Joseph Plaskett: Paris’s Moveable Feast

In the opening scenes of director Vincente Minnelli’s award-winning film An American in Paris, ex-gi Jerry Mulligan (played by Gene Kelly) tells us that he stayed on in Paris after the war because he was a painter, that all his life it’s all he ever wanted to do, and that Paris “[is] … for a painter, the Mecca of the world for study, for inspiration…. Just look at it. No wonder so many artists have come here and called it home. Brother, if you can’t paint in Paris, you’d better give up and marry the boss’s daughter.” Mulligan’s self-awareness is tempered with self-doubt and humour, evidenced by his admission that, “Back home everyone said I didn’t have any talent. They might be saying the same thing over here, but it sounds better in French.” The year was 1951 and Jerry Mulligan’s Paris was actually an MGM sound stage in southern California. Around the same time a similar and somewhat less simulacral script was being played out on a more authentic stage. In the actual City of Lights, a young artist named Joseph Plaskett had decided to live his dream as a Canadian in Paris. In his autobiography A Speaking Likeness, Plaskett offers a distinctly Baudrillardian turn on the concept of imagination as reality when he describes his first encounter with Paris: “What I saw and experienced was a projection, as on a screen, of what was the substance of my dreams, what I wanted to see.”

The Ash Tree 2, 1990, oil on canvas, 75.5 x 26”. Courtesy Bau-Xi Gallery.

Jerry Mulligan was derided by the folks back home for his perceived lack of talent, but Joseph Plaskett (b. 1918, New Westminster, bc) experienced none of these slights in Canada, at least not then. A few years later, however, in 1959, in response to a two-part article he wrote for Canadian Art magazine, the Canadian art establishment temporarily turned its back on Plaskett. The article “The Reactionaries - A Reply to Sir Herbert Read” was critical of the prevailing climate of abstract art and its accompanying dogma. The backlash was such that, as the artist states in his autobiography, ” … public galleries stopped buying my work. It was as if I had been cast out into the wilderness by the progressive critics in my own country.” But, back in the ’40s before these culture wars got underway, Plaskett was the new kid on the block, full of talent and passion for art. He’d already had a couple of exhibitions in Vancouver before taking his first trip abroad and was nominated by Lawren Harris to receive the first Emily Carr Scholarship, awarded in 1946. With this prize in hand he promptly set off to study at the California School of Fine Art in San Francisco, and later went to New York City where he studiedtravelled east to study with Hans Hofmann in New York City, at the Arts Students League and in Provincetown. Apparently Hofmann always used artist’s models in his teaching and stressed that the observable subject and nature were the basis of all art, including abstraction. Furthermore, Hofmann dissuaded Plaskett from pursuing abstract art, which was all the rage at the time. Plaskett recalls that “[studying under Hofmann] … I developed the habit of looking at nature however much I was abstracting. For good or for ill this meant a dependence on working from the model or motif in front of me, instead of relying on invention, imagination, or controlled accident as I had done in California.” The artist returned to Canada in the fall of 1947 to take up the position of Principal of the Winnipeg School of Art, where he remained for two years. In the summer of 1949 he taught at the Banff Summer School of Fine Arts, then with enough savings in hand, set out for Europe, arriving in Paris in the fall of the same year, where he rented salon-style accommodations at the house of Madame Frère, 119, boulevard Saint-Germain.

George and Ira Gershwin composed the soundtrack for An American in Paris using some of their compositions from the ’20s and ’30s, including the song from which the movie takes its name, which was written in 1928 in the famous Jazz Age. In Paris in the 1950s, though, you were more likely to hear Gershwin performed by Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holliday, who, among such artists as Django Reinhardt, Roy Eldridge and Sidney Bechet, made the city’s lively club scene the jazz epi-centre of Europe. It was a swinging time, but Joseph Plaskett appears not to have been the Toulouse-Lautrec of ’50s Montmartre. No hanging out with the likes of Chet Baker, or Lester Young, rollicking to improvised jazz melodies with rough-and-tumble characters in clubs and late-night bars, where the smoke was so thick you needed radar to find your way to a table. Rather, Joseph Plaskett appears to have kept to a quieter existence, had tastes in music that leaned more to Fredrick Chopin than Charlie Parker, and preferred conversations around the dining room table to shouting exchanges across the crowded dance floor. In a recent e-mail correspondence with the artist he recalled that”my social life in the ’50s was indeed centred in the room at Madame Frère’s. I never became a frequenter of café life, nightclubs or bars. The traditional thing in Paris was for artists to attach themselves to a café and spend half their social life there. I remember Mordecai Richler adopting his café quite near to where I lived….”

Calcutta Interior (2), 1989, oil on canvas, 39.5 x 39.5”. Courtesy Winchester Galleries, Victoria, BC.

Plaskett found his refuge and muse chez Madame Frère. More than the house, it was Paris itself, the art and antiquities, the architecture, a place where tradition was embedded in its very atmosphere. Paris appealed to Plaskett’s love of history, and the salon he rented and where he lived until 1960 gave him the licence to indulge his decidedly romantic temperament. One might even venture to say that the room’s interior in his new lodgings on the boulevard Saint-Germain mirrored his very creative imagination, and provided the perfect antidote to lingering questions about the saliency of abstract art and the direction of his own artistic future. In our correspondence he said that ” … I found inspiration for my art first in the fabulous interior space of Madam Frère’s apartment, or outside in the architectural glory of old Paris or in the Luxembourg and Tuileries gardens, or the street life, plus the people who entered my apartment and were happy to pose for me.”

The salon at the Madame Frère house, with its ample furnishings, crystal chandelier, ornate clock, rugs, mirrors, vaulted ceiling and the changing play of light around the room and surrounding surfaces became the artist’s subject, and set in motion a cycle of work that would culminate in the large multi-part pastel drawings produced in Paris and at the artist’s cottage in Suffolk decades later in the late-eighties to mid-’90s. These works, many of which toured in the 1994 exhibition “Reflections and Shadows,” are considered to be among the most ambitious work Plaskett has ever done. The scale of some of the pastels alone is awe inspiring. Easter Table, 1989–93 (Paris), for example, consists of 28 panels of black paper and measures 259 by 348 cm overall. The pictorial composition of this richly allegorical work is structured as three horizontal sections, roughly equivalent to a foreground, middle and background depiction of a room interior, with a large dining table and chairs occupying the middle section. In the background a wall is symmetrically bisected by a window through which the afternoon light enters and spills across the top of a centrally placed ornate chair and onto the cluttered table. Other chairs, less elaborate in design, have been pulled away from the table so as to suggest their occupants’ recent departure. Two candles are burning down, wine bottles are empty or near empty, the cheese boards support meagre remains, and cutlery has been left near the empty plates at each of the 12 place settings. Joseph Plaskett’s subtle homage to Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper painted almost 500 years earlier is an indexical variant of the tableau vivant. Here a religious narrative representation from the past is re-written in the present and secular tense, and the inanimate forms of the supporting props are transformed into an animate cast of characters in an ironic variation of the bourgeois parlour drama. Indeed, even the massive dining table seems to levitate weightlessly above the chromatic luminescence of the floor below, possibly signifying a cryptic metaphor of the Resurrection.

In response to a question about his use of pastel, he said, “I began drawing and painting by being self-taught. I tried different mediums: watercolour, gouache and pastel and finally oil. Acrylic hadn’t been invented. I might have mastered watercolour if I had been taught, but I found pastel much easier…. I think the constant use of pastel really took shape when I first went to Paris in 1949 and began recording everything in sight.” In 1994 in a short essay called “Painting by Addition” Joseph Plaskett recalled working on multiple panel oil paintings in his Paris studio as early as 1970, whereby he would add successive panels to the painting composition to extend the radius of vision. The significance of this short-lived exploration wasn’t fully comprehended until years later when the artist re-discovered his composition-by-addition methodology during a painting trip to the Okanagan and Cariboo regions of bc in the late-’80s. He was actually doing pastel drawings at the time, looking out the window of his cabin in Osoyoos, adding sheet after sheet of paper to create wide panoramic views. Later, back in Paris, the artist started adding vertical extensions to this method so that his pastel drawings began to approach mural size. The largest of such works, Paris Interior with Tulips, 1989–93, measures 388.5 by 300 cm.

Piano and Spring Flowers, 1970, oil on canvas, 32 x 27”. Courtesy Winchester Galleries.

The compositional innovation that led to increasing the scale of his pastel works allowed him to take better advantage of a medium in which he already excelled, and to continue to site the subject of these expansive works in the 09realm of the room interior. Moreover, like Pierre Bonnard a couple of generations earlier, he established a means to counter the authority of the fixed rectangular picture plane, and co-opted the then vilified genre scene and still life subject as expressive vehicles for presenting a personal vision of himself in and of the world. In her catalogue essay for the “Pierre Bonnard: The Late Still Lifes and Interiors” exhibition earlier this year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Associate Curator Dita Amory wrote: “Working as he [Bonnard] did from one large length of canvas, he was able to alter the dimensions of his paintings almost until the moment he closed them.” In contrast to Cézanne and Matisse who, as Ms. Amory states, “saw the rectangle of the canvas as inviolate … he needed the freedom to adjust the rectangle, especially its periphery, and only afterward was the painting given custom stretchers.” In a distinctly different process but towards similar ends, Plaskett also stretched the compositional focal points in his work by keeping the conventional framing edge open and provisional, extending the picture to a wider and wider field.

“Summertime and the living is easy, fish are jumping and the cotton fields are high, your daddy’s rich, and your mamma’s good looking….” Nina Simone’s version of this classic Gershwin song still wafts through the Paris air as it did many years ago. A striking pastel work by Plaskett called The Summer Table 1991–93, produced at his cottage in Suffolk, has this song written all over it, albeit in cooler climate translation. This complex, multiple-point perspective work is full of light and colour, and in spite of its English setting The Summer Table looks very French. Think of JMW Turner filtered through a French aesthetic, absorbed and newly expressed by a Canadian. It’s well to remember the extent of Turner’s influence and to a degree another Englishman, John Constable, particularly the latter’s watercolours and sketches, on early Modern and French Impressionist painting. It could be argued that an aesthetic line including the hard-hitting romanticism of Turner may be plotted in representational genre painting through the 19th and 20th centuries to include Degas, Monet, Matisse, Bonnard, Balthus, Bacon, and the list could easily include contemporary painters Peter Doig, Daniel Richter, and Karin Mamma Andersson, among others. Joseph Plaskett’s career, beginning with his first years in Paris, can also be located on this diverse yet contiguous aesthetic path intersecting art, reality and desire. At 260 by 300 cm, The Summer Table is a big work with raking light effects that seem to stretch the internal compositional elements in all directions, only to dissolve at the peripheral edges of the rectangle in a soft blue translucent light, and there to become transformed into something like the interstitial spaces of a dream, or the boundless possibilities of the imaginary. Like many of his best works, The Summer Table transports its quotidian subject into a myriad of poetic meanings of place, time and subject—into what is and what might be.

The Easter Table, 1989-93, pastel on paper, 102 x 137”. Photograph by Mathieu Lombard, Paris. Collection of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

Joseph Plaskett’s artistic imagination found its voice and spiritual home in Paris over a half century ago, and his voice has travelled well, over time and many geographical locations including Canada. The artist considers Canada one of his homes and is quick to acknowledge its important place in his personal and professional history. He created the Joseph Plaskett Award, he said, in emulation of what Emily Carr did for him in his formative years. This prestigious award, initiated by the artist in 2005, is given annually to support a mature Canadian student for travel and study in Europe for one year. “Brother, if you can’t paint in Paris, you’d better give up and marry the boss’s daughter.” The illustrious artistic career and significant philanthropic contributions of Joseph Plaskett tells us that he met this metaphor for life’s challenges on his own terms.

Gary Pearson is an artist and Associate Professor at ubc Okanagan, in Kelowna, BC.

Issue 111 available here.