Thursday, November 18, 2021

Phillips in Print: The Selected Writings of Walter J. Phillips on Canadian Nature and Art, edited by Maria Tippett and Douglas L. Cole

A staunch advocate for representational art
Walter J. Phillips (1884-1963) was one of Canada’s greatest printmakers. He was also a very accomplished watercolor painter, but he is more widely known for his color woodcuts made using traditional Japanese methods. Born in England, Phillips emigrated to Canada in his late twenties. He lived and worked in Winnipeg for almost three decades, than moved West to take up a position at the Banff School of Fine Art in Alberta. In addition to being an artist and teacher, Phillips also wrote extensively on art and artists. Cultural historians Douglas L. Cole and Maria Tippett have collected a number of Phillips’s essays in the book Phillips in Print: The Selected Writings of Walter J. Phillips on Canadian Nature and Art, published in 1982 by the Manitoba Record Society in Winnipeg. Many of the selections included in the book were previously published as newspaper columns in the Winnipeg Tribune, while others were taken from unpublished manuscripts left among Phillips’s surviving papers held by a private collector. A pdf file of Phillips in Print can be found online with a Google search and downloaded for free.

Of the pdf edition’s roughly 200 pages, about two dozen are devoted to reproductions of Phillips prints, some in color and some in black and white. You can find better reproductions in other books and websites, however, so the real attraction here is Phillips’s writings, many of which have not been published elsewhere. The brief essays are not presented chronologically but arranged thematically into chapters on the practice and business of art, the four seasons of landscape sketching in Canada, favorite scenic sketching grounds, Canadian art (in Toronto), Western Canadian art, and the art of the woodcut. Cole and Tippett also open the publication with a biography of Phillips that is more extensive than one typically finds in coffee-table books of his art.

In Canada, everything west of Ontario is considered The West, at least as far as art is concerned. Phillips was proud to be a Western Canadian artist and was active in trumpeting the accomplishments of his artistic colleagues west of Toronto. At this time, however, if you wanted to find fame and fortune as an artist in Canada you had to live and work in Toronto. Phillips acknowledges that settling in the West was not a great career move, but rather than resign himself to second-class status he chose to promote Western art and lay the foundation for future geographic equity by pioneering the establishment of art scenes in Winnipeg, Banff, and Vancouver.

Phillips was personally acquainted with many of Canada’s most renowned artists, including the great Tom Thomson. Phillips’s relationship with the Group of Seven, the superstars of Canadian painting, is somewhat contentious. When he writes about them as individuals, he expresses much respect and admiration for their work. As a movement, however, Phillips takes umbrage with the implication that the Group of Seven style is the only true Canadian art. Their rough, impressionistic technique, saturated colors, and geometric mountains were too modernist for him. For Phillips, the purpose of art is to interpret the beauty of nature. In these essays he champions representational art and frequently chastises modernism as a “cult of sheer ugliness.” To those who appreciate Phillips’s realistic landscapes and classical craftsmanship, this probably won’t come as a surprise. His tastes in art are not unilaterally one-sided, however, and his insightful writings shed light on the entire varied panorama of Canadian art in the early 20th century. Though the reader may not agree with all of Phillips’s assertions about art, anyone interested in printmaking, landscape painting, or Canadian art history will enjoy his articulate discourse on these subjects.
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