November 9, 2008

Frederick Varley - A quick sketch

Frederick Horsman Varley was a Canadian painter and a founding member of the Group of Seven. As a young man, English-born Varley studied art in Belgium at the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts where he had the reputation of leading a bohemian life and being a heavy drinker. He returned to London to work as an illustrator. In 1912 he came to Toronto where he met up with his old friend Arthur Lismer.

Lismer introduced Fred Varley to other artists who spent their weekends painting outside the city. They tried to convince Varley that Canada's most inspiring subject matter was its landscape. Varley, who was more interested in portraiture, took a while to eventually appreciate the lure of the landscape.

In January 1918, Varley was appointed an official war artist and sent to France to paint.

Varley's war art doesn't glamorize war. Varley presented the simple disturbing truths. It's hard to see where the land begins and the death ends.

He was present during the Allied advance to Cambrai, France. In a letter to his wife he wrote,

"You in Canada... cannot realize at all what war is like. You must see it and live it. You must see the barren deserts war has made of once-fertile country…see the turned-up graves, see the dead on the field, freakishly mutilated—headless, legless, stomachless, a perfect body and a passive face and a broken empty skull—see your own countrymen, unidentified, thrown in a cart, their coats over them, boys digging a grave in a land of yellow slimy mud and green pools of water under a weeping sky. You must have heard the screeching shells and have the shrapnel fall around you, whistling by you—Seen the results of it, seen…bits of horses laying around, in the open—in the street, and soldiers marching by these scenes as if they never knew of their presence—until you’ve lived this, little woman—you cannot know."

In October 1918, Varley crossed the English Channel to London where he started painting what he had sketched. He went back to France early in 1919, and then left for home in August. Varley was the last Canadian war artist to leave.
Back in Canada, Varley continued to paint. His best work tended to be the paintings in which portraits and figures were incorporated into the landscape. In 1926, he accepted a teaching position at the Vancouver School of Art and stayed in British Columbia until 1936. He returned to Eastern Canada to continue his career as an artist and supplemented his painting by being an art teacher.

An avid reader of philosophy, Varley was particularly influenced by the thoughts of the Chinese writers. These writings plus his own observations influenced his approach to colour and subject matter. Varley felt "colour vibrations", as he expressed it, "emanating from the object portrayed". His personal use of colour became a trademark of his paintings and has influenced many artists today.

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