ultimate superstitions (Brooker, 200).

How could people become a people rather than a fractured mass of invalids? How would the Underfolk be saved from scepticism and mediocrity? The age of Commercialism and the power of the market had created a new situation that had to be embraced. “…a certain kind of ‘primitiveness’ is the most appropriate possible reaction for our particular time, for we are, in the strictest sense primitives, the first men of a new civilization whose implications are incalculable.” (Brooker, 200) Being a primitive wasn’t enough in itself, rather, one had to wed it properly to the possibilities of the age so that splendour could be reborn. This meant this it was the artist’s unique duty, not just to be clever, but to give the world glamour. “Our own glamour is what the artist here is trying to show us but at present we cannot see it.” (Brooker, 193) A millennial glamour and mysticism come together in his unique conjuring of his specifically Canadian kind of Futurism which he sometimes termed Ultimatism, which “ignores the faeries while it repudiates Christianity, but insists on spirit.” (Brooker xliii)

Brooker "The Miracle of Pygmalion" (1940)

Brooker “The Miracle of Pygmalion” (1940)

Marionettes of Unitude.

Brooker’s quite explicit stance on art has been somewhat complicated in recent years by the work of Adam Lauder, who has managed to unearth the links between the works of the multidisciplinary adman and the Vitalism of Henri Bergson and other process philosophers. Lauder’s insistence, sometimes over-insistence, on interpreting Brooker in Vitalist terms finds one of its most explicit visual formulations in the painter’s Miracle of Pygmalion (1940). Many of his themes are recapitulated in this work. The headless, therefore impersonal and universalizable, torso conjured both the antique and its echo in the contemporary body of the health craze. The figure is clearly a classical bust reminiscent of other Pygmalions (such as Jean Raoux’s of 1717), duplicated so that its double seems to be animated from it. The figure is rooted in a decidedly modern base with the Modernist shafts of light and curtain that the painter frequently used as backing. The painting in this respect calls attention to its status as a studio work over and over. Brooker’s work is as theatrical as Prudence Heward’s, though not in the same literal fashion. Her work’s defining artificiality creates a great deal of distance whereas his attempts to activate a kind of gesamtkunstwerk.

Brooker was heavily influenced by the theatrical thinking of Gordon Craig and the Wagnerian idea of a totalizing theatrical experience, the perfect means to achieve the ‘unitude’ he sought. “Finally, the living actor was expelled from Craig’s variant of the “total theatre,” and replaced by a mechanical contrivance called the Uber marionette, which the director himself manipulated.” (Evans, 31) The torso, infused with the love of its creator, is transformed from simply a commodity object into a living or supernatural being. This transformation, the miracle of Commercialism, runs throughout his body of work. It is impossible to separate Brooker from this kind of theatricalization of the body where the body is articulated as a mise en scene rather than attempting to create a mise en scene of the body.

Brooker "Figures in a Landscape" (1931)

Brooker “Figures in a Landscape” (1931)

Unlike those nudes of Varley or Holgate, with few exceptions, Brooker’s figures have no face. Instead, they are primarily torsos and buttocks, deftly placed to suggest landscape formations. To a greater degree than Holgate’s landscape-nudes, Brooker hybridizes the two genres, carefully harmonizing their lines and colour schemes into a smooth and cool surface. If Holgate’s figures are architectural motifs in space, Brooker’s are more or less assimilated into a pattern of mirroring rhythms, not so that either loses its identity but so that they become equalized and the energy of figuration never becomes focal, retaining circulation across the plane. In Holgate, the face usually becomes a bisecting angle, primarily diagonal, that guides the eye to read the dynamic of the work and insist on a primarily humanized interpretation of space. It is space for someone, someone who will often contemplate it from an explicitly domestic milieu. In Brooker, the sheets of domesticity are frequently retained as launching pads and the humanization of space becomes more problematic. With the face often displaced or abstracted into no more than a cypher head, such as in Kneeling Figure (1940), the traffic of vision is directed to rove over the curves of the body.

Brooker "Kneeling Figure" (1940)

Brooker “Kneeling Figure” (1940)

In Blue Nude (1937), Brooker multiplies and varies the shape, allowing it to move and shift from as it transoms from a head to breasts to aspects of the torso. It is in this aspect that he draws the most from what the Vorticists found positive in Furturism, an augmentation of the sense of movement and speed with a stark discipline. His headless torsos never have to pause, they are used to try and keep the momentum going. The torso fills up with energy this way, as Evans states, “Regardless of whether the predominant forms were curvilinear, as in the 1931 Figures in Landscape, or angular, as in the 1937 Three Figures, their marked repetition ensured an integration of figure and ground that continues to suggest a Neo-platonic plenum. Moreover, his female torsos display the ‘swelling quality’ that so impressed him in the graphics of William Blake, a fullness that he ascribed to Divine afflatus. If an art object is valued mainly as the repository of this spiritual essence, which can imbue the most naturalistic landscape or the most mathematical abstraction, then endless permutations of style become possible.” (Evans, 38) Brooker’s rendering of the body as a Divine Afflatus puts him in line with the Erato figure of Ozias Leduc, both treating the female body as an emblem of artistic inspiration and spiritual nationalism.

Brooker "Seated Nude" (1935)

Brooker “Seated Nude” (1935)

The surface of many of Brooker’s nudes has a subtly jarring sensual dynamic. Whether this was a problem of his draughtsmanship or deliberate is beside the point. It makes up an essential aspect of how his paintings frequently work. There is a soft bottom to them, a build up of contours and accents which coalesce around the body. It was in this respect that his work was even more prescient for advertising. While the body is clearly what he is selling, it is the context of the body, whether in the vitalistically inspired phantasy or the mildly voyeuristic boudoir setting. “The lack of ‘proper’ aesthetic distance that characterizes Brooker’s depiction of the naked body in this work parallels the visceral address of his contemporary advertising imagery.” (Lauder, 86) In Seated Nude (1935) it is the folds of the bed and the curtain which are the most sensually detailed. The woman is vague, mostly a profile or demographic mean. Her torso, like so many of his torsos, has the full sensuality of the militantly health conscious urbanite. The folds that surround her are echoed in her hair. These sensual reverberations are deliberate. They allow the figure’s subtly articulated flesh hum into dampened shadows with little sense of punctuation to announce the heaviness of the limbs. This shifts in the fetishistic detail accorded to her hands. This is a tension that is essential to Brooker’s work as it oscillates between relishing the physical and treating it as a source of nausea. Brooker responded to the “descent into the body” (exemplified by such novels as Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point) with nausea, eventually concluding that this kind of fiction “is not art” (column of April 20, 1929). True art should pass analogically upward toward Divine transcendence, rather than travelling horizontally along the restricted spectrum of human existence. (Evans, 37) As long as the body was spiritualized, he believed it saved from Puritanism and its antithesis. When it was divorced from such a state, filled up by matter rather than by spirit, it was something which filled him with nausea. The drapes may be tightly drawn but her hair is still perfect, her head raised and tilted back like a matinee idol. As in Torso (1937), her body is inflamed by the religious and her gaze is to the unitude even if her body is only a puppet of the market.

Brooker "Torso" (1937)

Brooker “Torso” (1937)

The breaking down of the thingness of things to their vital (spiritual) components is an essential aspect of his general programme. In this way, he allows for a continuous circulation of their intensities which are spread out over the plane as a series of micro-events. The thingness of things is given by the limits or inhibition of the medium itself and its superimposition of material traces. Their vitality is a matter of the interrelation of these superimposed events (crystallized time). The specific causal relationship between these things cannot be given because he does not narrativize his conception nor allow it to become wholly diagrammatic. Instead, there is a tide of sensation which he creates through the alteration of colours and the crystallization of forms, all elements of which are compounded in a general movement, the Divine afflatus, which becomes the image itself as the crystallized unification of disparate parts. The image as such is the mapping of a spiritual torsion as event.

Works Cited

Brooker, Bertram. The Wrong World: Selected Stories and Essays. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2009.

Evans, Victoria. “Bertram Brooker’s Theory of Art as Evinced in his ‘The Seven Arts’ Columns and Early Abstractions.”  Journal of Canadian Art History / Annales d’histoire de l’art Canadien. Vol. 9, No. 1 (1986), pp. 28-45.

Getty, Cassandra, and Adam Lauder. The Logic of Nature, The Romance of Space: Elements of Canadian Modernist Painting = La logique de la nature, l’idylle de l’espace : éléments de la peinture moderniste canadienne. Windsor, Ont: Art Gallery of Windsor, 2010.


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