BARKER FAIRLEY
(1887 - 1986)

 

Barker Fairley's arrival in Canada after the first world war was largely a matter of circumstance. In the same fashion, his career as a painter, a national genius and folk hero evolved through a series of fortunate happenings that would indelibly mark Canada's artistic and intellectual history.

Born in Yorkshire, England, Fairley was a fervent humanist who achieved international acclaim for his study of Goethe, the 18th century German modernist. A renaissance man in his own right, Fairley was both a professor and poet who described himself as a coming upon the arts with an un-intentionality that belies his brilliance.

Fairley was among the first in academia to champion the Group of Seven's landscape vernacular. Deeming their subject "the primary Canadian fact," Fairley would years later lament that Canadian art and art criticism "stood still" with the Group of Seven, hindering its progress beyond the pastoral and nostalgia for a type of Canada that increasingly differed for his experiences in Toronto.

To be sure, Fairley insisted on the supremacy of the human region above all else. On the Canadian landscape tradition he stated "I think mankind is more important than rocks and stones and trees." He was a man, according to peers, who had no tolerance for stupidity or guile and an ability to see through the veneers and artifice of contemporary social mores that his second wife described as, at times, honest to the point of being rude.

When the poet and painter Robert Finch convinced Fairley to take up painting, this scrutiny of human character and insistence on the present imbued his work. Compared to his writing, which Fairley described as a product of expression spurred by times of excitement or strain, painting was instead an inherently objective medium.

Fairley approached painting with the full vocabulary of an art historian. Yet, his method, like his approach to people was almost irreverent in its honesty; determined to expose the core essence of his subjects. Minimalist in his aesthetic, Fairley stripped his subjects of pretense, moving from landscape to portraiture as a matter of impulse. Built entirely of flat areas, line and a deliberately limited colour palette, his works were intellectual distortions, almost mocking in their superficial naivete. Sitters were often put off by his portraits - uncomfortable by their own unmasking and the plain fact of their character as portrayed by Fairley.

Though the names of his sitters read like a chapter of 20th century Canadiana, a rare but notable subset of Fairley's portraits are those that situate the sitter in a scene. The inclusion of props and the implication of narrative in these pieces acknowledges context in a way that is uncommon in his better known works. Playing cards, reading - Fairley's number, these pieces speak to the humanism Fairley not only philosophized but practiced in life. "If I had followed my convictions I'd have done more social paintings" Fairley explained in retrospect.

For the advocate and later critic of the Group of Seven's persistent reign, Fairley's body of active portraits may speak more of the "Canadian fact" than any landscape.

Fairley didn't believe one could paint the soul - that was better left for words. tehse unique pieces instead speak of Canadian life - not just the people, not just the land - but that silent, meaningful intersection of both - the Canadian personality. Neither an artist nor a philosopher, by strict definition, Fairley become, as he did a Canadian, an accidental potraitist whose work offers unique snapshots of the lasting Canadian fact - essence, personality, and intellect.
 
- A.J. Lloyd, Toronto (2012)


Barker Fairley - 2017 - Works
Barker Fairley - 2016 - Works
Barker Fairley - 2014 - The 1930s
Barker Fairley - 2012 - Barker Fairley & E.B. Cox
Barker Fairley - 2011 - Works
Barker Fairley - 2010 - Works
Barker Fairley - 2009 - Great Canadian Fact
Barker Fairley - 2008 - Works
Barker Fairley - 2007 - Works
Barker Fairley - 2006 - Works
Barker Fairley - 2005 - Works
Barker Fairley - 2004 - Works

 

 
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