Presences after Fire: Jack Shadbolt and the Anglo-Colonial Experience

By Robert Linsley

Reprinted from Jack Shadbolt: Drawings (Vancouver: UBC Fine Arts Gallery, 1994); exhibition catalogue, 18 October – 26 November 1994

Born in 1909, Jack Shadbolt is a member of the second generation of modernists in British Columbia. Taught and inspired by older artists such as Carr and Varley, this generation experienced the beginnings of the polemical differentiation and synthesis of positions that characterizes a healthy culture. At this time discussion of the purposes of art was loosely collected around two positions: a romantic, nationalist landscape art with reference to the Group of Seven and social realism.

But Shadbolt, though he thoroughly absorbed the ideas of the 1930s, emerged as a mature artist after the war, and he is always linked with a later generation that discovered abstraction. He rightly doesn’t belong with his cohorts – Vera Weatherbie, Irene Reid, John Koerner, the team of Hughes, Goranson and Fisher etc. – but with a younger group including Peter Aspell, Gordon Smith, Don Jarvis, Al Neil and the Bobaks, and also with some still younger artists, who though twenty years younger than Shadbolt, represent the tail end of this second generation – Takao Tanabe and Toni Onley.1 With the exception of Neil, all of these artists are landscapists. Most of the artists of this group experimented with abstraction, yet those who later gained commercial success did so by drawing back from abstraction per se to a landscape style influenced by their formal studies.

The work of Smith, Onley, Jarvis and Tanabe has much in common. It is often West Coast scenes, generalized and simplified and devoid of social reference and those characteristic themes (clear cuts, native villages) that gave historical resonance to earlier regional painting. This work displays a particular set of problems – of denials and recognitions, of ambitions and accomplishments – which have been described in a preliminary way elsewhere.2 Within this group, Shadbolt stands above his colleagues in the quality of his engagement and ambition. Of all of them he is the only one who has been continually thoughtful and enquiring about his own practice and about the larger issues at stake, and he is the only one who has consistently theorized and written about those larger issues. Unlike the others, Shadbolt has not searched for a successful style; he has searched for ways to address the big questions at the root of the development of abstraction in the 1950s. These included the double historical trauma of the Holocaust and the atom bomb, and the questions of social order, freedom and individualism.

From the beginning he has demonstrated flexibility and a willingness to change. But now, in the latter part of his career, it is also becoming clear to what extent he was deeply and permanently affected by certain discussions of the 1940s and early 1950s. In painterly terms, I argue, we can still see echoes of Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash in Shadbolt’s work. In philosophical terms we can still detect the lingering echo of Herbert Read, and of the tension between the Bauhaus/Constructivist position of the Art in Living Group and Vancouver’s organic abstraction of the 1950s. To investigate these roots will send us back over the formalist hump, beyond the painting and painting theories of the American 1960s, to a period when British and Commonwealth artists were attempting to find an abstract symbolism that would preserve art’s autonomy and still address the world in an important way. The scale, confidence, and conceptual flatness (otherwise “presence”) of postwar American painting made this organic symbolism seem small, scratchy, dark and irrelevant; the British artists were passed over by the Zeitgeist. Perhaps, because recent historical events appear to have closed off the period that began with the rise of fascism and the emergence of a bi-polar politics, this work is now beginning to look more interesting than it did a few years ago, and Shadbolt’s debt to this historical moment looks less like a liability, less like a mark of the provincial, and more like a proof of his engagement with history.

Shadbolt’s works of the postwar period, with titles such as Presences after Fire (1950), Dark Fruition (1952), and Remnants of a Dry Season (1949), participate in a kind of melancholic nature poetry that is also found in the works of Sutherland and Nash. Sutherland’s thorn bushes and Nash’s dying suns are usually seen in the Blake/Palmer tradition of the visionary landscape; specifically the British visionary landscape. Inexplicably lyrical and affirmatively nationalist readings are still common in England, but it seems obvious today that these artists' works contain motifs of pessimism and decline already widespread in the culture of the 1920s and the 1930s which took a new turn in the postwar period. The end of the war brought no reason for hope. Instead, an undercurrent of pessimism and exhaustion was felt alongside the natural inclination to renewal and new beginnings. The opening of the death camps stirred a generalized, universal guilt and brought the highest values of western culture into question. The dropping of the bomb inaugurated a permanent state of anxiety. Though Nash died in 1946, works of the 1930s and 1940s such as Eclipse of the Sunflower (1945), captured the new mood as well. Shadbolt was highly aware of all of this as his accounts of the period show. He described the 1950s as a “dim out” and the “dimness” and pessimism of his work at this period is clear.

Against this historical background, the confidence of American abstract painting, though convincing in its way, has a moment of bad faith. Its triumphalism comes into sharper relief against the doubtfulness of the British artists. When Shadbolt moved into a full strength gestural abstraction it is significant that he derived his concept from the sight of bombed buildings he encountered in Britain during the war. His experience of war damage was further associated strongly for him with the shock he felt at the revelation of the death camps. His later crossing of nature imagery, particularly references to the subterranean and insect worlds, with abstraction is a response to the American challenge that tries to keep contact with the apocalyptic symbolism of the British school.

In Shadbolt’s work of the last ten years we can often see a large “H” or horned “T” form silhouetted against a landscape. This symbolic gateway is a strong recollection of similar shapes in the work of Sutherland. What this form might mean in every case is not necessarily clear, but a recent Shadbolt lithograph, Winter Sun Trap, is a clear recapitulation in the late period of an artist’s life of a vocabulary of images that spoke to him in his youth. In this print, the menacing horns in the foreground support a skeletal framework that could be the “trap” of the title. Just slipping out, or perhaps moving into view through the middle of the structure, is the disk of the sun. The sun, in Nash’s work in particular, was an apocalyptic image – suns in eclipse, black suns, sinking suns, blood red suns – the atomic furnace that radiates life and sustains hope during the cold war became an image of catastrophe. The ultimate symbol of the spiritual dimension of poetry was threatened, blighted, or banished. Shadbolt’s use of this image vocabulary is not anachronistic. It is an historical witness to the unfinished business of the postwar period – the need to abreact to a spiritual crisis that could not work itself out because of political pressures.

It has become a critical commonplace that Shadbolt’s work is constructed around a moving dialectic of opposites. Individual pieces are routinely described as an achieved balance of opposing forces – tight compositional structure versus disruptive energy. He himself has explained his working process in terms of a struggle between the demands of form and emotion. This formal dialectic also lies deep within the subjects he chooses. The very recent Quadrant series, for example, is a group of panels that set a geometrical abstraction reminiscent of Mondrian against pure gesture. This particular duality becomes both more literal and more social with the inclusion of organic images – Shadbolt’s trademark butterflies, beetles and birds. The grids and colour fields of the other painterly layer are then more easily seen in their historical relation to architecture.

The “formal” articulation of the painting surface and edges in late abstraction maintains a link, through Mondrian, to a modernist tradition of utopian architectural discourse. This is the affirmative strain of modernism, the techno-optimistic future building current expunged from critical discourse in the great political art purges of the 1950s. The visible link of latter day abstraction, say the work of Marden, Lewitt or Ryman, with this history is only in the uses to which such art is put as decoration in the corporate office tower. Shadbolt stages his critique of this tradition and ideology through his battling, and endangered, organic forms. It is a witness of his public and historical ambition that he should attempt to make monumental modernist decoration a site of struggle between opposing principles – or rather that he should propose that such struggle is constitutive of the modernist movement itself.

In 1950 Herbert Read observed that all modern art falls between the poles of the “realistic” and the “abstract.” He goes on to say that: “realism will include…. also those distorted or selected images due to exceptional states of awareness which we call idealism, expressionism, superrealism [surrealism] etc.” This dualistic mode of thinking is exactly Shadbolt’s way. Read goes on to link abstraction with the constructivist utopian position I have outlined. He also:

sees in realism an expression of confidence in, and sympathy for, the organic processes of life. In other words, realism is an affirmative mode of expression, by which we do not necessarily mean the expression of an optimistic mood…. But abstraction is the reaction of man confronted with the abyss of nothingness, the expression of an Angst which distrusts or renounces the organic principle, and affirms the creative freedom of the human mind in such a situation.3

Like Read, Shadbolt sees the organic principle as antagonistic to the constructive. For Shadbolt, as for Read, this antagonism is also an oscillation between confidence and anxiety, a dialectical tussle between affirmation and pessimism on both sides of the divide. But this is not just a question of influence. If it were only a case of “influence” in the art historical sense Shadbolt would be a much lesser artist. The integrity of Shadbolt’s dialectical turn of thought is found in the fact that it is derived from his historical experience as an artist in the formative period of British Columbia’s culture.

Shadbolt was certainly aware of the effective propaganda for modern architecture undertaken by B.C. Binning, Frederic Lasserre and others. This progressive modernist position also addressed social questions arising from the effort to integrate workers with the middle class. In North America, with the defeat of the Left movement of the 1930s, it increasingly began to appear that community, necessary in itself, couldn’t exist except as an oppressive conformism. The only outside position seemed to be a kind of anti-social individualism, and some artists were led to draw on the Rimbaudian tradition of the voyant. While figures such as B.C. Binning were content to decorate new office towers with geometric mosaics, others such as Al Neil attempted to live their rejection of the new corporate/bureaucratic order, always drawing strength from the natural and tribal worlds, and often living a semi-rural life. Shadbolt’s career since then could be seen as a refusal to take either position – neither the affirmative/modernist nor the critical/expressionist – but to explode the tension they produced by smashing them together. Shadbolt experienced a polarized aesthetic/political discourse as oppressive; the energy released by crossing the poles set his ideas into motion.

But just as energy and natural vitality is always to be balanced off against formal control, so the notion of art as critique, as a social alternative, is constantly canceled out by its real social function as design. At the 1993 VIVA Awards presentation, Shadbolt spoke about the usefulness of art as a source of design ideas to meet the marketing needs of Vancouver’s Pacific Rim future. He sounded strangely out of time, as if he were reiterating the arguments of the 1950s. Yet he is old enough to remember when the artist’s main task was simply to lay the foundation of a local art. He remembers when all the local institutions were new, and his remarks testified to his own enormous contribution to the building of a vital culture in his hometown. Shadbolt has more to tell us about our origins than we are perhaps able to admit at the moment.

Since Shadbolt is not a true avant-gardist, that is to say, he does not advocate the overcoming of art or its dissolution into politics, in effect he is staging the social dilemma of art as a dramatic struggle within the fictional realm of painting. He doesn’t set out to change the world. That possibility is denied from the start and this gives his endlessly repeated movement toward resolution or balance its fatalistic streak. His work is a pictorial dramatization of historical struggle. No real resolution of this struggle is possible within the parametres of art, and if art is then seen as a synthesis of two opposing positions, its critical role is brought into question. This is perhaps the weak point in Shadbolt’s work; and this is the point from which my own earlier critiques of his work have started – from its reconciliatory or compromising nature. But the strength of Shadbolt’s dualistic method lies in his unwillingness to settle; the productivity of his system of opposites is found in the fact that he doesn’t work to a final resolution. Few local artists have been as open, as courageous, or as willing to accept failure – and much better – willing to follow through on the recognition that an ambitious and significant failure is worth much more than a tidy accomplishment. Shadbolt is exemplary among his contemporaries and far beyond his successors in the way that he marshals his resources and then sets the painting process in motion.

The chance he takes is to find something essential and truthful by working through the polarities of his situation. In the end he has found a modern language in which to embody the paradox of the colonial experience – that progress is also necessarily destruction and that affirmation must also of necessity be opposition.

1Another artist born the same year as Shadbolt who also contributed to later developments was B.C. Binning.
2Scott Watson, “Art in the Fifties: Design, Leisure and Painting in the Age of Anxiety,” in Vancouver Art and Artists: 1931-1983 (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1983), pp. 72-101; Robert Linsley, “Painting and the Social History of British Columbia,” in Vancouver Anthology: The Institutional Politics of Art, ed. Stan Douglas (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1991), pp. 225-245.
3Herbert Read, “Realism and Abstraction in Modern Art,” in The Philosophy of Modern Art: Collected Essays (London: Faber and Faber, 1952), pp. 88, 93.