1749 Calling Anthony Thorn
Anthony Thorn. For the Honour of Art: Essays and Opinions
by Lyndon Grove, Ihor Holubizky, and Brent Raycroft (editors), with contributions by Anthony Thorn, Robert Amos, and Garry Gaudet
Reviewed by Theo Dombrowski
A face stares penetratingly out from the cover of a book, perhaps viewing the reader defiantly, but giving little away. Some elements of the painting suggest affinities with cubism as planes of colour, light and dark, angle away from each other, stirring associations with some cubist theory–that a single subject can be understood only through combining facets separated by perspective or time.
The book, Anthony Thorn: For the Honour of the Art, makes Thorn’s portrait a strikingly apt introduction to what the subtitle of the book asserts is “Essays and Opinions”. The whole book, text and photos, can, arguably, be read as a kind of emerging portrait of Thorn, discoverable first by the thoughts and perceptions in the main body of the book, second, by the interplay between these and the images, and, finally, by the biographical sketches at the conclusion of the book.
The written pieces themselves, in some ways, are as diverse in perspective as the planes of colour in the portrait: some are in essay form, some largely in the form of newspaper articles, some notes, some fragments of letters. The impression gradually emerges that they, too, contribute facets to a whole.
Not, probably, that most who pick up the book will start by reading the text. Anyone interested in visual arts in general and painting in particular is most likely to begin by leafing through the illustrations. Those who don’t know Thorn’s work except through this book will be struck by the clusters of similar paintings separated by distinct styles—portraits, “abstract” or semi-abstract works, usually with a rectilinear structure, floral still lifes, and, most unusually, small works with metallic or gem-like elements. Even at a cursory glance all of them carry the effect of being utterly assured, clearly the work of an artist with firmness of purpose and complete control.
Yet — oddly, some might think — not all the images in the book show Thorn’s works. Vermeer’s “View of Delft” and Klimt’s “The Kiss” are two of the most prominently recognizable intruders in the book. Why are they there? The more that Thorn’s thoughts emerge, the more these images become a coherent part of the whole. There is one short passage in Thorn’s writing, more than anything else, that jumps out as perhaps the keystone to the entire book: ‘You ask what is light to me? It is everything to me, everything. The joy of existence.” Klimt? Vermeer? The penny drops. This passage occurs well into the book, and for good reason. This collection has clearly been put together purposefully and illuminatingly, so that the passage … glows.
Principal editor Lyndon Grove (1932-2020), along with co-editors, Ihor Holubizky and Brent Raycroft, clearly knew what they were about — though, as if reluctant to distract from Thorn himself, they modestly reveal nothing about their crucial roles.
Some might feel that the two biographical sketches at the end of the book might most helpfully be read first, especially if they know little or nothing about Thorn. One, by “colleague” Robert Amos, and the other by “close friend” Garry Gaudet, provide crucial background information. Certainly reading these first would provide an immediate framework for the author’s written pieces. However, the three editors achieve considerable impact by saving the biographical sketches until the end. Coming as they do, as a kind of coda, they make a strangely moving conclusion, especially after the readers have heard Thorn’s voice and gained a vivid sense of his vision and values.
Like many a good composition (Thorn was an ardent music lover), the book begins in a minor key, with essays and pieces that are strangely interesting, but, at this point don’t achieve the impact they later will. Even without seeing the relevance to Thorn’s own work, most readers will doubtless be struck by the artist’s vast depth and range of knowledge. Before they have time to say papyrus, they will read of artistic practices in Egypt, Greece, and the early Renaissance. Very quickly this is matched by penetrating comments on Plato and, through analogy, on the Bauhaus movement of Twenties Germany and the aesthetics it spawned.
Second, and even more striking, perhaps, than his cultural knowledge is Thorn’s technical knowledge. At one point, in a section called “random notes,” for example — oil painting hobbyists take note! — he provides a stunningly detailed account of the properties of the entire range of oil paints and mediums then available — including the different properties of titanium white, flake (lead) white, and zinc white. Two of these, we are told, are superior to the third. Why does this technical knowledge matter so much and why is this information in the book at all? In a piece called “On Looking at Paintings,” Thorn writes, “…the subject of every work of art is the material it is made of. It is the voice of the material that speaks best.” Time and again we sense Thorn seizing this kind of knowledge and squeezing it until, from it, emerges something miraculous. And the delicious irony is that amongst the most powerful of his own works are those which go beyond traditional oil paints, employing as they do house paint, gold leaf and foil, melted tin, and, in his latest works, exotic materials like ivory and gems. Illuminatingly, a final exhibit of his works was called “The Alchemist.”
A third kind of knowledge matters just as much. It doesn’t come as a surprise in one of the two biographical sketches, “Journey and Arrival” by Robert Amos, that he describes how, at the Banff School of Fine Arts and at the Centre d’Art Sacré, Thorn was steeped in technical knowledge, or that the artist “researched and applied the old techniques.”
Although the word “craft” doesn’t appear here, clearly the strict demands of craft matter to Thorn — a lot. In his piece, “Sketches from a Friendship,” Garry Gaudet reports Thorn’s words, “I wouldn’t waste an hour of my time teaching someone without the drive for professional quality” — that professionalism based, of course, on the kind of vast “store of technical knowledge” that Thorn himself possessed. More important, perhaps, in filling in the portrait of Thorn, Gaudet writes, “his agile, retentive mind was awash in rich influences and reading.” Predictably (and fascinatingly) Thorn grimly writes that it is only too possible to see much avant-garde art as “untrained,” “tawdry, ill-formed and crude.”
With such artistic principles and such knowledge, Thorn might be expected to produce traditional, even “representational” paintings. Far from it, as it turns out — and for good reasons. The spectre of representational painting lurks behind many of his thoughts on good art. In his piece “On Looking at Paintings,” he reveals, “I am capable of doing a representational nude or still life if I want to, and, at the same time, even in the same day, be working on a completely abstract composition.” Importantly, however, he adds, “In abstract painting, there is another kind of vision — more personal and profound.” More pointedly, in “The Artist and the Magician” he dismisses the view that art “deals with the making of likenesses.” In an article for the newspaper, The Toronto Citizen, his tone is more vehement: “The fact that many art writers regard realism as the dominant fashion at the present in North America is of no artistic significance whatsoever.”
Even so, and representational art aside, Thorn has a strong sense of the importance of working within traditions, but also the importance of a dynamic relationship between the artist and those traditions. As if to emphasis the point, the editors have selected several examples of one of the most traditional genres of painting — the portrait. Indeed, at one point, Thorn’s awareness of many of the traditions behind the portrait take the form of his pointing out (apparently with a straight face) that one expert recommends that the correct distance between the subject and the painter should be between four and eight feet! Revealing at another point that portraitists are often “regarded with a certain disdain by other artists,” he sets out himself to produce a strong series of portraits, none of them (in this book) “representational,” all of them in assertive styles. Of these, probably the most arresting (it is tempting to use the word “beautiful”), sculpted with broad black lines and planes of vigorously applied colour, is of one of the contributors, Garry Gaudet.
His comments elsewhere perhaps illuminate what the portraits in this book demonstrate. One of these is what he wrote in a letter of 1959, that he was working in a “very vigorous manner.” “I am using more definite subject matter in my work, not starting with the idea of cubes and planes, but a definite theme or subject, and then going into the cubes and planes if they are necessary.”
Geranium (2002), by Anthony Thorn. Photo by Stephen Topfer
This latter comment touches on another tradition, the hugely important movement in twentieth century art originating early in the century, called “cubism.” In Thorn’s hands, however, this style takes many different forms, some of them somewhat suggestive of “analytical” cubism, for example, others reminiscent of “synthetic” cubism, but all of them more or less distinct to Thorn. Far from being apologetic about working within this comparatively new tradition of painting, though, Thorn vigorously asserts the importance of accepting — but developing — such a tradition. In “The Artist and the Magician,” for example, he points out that some of the greatest artists (like Bach) worked entirely within already existing styles. More important, though, he argues that those who “broke new ground,” were typically “primitives of their art.” In fact, he argues, the “best practitioners” of any new style were seldom those who invented them but those, later, who saw its possibilities.
While Thorn’s experimentations with cubism, as demonstrated by the illustrations in this book, are richly varied and wonderful to look at, most who come to this book may well feel that it is the paintings composed of broad strokes of rectilinear black with luminescent pools of glowing light that are his greatest achievement. That certainly seems to be the consensus of the editors, who feature these paintings prominently, in some cases selecting just a portion of one of these paintings to cover a whole page.
It is another, much narrower development in twentieth century art that Thorn embraced with equal power and made distinctly his own. At first a reader might be a little bemused by his piece “The Techniques of the Gilders.” What, they might ask, has this to do with major developments in art, let alone Thorn’s own work? Some, no doubt, will be intrigued by the cool relish with which the author documents one complexly detailed analysis of gilding technique after another. Consider this fragment, for example, on something called “water gilding”: … “It requires many stages: sealing of the wooden base; careful preparation of a gesso made of slaked plaster, gypsum, or chalk; rabbit skin glue; a certain fine darkish red clay called ‘bole’; burnishing the careful laying of gold leaf with water mixed with a bit of alcohol, often overlapping the edges of the gold; then burnishing the gold with an agate tool.” Many pages are filled with similar detail. Really.
It is only when the page is turned and the next piece appears that the reader will experience a eureka moment. The title of the next piece? “Homage to Klimt” Far more than a “homage”, this piece demonstrates another version of the Thorn we have come to expect–an artist combining immense technical and historical knowledge in order to immerse himself completely into the mystery of artistic mastery.
The next step follows only too satisfyingly: Thorn works within the traditions of gilding techniques to produce works connected both to the past and to his own innovations. Some of these are three dimensional — influenced by another tradition, this one a Finnish technique of pouring molten tin into water — others more pictorial, reminiscent of, for example, Russian religious icons and Japanese paintings. One of Thorn’s most striking uses of gilding is in a painting of geraniums.
And why geraniums? It is entirely consistent with everything we have come to know about Thorn that he should have turned to something as traditional as the chrysanthemum — his artistic eye captivated by a Chinese scarf he was given — and combine it with his fascination with light. In some cases, this luminescence is that arising from back lighting, but in the most striking example in the book it arises (no surprises here!) from gilding.
Although there is much, much more that the book documents, both in words and images, it is perhaps a fitting summary of Thorn’s art to frame his thoughts on technique and tradition within a broader vision of the entire artistic process. There is no single piece of writing in this book which could be considered the kind of “manifesto” with which twentieth century art is larded. However, his thoughtful and considered approach includes many key principles, collectively a kind of manifesto.
He may, indeed, have said, “It is no use asking artists about the meaning or significance of the work; half the time they don’t know the answer.” The fact is, however, he has some strong ideas of what art should be and what it shouldn’t be. What it shouldn’t be, he says in his piece “An argument with Plato” is “mathematical, minimalist abstraction.” He underlines his point angrily: “[I] cannot think of a reason to think of this as art at all.” His parallel distaste for a movement in the Ontario College of Art to use “behaviourist psychology” to effect social ends he finds even more repellent: “Preserving the humanist ethos matters more than learning to cohabit with machines.” Point made. As for the polar opposite, the untrained individualism of contemporary “counter culture,” he sees in it nothing but the “brash and tawdry” products of “novices.” Unsurprisingly, therefore, at another point he makes crystal clear that he wants nothing to do with the oft-exalted notion of the untrained artist taking refuge in “self expression.”
Still, Thorn clearly feels the artist should be free. Prudish censorship appals him: “we are impoverished by every censor, every inquisitor, every restrictive edict.” More than that, though, he rejects a cerebral approach to painting: “I am sure that most painters paint without conscious knowledge of theory…. I think I paint because I am an artist, and have been trained in the art of painting, by artists.”
In dismissing the siren call of “self expression,” Thorn ardently and deeply asserts his overriding drive: “ I want to express what is glorious, what is gratifying, beautiful, satisfying, elevating — something useful.” While the term “useful” may strike some as almost bathetic, it says, powerfully, what he (implicitly) believes humanity needs.
It is probably no coincidence that the two friends who have written biographical pieces sum up Thorn’s vision of art in much the same way as each other. In the words of Robert Amos, “He strives to add one more beautiful thing to the world. In this age, when beauty is a devalued currency, he never doubts that beauty exists.” Garry Gaudet puts the matter more succinctly, but no less powerfully. “If Tony had a mission statement, it would have been “To make beautiful things and put them into the world.”
And with that, most readers will feel, the finishing stroke has been applied to the portrait of this remarkable artist.
Born on Vancouver Island, Theo Dombrowski grew up in Port Alberni and studied at the University of Victoria and later in Nova Scotia and London, England. With a doctorate in English literature, he returned to teach at Royal Roads, the University of Victoria, and finally at Lester Pearson College at Metchosin. He also studied painting and drawing at the Banff School of Fine Arts and at the University of Victoria. Editor’s note: Theo has written and illustrated several coastal walking and hiking guides, including Secret Beaches of the Salish Sea (Heritage House, 2012), Seaside Walks of Vancouver Island (Rocky Mountain Books, 2016), and Family Walks and Hikes of Vancouver Island (RMB, 2018, reviewed by Chris Fink-Jensen), as well as When Baby Boomers Retire. He has recently reviewed books by David Fushtey, Aaron Bushkowsky, Devon Field, Pirjo Raits, Vince Ditrich, and Madeline Sonik for The British Columbia Review. Theo Dombrowski lives at Nanoose Bay. Visit his website here.
The British Columbia Review
Editor and Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster