Landscapes of Identity: Memory, Spaces and Things
Coming from French-Canadian stock with a good dash of Scots and Irish, I am a legacy of Canada’s two imperial traditions. (My French-Irish-Canadian mother was never fully reconciled to the fact that I chose to study British art). I also grew up in Pierre Trudeau’s Canada, where the French and English were nominally equal and multiculturalism was ‘Official’. Most of my Toronto schoolmates were first-generation Canadians from Eastern Europe and the Philippines and we all sat in class and learned about the Rockies, the Prairies, the Canadian Shield, the Arctic and the Maritimes. Somehow, these divergent aspects all came together in a cohesive idea of Canada, of ethnicity, intersection of cultures, and place. It was also an era suffused with icons; billboards, signs, government documents, and school room posters of ethnically diverse peoples comingled with images of beavers, canoes, maple leafs, pine trees, rocks and water.
Of all the books, articles and essays that I have read, four consistently resonate for me: a children’s book, a novel, an autobiography, and an academic essay. On the face of it, none seems to have much in common yet, as I think more about them I realize they all deal with the richness of identity, especially the intersection of cultures and the emphasis of place.
Norman the Doorman, written in 1959 by Don Freeman (best known for Corduroy the bear), chronicles a parallel world of mousedom. The main character is Norman, an artist/doorman who resides at the Majestic Museum of Art. While humans wander through the gallery spaces upstairs, Norman shows his mouse visitors the treasures stored in the museum’s basement. The two worlds intersect when Norman wins first prize in the museum’s sculpture competition for his tiny yet exquisite sculpture of a mouse on a trapeze, made from a mousetrap and a matchbox. The mouse-catching security guard now has a newfound appreciation for Norman, his former nemesis. The colour-pencil illustrations, done in mid-20th-century classic realism, are as serene and majestic as the museum itself.
Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers (2001) interweaves the lives of German and Irish immigrants in rural southern Ontario. The novel crosses generations but is mainly set against World War I and its aftermath. Tilman and Klara, sculptors and siblings, ultimately find themselves working on Walter Allward’s Vimy Ridge Memorial, the actual monument built in the 1920s and 1930s on the battlefield in northern France. Tilman struggles with the demons of war, having participated in the horrific battle, while Klara continues to mourn her dead and missing Irish-Canadian lover. The monument is meant to be a universal icon of grief and remembrance yet Klara renders it deeply personal by carving the features of her lover on the torch-bearer whose face is upturned toward the sky, never to be seen by anyone but the carver. Allward, who catches Klara in the act, is at first appalled but soon realizes that his universalizing allegory becomes so much more powerful because the layer of the personal has been woven into it.
My favourite autobiography dwells on the art of writing: letters and books. 84, Charing Cross Road, written by New York scriptwriter Helene Hanff (1970), consists of Hanff’s letter correspondence with Frank Doel, an employee of an antiquarian bookshop in London in the 1950s and 1960s. An initial request for a Latin Bible and good editions of Hazlitt, Stevenson and Leigh Hunt evolves into a deep friendship, grounded in a mutual love of books. Hanff revels in a master author’s turn of phrase or philosophical position, and in the book itself: the smell of the pages, the feel of the cover, the sanctity of the book as object. The two worlds of bountiful America and ration-starved Britain intersect in the post-war era, as Hanff sends ‘care packages’ to her friend and his fellow employees, and Hanff’s effusive passion and Doel’s staid reserve correspond perfectly with the stereotypes of their respective nationalities. The emphasis on letter writing foregrounds the eloquence of nuance that letters can evoke and are a reminder to any scholar of the value of archival and manuscript collections. The power of the written letter is all the more emphatic because Hanff and Doel never actually meet in person. The film version of 84, Charing Cross Road (1987) is as evocative as the book, its success carried by the brilliant acting of Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins.
Memory runs through identity, place and culture. Aleida and Jan Assmann’s “Yesterday in Today. Media and social memory,” published in German in 1994 as “Das Gestern im Heute. Medien und soziales Gedächtnis,“ is a relatively brief academic essay that explores and categorizes social and cultural memory and various modes of ‘storage’ memory, the materiality of media by which memory is maintained. This richly nuanced essay deeply informs my particular interest in the implied permanence of memory captured in sculpture and the written word and how that memory resonates and changes across time and cultures. My mother-in-law translated the essay for me; like the Assmanns, she came from a country that has compelled itself to remember.
Finally, as an art historian, I would be remiss not to talk about the art that permeates my vocation and my life. I grew up looking at the paintings of Canada’s Group of Seven: windswept pine trees, rocks and water. As a young child I even got to sit on the knee of one of the aging artists who had himself become a Canadian icon, ensconced as he was in a rocking chair in the art gallery. I also spent much time driving around southern Ontario with my parents, visiting every small village with any historic architecture of note. I continue to be interested in this Canada that is the product of empire. It is a topic to which I plan to return, but until now most of my scholarship has focused on British art at the beginnings of empire, when Britain was on the cusp of becoming a new world power in the middle of the eighteenth century and when the monarchy, the aristocracy and the career politicians all vied for leadership. My interest is the visual expression of that emergent empire, especially the country houses and the sculpture that transformed the English countryside. I am fascinated by the visual expression of identity; whether an image of one of the Great Lakes, a tiny crossroads settlement in rural Canada, or an enormous country house in England, all are about places of identity.
Joan Coutu is Associate Professor in the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Waterloo. Her next book, which publishes in August, will be Then and Now: Collecting and Classicism in Eighteenth Century England (McGill-Queens, 2015).
The image featured at the beginning of this post is by Oliver Braubach.