Building a shape into a mask, into a head.
Inspired by the Group of Seven and by his father’s tales of life in Muskoka, over the 1940 and 1950s, Frederick Hagan managed to synthesize the majority of thematic issues that had become currency for the country’s painters over the previous decades. In spite of using many of the same figures (bathers, tourists, children) he presented them in a manner that was extraordinarily different. Steeped in a mixture of Christian symbolism and Wilderness mythology much of his life, he married them to create a somewhat morbid depiction of the social world as a carnival. He worked through compulsive re-drafting and finalizing of his images, building them up from ‘scribbles’ into complex, sometimes erotic depictions of bodies in different states of excitation, exhaustion and expiration: “It was never beauty I sought in curiosity, it was a strong remindering [sic] of the other times, hands, place. Gathering into a group of marks on paper, the situation appreciated in events and relics, had not been labelled antique or catalogued dead.”
Like Colville was doing around the same period, Hagan most often worked in tempera, working his figures up into sculptural masses. And while both artists share a highly mannered sense of space, Hagan pushes this further. Not content with the smooth and simplified forms favoured by Anglo modernists, he comes far closer to the grotesque than the Primitive in his work, once again placing him within the ambit of Christian art. But unlike Colville’s static, flat and reified world, Hagan melodramatically contorts and distorts his own equally concrete experience and filters it through more explicitly Christian symbolism. For him, the confrontation with the eternal is more dynamic and suffused with ambiguity. The transformations that such a situation makes possible are visualized through the allegorical depiction of his own family history. In Five Acts In Landscape (1957), he depicts a nude body at centre, its form explicitly echoing the driftwood close by. Different times are all compressed within the singular space of the canvas, prioritizing the geographic intensity of the work. It is here that we see his creation of what he termed the ‘Janus’ face, a process whereby he presented the profile as well as the fronts and back of faces, breaking up the tense of the bodies’ experience within the solidity of space. This results in a surprisingly depersonalized presentation of the body, which becomes a kind of ruminant, merely another element of the landscape. The extremity of this elemental vision, where the body becomes just an aspect of geography, is not always the dominant feature. In Lives of Muskoka Desiring (1965) for example, he uses family lore to weave a dreamscape built out of furniture and family portraits as nude figures emerge and vanish. “The children drifted away, leaving the little fields, searching for better soil or believing city opportunities would be favourable to their abilities,” he wrote.
The world of adolescent sensuality so common to the Modernists of Montreal is relayed in a substantially different form in Basement Locker Room (1944). Painted in an odd fusion of magazine illustration and Ash Can realism, the image of pensive adolescents dreamily looking into each other’s eyes is framed in highly constructed space, carefully broken up by the delineations of bricks into a baroque complexity. The importance of pattern variation, which Hagan often claimed to be crucial to his work, grounds the adolescent longing in an isolated and cavernous space, a far cry from the stark surroundings to accompany the other adolescent bodies we’ve visited or the bathing defaced boys of Colville (Two Boys Playing, 1952). Hagan’s kind of space, deftly filled up with desiring glances, leads the viewer to mimic such ocular activity. It is also this spatialization of desire which comes out forcefully in his unique depictions of bodies in the Wilderness.
A Boy In The Wilderness (1965) seems to be a distant cousin to L.L. FitzGerald’s anthropomorphic landscapes. Its strong verticality accentuates the central tree which is dotted with a series of mouths and eyes while a boy hides behind the trunk. The domination of the trunk – which operates as a kind of central torso that blurs the articulation of difference between the vegetal and animal, living and dead – also has a central place in his sojourn to the bathers genre. In The Boat (1959), bony naked figures seem to float from a boat as it runs aground on an island, hazily ecstatic looks upon their faces. But these beach dwellers are of a decidedly more fantastic variety than the tourists we encountered in previous decades.
Muskoka Landscape with Summer Boarders (1950), while no less formally austere than the works of Heward and Holgate, decentralizes the human figure, dwarfing it in nature and denying it the architectonic domination which had been basic to so many of the works of those painters. Instead, the naked body is distant and isolated in a landscape saturated with death. The giant skull of a domesticated beast takes up the foreground alongside the rotting remains of a tree. The horizon is dominated by a decaying barn and a house perched up as a surveyor of the landscape. Two female bathers are also displayed like trunks, isolated with craggy hair as they seem to crawl in or out of a pit. The theme of descent frequently appears in his exploration of such figures, from the basements to the pits and valleys which often make up his landscapes, not as backgrounds but as the integral aspect of the figure itself, which only functions as its double. But descent is reversible for Hagan and often indistinguishable from ascent. This toggling in the indeterminacy of directions marks the nude figures ambiguity, not determinately innocent like a babe, but just as readily licentious.
Hagan’s Descent from the Cross (1950-52) re-imagines the Passion, collapsing its various episodes into one frame and disabling the trajectory of the narrative by disarming the difference between ascent and descent, triumph and failure. In doing this, he manages to render the event as a grotesque comedy. It is not one without pathos. The crucified man is still a horrific sight, his pierced feet split open while his flaccid and uncircumcised penis flops over his compressed stomach. Shorn of all hair save a white friar’s cut which weaves around his head, his limbs are presented with the veins showing through as though his skin were nearly translucent. In the distance, another cross rises, done up in the patterns of a barbershop while naked revelers mix with those in contemporary garb, holding balloons with leering faces; a Child and Death figure in the back to one side. The symmetry of the work is dominated by harsh diagonals which intersect or decompose one another, a vacant grey triangle sitting at the centre of everything. With Christ – or is he just a freakshow performer – seemingly crucified on a ladder, the image offers an extraordinary contrast to Colvilleꞌs Three Girls on Wharf (1953).
If Hagan renders the body ambivalent rather than innocent, it is in the service of something just as timeless as Colvilleꞌs state of Grace. This rendering also makes its mark on the heads of Haganꞌs figures. There is something deliberately theatrical about them as they enact aspects of his own life, his personal fantasies and the broader fantasies of Canadiana that percolate throughout his work. His ꞌscribblesꞌ build up, not into refined architectural units or dummies for measurement, but into brutish, naked bricolages of memory. Although the majority of his paintings are quite large, there is inevitably something dwarfish about his deliberately crude figures, their nudity less a sign of their potential purity than of their squalidness, as fitting for Hell as Heaven. Playthings (1951) firmly places a pair of ghoulish child figures, one naked with a belly bloated, in a squalid house, standing upon decaying newspapers at the bottom of a staircase. Their heads do not portray the vaguely tranquil expression of sacred cows crucial to Colville. Hagan explained his process of masking his figures by claiming that he sought out the “…building [of] a shape into a mask, into a head.” A mask or a head, not a face. They are monstrous manifestations, the nude as part of a carnival freak show, rather than simply demonstrative of the movement of God. Such ghoulish naked children will also appear in A Door Is For Swinging (1961) in which the child literally swings from the door which opens upon a descent. The great epiphany of the body comes through this dynamic set-up, the doubling it spins out and the decomposition of narrative coherency. He paints an event, not a state of Being. “The crucifixion, the release of the body, the signal for carnival was to me, a wonder,” Hagan stated.
The Fall, constantly re-enacted in his work, seems desired. It isn’t only the crucifixion that is reinvented as a festive carnival. Passing Grandparents (1951) depicts a woman grieving over a dead man, his coffin suspended in the air as he massages the nipples a naked woman nestled beside him. A gaunt and bare chested angel flies overhead while a carnival man on stilts parodies the notion of ascent in the background. The entire scene is unfolds before and beyond a destroyed wall. The nude appears to denude more than just the body, but there is no straightforward moral satire in this nudity. Rather, it is the orgy of death (or is it eternal life) which the nude offers up with their sagging flesh and harshly rendered bones. In Hagan there is still an enormous sensuality, one with varying degrees of nostalgia. They are historical bodies and their nudity bares this rather than removes it. For Colville, such a lyricism gives way to something approaching the monotone – even the divisionism in his brushstrokes separates every particle of light. His bodies and spaces vibrated but nothing else. They had no pulse. But for Hagan, the post-war body of Canada is a convulsion that intensifies its erogenous zones while blurring its determination.
Bell, Michael. Romancing the Stone : The lithographs of Frederick Hagan. Ottawa: Carleton University Art Gallery, 1998.
Hagan, Frederick, and C. R. Blackstock. Hagan, The Mind and the Hand: A Reproduction of a Retrospective Collection of Paintings, Drawings, and Prints by Frederick Hagan From 1938 to 1976. Grimsby, Ont: Grimsby Public Library and Art Gallery, 1977.
Krueger, Pamela. Frederick Hagan : Ontario North Works 1938-1991. Sudbury, Ont.: Laurentian University Museum and Arts Centre, 1992.