Monday, February 10, 2014

Uprooted: The Life and Art of Ernest Lindner by Terrence Heath

More life than art
Ernest Lindner is an Austrian-born artist who emigrated to Canada in 1926 and became one of Saskatchewan’s best known painters. I first encountered his work in a book on Canadian printmaking. After seeing his linocut prints, which are absolutely phenomenal, I wanted to find out more about Lindner and his work, and this book seems to be just about all that’s available on him. To my disappointment, his printmaking is barely covered in this book. The author mentions his linocuts as if there were merely a hobby. Only one linocut print is pictured in the book, and it’s a still life not wholly indicative of his prowess in the medium.

Uprooted: The Life and Art of Ernest Lindner was published in 1983 by Fifth House, a Saskatoon publisher. It’s no coincidence that the word “Life” comes before “Art” in the subtitle, because this is primarily a biography, not a showcase for his work. The book is chock full of historical photos of Lindner and his family, but there aren’t a whole lot of artworks pictured. Of the paintings that are included, half of them aren’t very good. Even the author Terrence Heath, a close friend of Lindner’s, admits that Lindner’s painting work really didn’t reach a remarkable level of quality until he was in his sixties. There are 16 pages of color plates in the back of the book. Among these there are about 8 paintings from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that are excellent. These extremely detailed close-ups of forest undergrowth and tree bark are rendered in a hyperrealistic manner that combines the subtle attention to detail of Andrew Wyeth with the photographic clarity of Richard Estes. They succeed both as faithful representations of nature and as beautiful, abstract tapestries. Outside of this impressive period of work, the rest of the landscapes are pedestrian by comparison. There’s also a series of drawings of nudes from the 1970s, but they look like typical nudes from the ‘70s—well-executed, but by now a bit dated.

The text by Heath is above average. Unlike a lot of regional artist biographies, it’s more than just an elaborate resumé or an adulatory eulogy. Lindner himself contributes a chapter on his experiences with the Austrian army in World War I. Heath covers Lindner’s childhood and young adulthood quite well. He goes beyond mere facts and delves into Lindner’s psychology and philosophy of life. Despite the fact that the author and artist were friends, some passages paint a rather unflattering portrait of “Ernie”. He comes across as a womanizer and at times emotionally childish. He fled Austria to avoid bankruptcy, leaving a wife and child behind. All these details make for an interesting life story, but what’s missing from this artist’s biography is the art. There is some interesting coverage of Lindner’s involvement with the Kingston Conference of 1941, an important gathering of Canadian artists. Later in his career, Lindner encountered New York art critic Clement Greenberg, the spokesman for abstract expressionism, who had a positive impact on his art. Overall, however, there’s very little about Lindner’s development as a painter. One theme that’s repeated throughout the book is that with all his teaching and administrative work with arts organizations, Lindner just didn’t have any time to paint. Perhaps that explains the poor selection of images in the book.

The fact that the book was printed in the 1980s doesn’t do it any favors either. Today’s printing technologies would allow for more color and better reproduction. Heath’s text is good enough to merit resurrection in a new edition. It would be great if some Saskatchewan publisher would step up to the plate and reissue this much-needed retrospective of Lindner, hopefully adding about 50 more images. Should that ever happen, please, next time, don’t forget the prints.

Forest, 1940, linocut print, 11.5 x 14" (Not pictured in book)

Puffballs, 1971, watercolor, 29.5 x 21.25"

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