Charles Pachter

Kenneth Forbes: Crackpot or Undiscovered Genius?

Proof Only, Vol. 1 #4, February 1974.
982 words ]

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.
Text: © Charles Pachter. All rights reserved.

The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
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Charles Pachter