Friday, February 21, 2014

B. Foss & J. Anderson. Quiet Harmony: The Art of Mary Hiester Reid (2000)

     B. Foss & J. Anderson. Quiet Harmony: The Art of Mary Hiester Reid (2000) Catalogue and essays to accompany an exhibition. Mary Reid was married to George Agnew Reid, six years her junior. They met at art school in Pennsylvania (where she was born), and moved to Toronto after their marriage. Mary was an accomplished artist, but she kept herself in the background. In fact, the two first hits on-line for George Agnew bios don’t even mention her. Janet Anderson in her essay claims that Mary negotiated a difficult line between housewife and professional artist, by accepting conventional ideas about “woman’s sphere”, and making her art conform to those conventions, at least in subject matter. I suspect that George more or less subtly dominated her. He married a mutual friend and collaborator within a year or so of Mary’s death (she also is not mentioned in his bio).
     In any case, although Mary enjoyed both critical and commercial success in her lifetime, especially as “painter of flowers”, her popularity declined steeply after her death, and she was until this exhibition forgotten. Her art was much influenced by contemporary aesthetic conventions; it reminds me most of the “atmospheric impressionism” of Central Europe, itself a development of both French impressionism and earlier classicism. She is a superb colourist. Her A Harmony in Grey and Yellow is an astonishing exploration of these colours, offset with rosy pinks, subtle greens, and pale blues, using an arrangement of flowers as the ostensible subject. The soft and diffused lighting accentuates the subtlety and range of colours. Other titles also suggest a compulsion to explore colour. I think she was a true artist, who wanted to work out how to use paint to enhance one’s power to see the world around us.
     The few photographs of her show a guarded expression. Mary looks as if she did not want anyone to know her true feelings and attitudes. One taken at about age 50 does show a slightly melancholy and perhaps irritated set of the mouth. One must be careful what one reads in posed portraits, but the hints of suppressed anger are all the more significant for being almost perfectly concealed. She was 31 when she married George, who was 25. She was headed for spinsterhood, and perhaps discovering what must have appeared as a kindred spirit in art school gave her expectations of happiness that were not fully realised. Even George’s portrait of her shows a woman who is keeping herself hidden from the viewer’s gaze. This concealment is doubly significant considering that it was her husband that painted the portrait.
     George on the other hand got what he presumably wanted: a wife who would understand his artistic temperament, and would be willing to support him in his work. I’ve looked at images of his paintings: arranged chronologically, they show a competent workman who adapts easily to the latest fashions in draftsmanship and colour. Contrast Signing the Mortgage from 1890 with Dawn from 1925. The former is very “Victorian” in it classicist use of light, its placement of figures, its modelling, and above all in its telling of a sentimental story. Dawn, painted 35 years later, is an art nouveau pastiche in its use of dark foreground trees backlit by the rising sun, and a discreet nude semi-hidden in the shadows. It follows the new style of illustrating magazines and advertising, and decorating the home. The paintings are so different that one could be forgiven for thinking they were done by different men. I don’t get a sense of George from his pictures; I do get a sense of a man who was willing to paint all kinds of things, as long as they would sell. He was a decorator; in fact he was associated with what we would now call an interior decoration consultant. He had great skill, but lacked vision.
     As it is, I don’t see in George’s work what I see in Mary’s: an attempt to make sense of paint and light and colour. Not that George is a piker: his work is extremely skilful. And that is the highest praise I can give him. C W Jefferys (in a previously unpublished essay) claimed that Mary’s work was a perfect harmony of self and subject, the best form of self-expression, which he takes to be the essence of art. After looking a George’s work, I think I see what he means.
     Mary committed almost nothing to paper: she is one of the least documented people of that time, especially considering that her social and professional status both imply a legacy of notes, minutes of meetings, letters, a diary, and so on. Where are they? This reticence encourages the speculation that she deliberately concealed her true self, that she wore conventionality as a disguise. All we have are her paintings, which range from mildly interesting (Nightfall at Wychwood Park) to exceedingly competent (the chrysanthemum paintings, many of the landscapes) to stunning (A Harmony of Grey and Yellow, Morning Sunshine). She liked green, often the bright sunlit green that Varley also favoured, and like Varley, she used a range of oranges, reds and browns to contrast with the green.
     She also, like so many Canadian artists, expresses an odd stillness, as if the landscape, or the few figures she painted, were holding their breath, waiting for something ecstatic or terrible. Perhaps this stillness is another mode of disguise: the conventional subjects are painted in a way that suggests feelings, attitudes, and interests that she chose not to state explicitly in her work, but did hint at in her titles. Unlike George, whose lack of personal content I think results from his journeyman stance, Mary had something to say, but would not say it for fear of offending the carefully constructed middle-class roles she and her husband needed in order to make a living as artists. As long as potential buyers saw them as respectable providers of decorative and uplifting genre paintings, they were safe. What amazes (and delights) me is that a sense of Mary’s genius comes through her work despite her efforts to present herself as a woman who knew and accepted her role. Janet Anderson believes this role was imposed, and limited Mary, ignoring the evidence that an equally bourgeois role was imposed on George. Women and men generally accept the roles they perceive as proper for themselves, however much they may chafe against the specific strictures of their times. Mary, unlike her husband, transcended those strictures in her art. This may be why Jefferys saw her art as expressing her self. That he identified this self as a pure and womanly one merely shows that he too was a creature of his time. I don’t know whether he saw similar qualities of self-expression in George’s work. I don’t.
     All in all, an interesting read, with very good reproductions of Mary’s work. We bought this book some time ago, well after the exhibition, which we did not see. It was Marie’s choice. Good one. *** (2010)

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