Kenneth Forbes: Crackpot or Undiscovered Genius?
Proof Only, Vol. 1 #4, February 1974.
In the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Canadian collection, there is a striking painting of a woman looking into a mirror titled ‘The Yellow Scarf’ by Kenneth Forbes, painted in 1924. Contemplating a reproduction of this work, I was mesmerized by what seemed a superb mastery of the photo-realism technique. This painting invited involvement. I was surprised at not having noticed it before, or at least having no remembrance of the image. It gave off a powerful stillness, a psychological frozen-moment quality, the sort of thing we associate today with Colville and Danby, though the latter seems more glib by contrast.
The Figure of the Woman is imposing but casual. The simple masses of sweater and skirt anchor her securely in the foreground while the eerie glow from some unseen bare bulb lights up her classically coiffed blonde head in the Halo-Breck tradition. Perhaps a distant relative to Michael Snow’s Walking Woman, she pauses here before a mirror, seen by the spectator from behind in a spontaneous pose boldly blocking out a third of the painted surface. She is a strong, simple sculpture, defined by large colour masses and an outline of electric light. Just as commanding is the view we get through the mirror, the Renaissance mirror-illusion trick, with a bow to Van Eyck and Velasquez, Forbes uses the reflected image coyly to include himself in the picture and create a pleasing light contrast. The woman, I later learned, was his wife, a painter herself. The informality of the scarf-tying gesture and the half-seen white silhouette of Forbes give the painting a naturalness not usually seen in similar works of the period.
No doubt if this painting came out of the school of contemporary American Realism (Super, Magic, Sur) it would be found endlessly reproduced in the glossy art journals, museum catalogues, postcard collections, etc. and various reproductions of it would find their way into homes, offices, lobbies, and supermarkets. In short, it would have become Popular, (cf. Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World). But this painting is not known to most of us. Since it was painted by a Canadian in the 20s, it has fallen into relative obscurity. It has never been a Familiar Image or part of a repertoire of Recognizable Identity Objects. Group of Seven apart, this is the lamentable case with most Canadian Art of the past simply because it hasn’t been made easily accessible through books and reproductions, distribution, promotion, and marketing. And because these channels have not been utilized to familiarize ourselves with our own imagery, we have perpetuated the following mistaken belief: There is little familiar Canadian art. Therefore there is little esteemed Canadian art. Therefore there is little good Canadian art. Since we don’t know about it, it obviously doesn’t exist!
Born in Toronto in 1892, Forbes had a successful career as a champion lightweight boxer ‘who packed a knockout punch.’ In a recently published book titled Great Art to the Grotesque, Kenneth Forbes, artist, boxer, and author has compiled a fascinating and disturbing collection of short essays, reactionary, often hysterical tirades against what Forbes calls ‘modernistic’ art. One shudders at his paranoia about 20th century art. He resolutely debunks classical realism which is today seen as high or medium camp. With stoic praise for a few carefully chosen inconsequential 19th century salon painters, he laments the decadence of art ‘today’, cries out to an indifferent world in pitiable self-defense, with delusions of persecution and suffering at the hands of his critics, a self-appointed martyr to the courageous struggle for what he calls ‘sane, traditional art.’ Blasting the ‘New Art’ (anything not strictly photo or life-imitating) via crude and unforgivable comparisons between Titian and Picasso (‘the former the work of a genius, the latter of a diseased mind’), he unleashes a woefully narrow and unsympathetic view of the function and nature of art which surely must be to enhance and confirm human experience.
Genius or crackpot? I wondered if his silly pontificating would alter my appreciation of his painting which I had certainly found pleasurable. The work of art must be a thing apart from its creator, and yet the tortured indignation and the naiveté in Forbes’s writing aroused my curiosity. Despite his injustice collecting, many of his arguments contain grains of insight when viewed in the context of Artists vs. The Rest-Of-The-World. He writes of ‘The Swindle of Modernistic Art’, the ‘Cult of the Ugly’, ‘How They (dealers) Put It Over’, ‘Deceiving The Experts’, etc. His aesthetics are not to be taken seriously, yet he makes a valid point: that cheats are cheats and honest men are honest men, whether they deal in art or vacuum cleaners. And the art world has more than its share of both. Only they are much less obvious, protected by convention and snobbery. Forbes’s anguished cry falls painfully on deaf ears. In his chapter on ‘The Atrophy of the Sense of Beauty’ he cruelly abuses Cézanne as a stupid, clumsy imitator of Rembrandt, or in ‘The Crime Against Sanity’ he repeats the old cliché about critics continually ‘falling’ for paintings by donkeys, monkeys and six-year olds, concluding self-righteously that ‘It is time to end the conquest of fine art by saboteurs who have manoeuvred the most reprehensible fraud of all time.’
The venomous griping begins to pall quickly. My dismay soon turned to a somewhat bemused recognition of an old Canadian malady. Wasn’t this just another symptom of the wail-and-moan syndrome, the addled plea for Recognition. Read between the lines and Forbes’s Complaint isn’t so surprising. Much of what he says is pathetic, but some of what he says is true. Right on, Kenneth Forbes, you don’t deserve oblivion. We should see more of your paintings. How about it, curators?
P.S. Kenneth Forbes, at age 82, is alive and living in Scarborough, Ont.
Proof Only, Vol. 1 #4, February 1974.
|Copyright ©1997, 2015. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.|
WE met as teenage instructors at summer camp in 1961 and became instant friends.
I asked the questions. She invariably came up with the thoughtful answers.
From the first time she observed me with that quizzical gaze of hers, I relished watching her crack
up at my tasteless jokes, after which she would gently scold me while advising me on proper
conduct. Fat chance. We took delight in each others’ idiosyncrasies. Our families’ backgrounds
seemed exotic to each other.
Our friendship grew. During her last year at the University of Toronto, and my first, she gave me
some silkscreen equipment which she had used to make posters. I took a night course in
silkscreening at the Ontario College of Art and began to make posters for Hart House and for UC
Follies. Her parents bought one of my first silkscreen prints.
She left to do graduate studies at Harvard. I continued in Art History at U of T, and in Paris. We
corresponded, far more frequently than people do now. She often pitched my latest prints to her
friends, and unfailingly gave me encouragement.
Top of Page
When she gave me a copy of Double Persephone, her first book of hand-set poems, I was
thrilled. Her words were like triggers, setting off a buzz of associations in my head, feeding a.
visual subconscious that I had only just begun to identify.
I arrived at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in the fall of 1964 and began graduate studies in
lithography, papermaking, and typographic design.
Not long afterward, Margaret Atwood sent me a typed manuscript of her longer poem, The Circle
Game. I read it once, and was overwhelmed. My mind raced.
From the first line, “The children on the lawn joined hand to hand go round and round “ to the last,
“I want the Circle broken”, I was hooked. I felt instinctively that the medium of lithography whose
psychological nuances I was just discovering, was tailor-made for the poems. I completed the
suite in three months, and for the next two years steeped myself in Atwood poetry, which she
continued to send to me from Vancouver, and Edmonton, where she was teaching. The more
poems she sent, the more I wanted to create handmade books as handsome frameworks for
Top of Page
The Cranbrook Academy library had a fine collection of William Morris handmade books, gems
from Britain’s Kelmscott Press. Other European and American private presses were also well
represented. These works were tremendous inspirations. To us young artists working on the
primitive antique printing presses and setting type by hand, the end result of the kiss of ink on
handmade paper was a fetishistic delight. The 1930s romantic atelier atmosphere of the wooded
Cranbrook campus was conducive to introspection. The probing literary material sent to me by
Atwood fit like a glove. I decided to do my master’s thesis on the methodology of illustrating
After the Circle Game came Kaleidoscopes:Baroque, a tiny book with colour woodcuts and
engravings accompanying the poems on handmade paper containing bits of my rapidly depleting
hair, some plant material, some chopped up linen table napkins cadged from restaurants. Next
came Expeditions and Talismans for Children, with large format lithographs. Talismans integrated
the printed text with the images for the first time. Our last and most complex Cranbrook folio was
Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein, in which 14 poems were illustrated with combinations of
linoleum cuts, silkscreens and inked found objects pressed into the handmade paper, folded into
a quarto format. This required very careful printing. (If I accidently overprinted one colour on one
image inaccurately, the other three completed images on the attached quarto page became
Top of Page
I completed five Atood folios during my two years at Cranbrook. Back in Toronto in 1966, I set up
a print atelier in an old bicycle repair shop on Shaw Street, and printed two more folios of the
poety of prairie writer John Newlove and maritimer Alden Nowlan, both introduced to me by
By 1968, after moving to a new house and studio further up Shaw street, I acquired several fonts
of antique foundry type. While I was experimenting with composing lines of the new typefaces
and printing them out on an old Vandercook proof press I had just acquired, Margaret Atwood
sent me a typed manuscript of The Journals of Susanna Moodie. It was a fateful moment. I read it
and was so stunned by its beauty and power that I realized everything I had done up until now
must be a rehearsal for this.
I couldn’t wait to get started. I began to work immediately on a maquette or prototype, setting
typefaces for the poems in different styles and sizes, cutting up and collaging proofs of earlier
lithographs and silkscreens, then drawing on top of them to amplify the thematic imagery of the
poems. By early 1969, I had completed the typesetting and draft images for the entire suite of 27
poems, with a frontispiece and 2 introductory images. I showed it to Margaret. She enthused,
suggesting I show it to Dave Godfrey and Dennis Lee who had recently founded House of Anansi
Press in Toronto, and for whom I later illustrated Dennis Lee’s book of children’s poems, “Wiggle
to the Laundromat”. They were both eager to publish The Journals of Susanna Moodie and
submitted a project proposal to the Canada Council, but it was turned down.
Top of Page
Margaret forged ahead and signed with Oxford University Press who, in 1971, published a
standard version of The Journals of Susanna Moodie with some of Atwood’s own unusual
watercolour illustrations. A clause was included in her contract giving me the right to produce my
heftier version at any time. A signed copy of the Oxford Susanna soon arrived in the mail for me.
Margaret’s inscription read: “To Charlie, with Regret, but Hope for the Future, Love, Peggy”.
A few years later, the University of Toronto Library expressed interest in purchasing the maquette
and subsequent printing rights for The Journals of Susanna Moodie. I wrote to Atwood in London,
asking what she thought. She wrote back promptly, suggesting I hold on to it until the time was
right for me to do it my way.
Nearly a decade passed before that right time arrived. At the start of my Ten Loft Years in 1973, I
bought, fixed up and moved into an old factory just north of Queen Street at 24 Ryerson Avenue,
re-named it the Artists Alliance Building, and welcomed fellow artists, writers, architects, and
filmmakers as tenants. Queen Street West was in the throes of a renaissance. I soon bought and
fixed up some neighbouring warehouses, rented them out and borrowed against their newly
appraised value for further projects.
Top of Page
By chance, in 1979, I heard that 2 Spanish master printers named Abel and Manuel Bello
Sanchez were living and working in a neighbouring loft building on Niagara Street. I called and
arranged to meet them at their studio. They were experts in silkscreen, having printed editions in
Europe for Dali and the Delaunays. With the strong odour of French cigarettes and Spanish
liqueurs wafting around us, we pored over the maquette, discussing various transferring and
printing techniques. They cautiously agreed to sign on, providing their considerable demands
were met. Soon the contract for cost of materials, edition number, printing and payment
schedules was drawn up and signed. I secured the necessary financing by borrowing against the
equity in my loft buildings. We were ready to go.
Printing of the edition of 120 copies began in February 1980, and continued non-stop until
October. The schedule was gruelling but exciting. The professional standards of the Bello-
Sanchez brothers were impeccable. In the end, they printed over 13000 separate impressions by
Top of Page
As part of the team, I was required to be one step ahead of them, preparing sketches for
transferring to screens for printing. At first I worked hesitantly, but I quickly went into Automatic
Pilot. The ardour was contagious. While they dragged ink across the screens with a squeegee,
printing the words and the images, separately or together, I drew directly on the silk screens with
grease crayons and tusche, a suspension of greasy liquid which dried on the silk and was later
surrounded by glue blockout, then dissolved with mineral spirits so ink could pass through where I
had drawn. The rhythm of watching them print layer after layer, colour over colour, washing the
screens, preparing new ones for me to draw on, stacking up the finished print runs, was
intoxicating. We had an adrenalin rush each time a completed print was added to the growing
ensemble. Gradually the book took shape. Words and images began to compliment each other
sequentially. The poetry, set in handsome fonts of different sizes and styles, and printed in a
variety of colours, seemed to jump off the page, acquiring a dimension only hinted at in the
original typed manuscript.
Top of Page
As the number of completed sets of pages grew, they were moved over to my loft for sorting,
proofing, and folding. Several images were bleed-printed, that is, they were printed beyond the
edges of the paper onto a taped larger under-sheet of paper, then carefully pried free. The edges
of some pages were required to be hand ripped to size (by an obliging assistant named Pam the
Ripper). All pages required hand folding and scoring before being collated together in their proper
sequence and encased in handmade calfskin suede boxes lovingly created by binder Marion
Mertens. The Journals of Susanna Moodie was launched in November of 1980, and I think it fair
to say that it set a new standard for the hand printed livre de luxe in Canada.In 1984, to celebrate
the bicentennial of the arrival of Loyalist immigrants in what is now Ontario, The Journals of
Susanna Moodie was exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The exhibition later travelled
throughout the province, and to Halifax and Calgary. As a poetic recounting of the travails
experienced by a 19th century genteel English immigrant in her new Canadian homeland, it is a
landmark work. In 1991 Paul Hassoun, French cultural attaché in Toronto, produced a briilliant
French translation which is soon to be published in Quebec by Victor Lévy – Beaulieu.
Top of Page
Sarah Borins was just a year old in 1969 when I completed the first maquette for The Journals of
Susanna Moodie. In 1994 while working at Macfarlane Walter & Ross, Sarah called to ask me if I
realized that it was Susanna’s “25th anniversary” and suggested I consider doing a facsimile
version of the original limited edition. I was dubious. I had turned down earlier offers. But she
persisted, promising that it would be done to my satisfaction. And the result is this accessible,
artist-supervised version now available to a much wider readership than could be reached
through the original “élite” edition of 120 copies.
Comic book adventure in its highest form or synchronous marriage of the creative efforts of two
fellow travellers, The Journals of Susanna Moodie is nothing if not my homage to the writer, poet
and friend whose genius has been a sustained source of inspiration for my imagination. And so I
To Peggy, to whom I will always remain profoundly grateful.