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Bertram Brooker

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Bertram Brooker, 1927 (UMASC - PC 16, A.80-53, Box 1, Fd. 4, Item 76) 

Bertram Brooker - painter, poet, playwright, novelist, critic, journalist, graphic artist, and advertising executive - emigrated from England to Portage La Prairie, Manitoba in 1905. After running the movie theatre in Neepawa with his brother, and working for newspapers in Portage la Prairie, Winnipeg, and Regina, he moved to Toronto in 1921, where he became the marketing editor of the Canadian advertising magazine, Marketing. Throughout his life, he bridged the spiritual world of art and the commercial world of advertising. His paintings today hang in every major gallery in Canada.

Brooker’s early artistic works of graphic art and design show the influence of modern design in their overriding flat, two-dimensional quality, which art historian Joyce Zemans attributes to his knowledge of contemporary European abstract artists of the 1913 Armory Show (held in New York and Chicago). Zemans found evidence to support her theory when she read Brooker’s letters, housed in the University of Manitoba Archives, in which he wrote about the artists who exhibited at the Armory Show (Joyce Zemans, “First fruits: the world and spirit paintings,” Provincial essays, p. 18). In 1923, Brooker joined Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club, where he met Lawren Harris, Fred Housser, and other members of the Group of Seven.


Bertram Brooker, 1927 (UMASC - PC 16, A.80-53, Box 1, Fd. 4, Item 76)


Brooker admired the Group for “liberating young artists from the stuffy tradition of strict realism.” (Anne Newlands, Canadian art: from its beginnings to 2000, p. 59) Like them, Brooker believed Canadian art should be unique, freed from the chains of naturalism to be an expression of new, spiritual values. Brooker often talked to Harris and Housser about the spirituality of art, and saw abstract art as a way to explore this symbolism and mysticism, although he did not share Harris’ theosophical beliefs (Harper, p. 326).

Brooker continued to experiment (in many media) with abstract or non-objective art, and in 1927 he held what is thought to be the first solo exhibition of non-objective paintings in Canada at the Arts and Letters Club, thereby securing his position in Canadian art history as a pioneer of abstract painting. Besides Harris, Brooker was greatly influenced by Kandinsky, particularly by his book Concerning the spiritual in art, in which Kandinsky explained the search for the artist’s “inner soul” and theorized about the links between music and painting. These ideas culminated in Brooker’s work Sounds Assembling (1928), where he attempted to paint the colour, structure, rhythm, and energy of music. As art historian Dennis Reid writes in A concise history of Canadian painting in Canada, it is similar to the work of the American Futurist painter, Joseph Stella. Sounds Assembling was one of two paintings included in a Group of Seven exhibition in 1928. (This painting was acquired in 1946 for the Winnipeg Art Gallery by Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald, then principal of the Winnipeg School of Art and a member of the acquisitions committee.) Other paintings in the same vein include Alleluiah (1929) and Resolution (1929/30). The latter painting—in terms of the precise arrangement of forms—showed Brooker’s concern for mathematics, but also his quest for the fourth dimension (Zemans, p. 26). Brooker wrote about this in his 1930 article for Canadian Forum as “a new and puzzling illusionism of space that is foreign to normal visual experience.” 

As Reid points out, Brooker had one of his last exhibits of “pure” abstracts in 1931 at Hart House, University of Toronto. Later that same year, Brooker’s art shifted from pure abstraction back to Realism as seen in Phyllis (Piano! Piano!) (1934) and Torso (1937). Art historian Pat Bovey attributes this shift to Brooker’s close working relationship with FitzGerald. (Patricia Bovey, Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald, Bertram Brooker : their drawings). There were more shifts, including geometric abstractions and Cubism, as Brooker appreciated the Canadian Cubist artist Kathleen Munn and the European artist Raymond Decamp-Valine. However, despite the variation in artistic styles, his work shares the underlying logic of his quest for “oneness” in all creative pursuits. These underpinnings were apparent in his syndicated Southam newspaper column “The Seven Arts” (1928 to 1930), where he analyzed dancing, architecture, theatre, poetry, music, and visual arts.

From 1930 to 1934, Brooker focused on writing and worked for the advertising company J.J. Gibbons. Because of the Depression, his work hours were reduced between 1934 and 1936, and Brooker was able to devote more time to his creative pursuits. In 1936 he published two novels Think of the Earth, which won the Governor General’s award, and The Tangled Miracle.  Brooker had a very successful career in advertising, writing three books about the industry that are thought to have influenced Marshall McLuhan. Bertram Brooker was also a poet, writing many poems in the twenties and thirties that were collected, compiled, and published in 1980 by Birk Sproxton in the book Sounds Assembling: the poetry of Bertram Brooker. A recent exhibition entitled It’s Alive! Bertram Brooker and Vitalism, curated by Adam Lauder, presents a reinterpretation of all of Brooker’s work—art, writing, advertising— and “locates his interdisciplinary practice at the intersection of developments in biology, communications, and visual art in the first half of the twentieth century. “(

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