My new book, Codes for North: Foundations of the Canadian Avant-Garde Film, is the result of a decade of engagement with the work of Jack Chambers, Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland. The bulk of this work was the basis of my doctoral dissertation in 2015.
The book is now available for order from the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre and is expected to be in stock as of this coming Wednesday. Copies are available to reviewers upon request. Below is an excerpt that introduces Jack Chambers' The Hart of London (1970).
JACK CHAMBERS' THE HART OF LONDON (1970)
By the time that Jack Chambers began to make films in 1964, he had already undergone a “series of births,” as he had characterized them, through his training in Spain. There he had cultivated an individual approach to painting, measured by an objective standard of craft. After his return to Canada, his style continued to evolve. His homecoming to London, Ontario, had signalled further development of the memorial and sensual ambitions of his art, and more births would follow, some through his initial engagement with photography, others after he was diagnosed with leukemia in 1969.(1) His early films were technologically primitive, compositionally and sequentially masterful impressions of his life, philosophy and environment. This work, and the impulses that had simultaneously emerged in his painting activity, gave way to his final film, The Hart of London (1970). It would serve as an ultimate reckoning of his apocalyptic vision of man at odds with nature, a film of cosmic and spiritual immediacy, a reverie of childhood and fatherhood. The Hart of London dreams, not in the conceits of Mosaic’s trinity of early, middle and late life, but in a freer stream that fastens those stations to the evolution of the spirit; it symbolizes a tragic current in modernity, not through the binary analogues of Hybrid, but by the menacing and universal implications of local newsreels; it documents, not in the narrow particulars of R34, but by the wider scope of social history; and it passes in instants, not only in the circulation of loss and rebirth found in Circle, attendant to the past, but toward a union of joyous and suffering witness remembered, a hesitant stare forward from its present moment.
The Hart of London marks the culmination of formal and social concerns that had dominated Chambers’ earlier work as a painter and filmmaker. It results from Chambers’ heritage of difficulty, which first arrived for him in the gulf between the plasticity of painting and the dimensional depth of photography and filmmaking, and which matured in its merging with his mystical notions of poetic sensory intuition, his embrace of multi-tiered perception and his devotion to perceptual mystery. This film would be the final evolution of this branch of aesthetic difficulty in Chambers’ art, as the paintings that followed it would adhere more strictly to his philosophy of Perceptual Realism, a pursuit of sublime vision that dealt in a more mystical difficulty, and that was not so fortified and obscure as his preceding work had been. The Perceptual Realist paintings were concerned with the exaltation of perceptual experience, with vision as an entrance to a greater interior chamber of the senses, an extension and departure from the obscurities of the works that presupposed them. These works were open to engage the casual viewer.
Paintings such as 401 Towards London No. 1 (1968-69), Victoria Hospital (1969-70), Lombardo Avenue (1972-76) and the Sunday Morning series (1968-1977), contrary to their meticulous form, were primitive riddles. But they were most celebrated for their extremity of technical skill that approximated realism, in a manner distinct from the kitsch of contemporaneous American photorealism.(2) Their form had the superficial integrity of the photograph, but they were essentially painterly, their textures created with marble dust and rabbit fur that altered the plane of the canvas and augmented the multi-dimensional presence of the work, bodies and spaces rendered in the distinct compressions of a lens’ focal length. Their presence, the true content of the work, would in Chambers’ view be a communion of artist and spirit, or God, the artist as the eye, the spirit in the landscape, the suburban street, or the interior of the Chambers family home. So startling and visceral was the viewing of a Perceptual Realist canvas that their allusions and other referential difficulties became elusive, further masked by the potential relation of the work to the ready pleasure of the Romantic landscape, that narrow passage of aesthetic disavowal by which the post-Impressionists would come to be embraced in the popular imagination.(3) These paintings represent a height of rendered reality, an endorsement of the real and a disavowal of the perceptual falseness of realism. Perceptual Realism allowed Chambers to further brand his work in its relation to reality, to cultivate a philosophy, at the dispensation of the obscurities and rage that had marked his earlier work.
A Perceptual Realist painting was offered as an elevation of the camera’s mechanical description, be it of a figure or a landscape, but the work was as much about time, not only the interval of vision unfolding—as opposed to the suspended action of the distilled moment, the ‘still life’ that had haunted Western art—but the interval in which profound perceptions are encountered. What Chambers called the ‘wow’ moment of Perceptual Realism was an artifact of temporal perception, a moment when sense-comprehension is disrupted and must be gathered up again.(4) Chambers provoked those moments through his paintings. His sources included the past that informed that moment, the elastic interval of that moment, the distance of memory from the present and a profound knowledge of the relative impotence of moments lacking such temporal frames. The work itself was ultimately one of disrupted perception that is reconfigured, that permeates and is permeated by experience. The stakes in this work are spiritual. Chambers wished to celebrate glories of perception, and what meant more, to redeem perception, from the quotidian, from the impotent moment, from the spiritual alienation of the modern observer. This was the redemption of reality itself. He arrived at this work after his most sinister period, out of the oppressive atmosphere of his studio, filled with the fumes of aluminum paint, with which he made his silver paintings. The silver paintings had used fractured perspective and plane divisions and, in their most dramatic engagement with time, affected a positive-negative transit in their viewing, so that as the viewer passed, an image was actively transforming and transformed by time. Some of Chambers’ images were plundered from mass culture, others from his own life, and the work integrated photographic renderings with design text in an overt critique of media and society, specifically, society’s cruel skill at reducing extremities of love and hatred, joy and tragedy, to a neutral baseline. Against the falseness and indifference of mass culture, Chambers’ silver paintings were indignant statements of his position against the devaluation of perception. This position would be tempered and refined into Perceptual Realism.(5) This sinister work constitutes another tier of what Chambers called the spiritual preparation of the artist.
On January 20, 1968, the London Free Press’s Bill Webster announced in his column that Jack Chambers was making a new film. His headline announced, “Underground film on London planned.” This film would be about life in London, Ontario, and through Webster’s column, Chambers was placing a call for snapshots from Londoners, “of any vintage and any quality.”(6) In a follow-up column, Webster gave the address for submissions, adding that Chambers would “make his film directly from the material he receives and title it, Heart of London.”(7) Chambers repeated this request on local television and radio. He also achieved access to “all the TV footage shot by the local station since it went into operation” 15 years earlier, in 1954.(8) Chambers travelled to Madrid, Orense, La Touza, Sevilla, Huelva and La Antilla, in September and October of 1968, shooting footage for what would become The Hart of London. The homophonic title had, as Bill Webster had indicated in spelling it ‘heart’, implications that this work would reach the irreducible core of the city, and drew the parallel of architecture as metaphor for interior being, as in St. Teresa of Ávila’s seven mansions of the soul. The hart of the title was the city’s heart, its central organ and life essence, and it was also a literal hart, a deer which, as the film begins, wanders into the city, becomes trapped, disoriented, ensnared by suburban fences, and is consequently captured by hunters, placed in a metal holding fence and killed. All of this action, from the deer’s terrified galloping on the outskirts of the woods to its execution, was captured by television cameras and would be integrated by Chambers into his film, as its prelude, the declaration of a theme.(9)
The term hart was already antique when Chambers began his film, replaced widely by the terms deer and stag. His choice of this word, and of the deer as icon, is not limited to homophonic punning, but rather drew from his knowledge of the deer’s symbolism in medieval Christianity.(10) In the medieval hunt, the hart was a prized game, and by pursuit of it, hunters participated in an allegory for Christ’s ordeals. The process of the hunt was elaborate and ritualized: an expert huntsman would track the hart and identify its lay. A party would then assemble, and dogs would be positioned along a path to serve as relays. When the quarry was sighted, a chase would begin, and finally, when the hart could run no longer, the leader of the hunt would make the kill. The hart’s carcass would be subject to ‘unmaking’, a dissection ritual.(11) For its agony, the hart became a symbol of Christ, an allegory that was reinforced in Christian mythology. For example, the Christian martyr Saint Eustace was said to have undergone conversion after seeing a crucifix suspended from the antlers of a hart.(12) People of the middle ages believed that the hart could live for hundreds of years, and that a mature one could therefore be several hundred years old, the beast host to the wisdom of witness. In their superstition, medieval folk also believed that a bone in the middle of its heart prevented the hart from dying of fear.(13) The imagined hart, for its age and endurance, was a symbol of immortality. Choosing a modern-day slaughter of the hart as his central metaphor, Jack Chambers would embark on a work of environmental, moral, spiritual inquiry into the dread character of the present.
As he was in the midst of making the film, Chambers learned that he had terminal leukemia. In the ensuing decade he would fight it, and survive far longer than had been expected. Our knowledge of this might lead to the conclusion that the work itself was formed by his diagnosis, that its grieving and angry confrontation with mortality and its lamentation of the sins of man and of modernity result from his awareness of his own mortality.(14) But The Hart of London also continues the sinister topics and aesthetic assembly of his earlier films and paintings. It represents the apogee of the work that he had pursued throughout the 1960s, with an eye to death gained in his Spanish conversion, and in its use of film time and sequence, with its calculated editing and visible roughness. Chambers had known terror in Spain, embodied in the predators that stalked the suffering Picasso-like figures of his paintings of the late 1950s. They were the specters of illness, poverty and indifference. Such beasts gave form to the stalking menace of modern convenience and complacency that Chambers had seen first in provincial London’s resigned imitation of life. In the mid-1960s, he spoke out against the grave effects of chemical warfare in Vietnam and the inhuman practices of the American armed forces. In an act of environmental morality, he confronted the compromises dealt to the land by sophisticated agricultural practices and aspirations toward technological mastery. These moral stances would become urgent as he assumed his role as a father. The grief and rage of Chambers’ film came from something greater than his own doom, more encompassing even than the individual causes of his grief. His overarching concern was with the denigration of life and of perception, and the aim of The Hart of London was not merely to illustrate suffering, but to redeem perception through new and old myths. It joined a haunting vision of his life, his perceptions and his rituals, to an anonymous, unconscious record of his hometown, a stage for paradise and inferno.
Chambers had been ill through much of his adult life prior to his diagnosis, for example, when he contracted pleurisy while living in Chinchón, and in the damage wrought to his breathing by the atmosphere of his studio during his silver painting period. While the presence of death and despair in his work was partly inherited from Spanish art and from his Catholicism, his fascination with death as a theme predates his illness, traced to a possibly apocryphal anecdote of his having been arrested for breaking into a London mortuary as a teenager, presumably in pursuit of a close encounter with death.
For a fuller discussion of Chambers’ work in relation to American photorealist painting, see Chapter 1 fn43. It is central in addressing the effect of Perceptual Realism to distinguish it from kitsch ‘hyperrealist’ paintings by artists such as Richard Estes and John Baeder who, despite a superficial relation of skill, exemplify the disparity between Jack Chambers and other artists who pursued photorealist painting in his time.
Just as Chambers did not fit easily into the American hyperrealist movement, he did not fit easily into a lineage of romantic landscape painting, although romantic landscapes are among the best known Perceptual Realist paintings. In the Canadian context, much of that tradition was influenced by Dutch painting with motives and skillsets distinct from those of Chambers. As audiences acclimated to post-Impressionism, by disregarding the alien nature of its form and focusing instead on the more standard fare of its content, the Group of Seven and associates formed the context for Canada’s modern landscape painting, a context which Chambers steadfastly resisted by working in portraiture and social scenes, and which the presence of photorealist technique already resisted, for the fine density of its forms, and for an appearance that could be presumed inherited from older Spanish styles and pre-modern notions of precise representation.
Chambers describes this as such: “Perception in process is like a sound movie. Suddenly the picture freezes and loses focus. The sound goes. The de-focusing brightens and becomes white light. Then the focus returns, the sound comes back and the film starts moving again. That’s the slow-motion version of what happens. The moment of ‘white-light’ is the moment of perception. The frame returning to focus and the first returning sounds are the registration of object-world on the nerves as the senses recover. What the senses record and how and when they record it is an example of creation projecting its pattern on the world.” Jack Chambers, “Perceptualism, painting and cinema.” Art and Artists 7:9 (December 1972), 31.
The last of Chambers’ sinister paintings came in the same year as The Hart of London, for example, the Regatta series and Grass Box No. 2 (1968–1970). His paintings of the late 1960s bore his skill for realist representation, but also demonstrated his use of firm line as a tool for compositional fragmentation and of the rhythm of images within images. In his work that dealt with compositional divisions, the photorealist representations were increasingly rendered as photographs, on boxes, in strips, and as if taped to a wall or pinned to a board. His approach to realism had much in common with Wieland’s sequential paintings, inasmuch as fragmentation reimagined the images as component parts of something else. Where in Wieland’s work, that ‘something else’ was the illusion of ‘real time’ in moving images, Chambers cast the photo as a memento occupying the greater reality to which he devoted his Romantic style. With the Perceptual Realist paintings, this relation finally matured into a simultaneous rendering of the craftwork of realism and Chambers’ own Romantic ambitions, joined to provoke the exalted moment of perception.
Bill Webster, “On Entertainment: Underground Film on London Planned.” London Free Press, 20 January 1968, 43.
Bill Webster, “On Entertainment: Back to Heart of London.” London Free Press, 22 January, 1968. 27. The working title Heart of London is not Webster’s error; it is spelled as such in Chambers’ own notebooks and correspondence held at the archives of the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Ross Woodman, “London: Regional Liberation Front.” The Globe and Mail. 13 December 1969, 27. It was, presumably, from this arrangement or from an earlier, similar arrangement that Chambers secured the footage that appears in the final section of Circle.
This event, and in particular, the newsreel source footage, was also used by Chambers in his painting Hart of London (1968).
As further evidence of Chambers’ intentional use of the hart as an allegory for Christ, his notebooks describe an original opening sequence wherein Christ arrives at the Chambers family home. The deer sequence becomes a substitute for this scene.
This description of the medieval hunt is informed by an account given in Anne Rooney, Hunting in Middle English Literature (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 1993).
The story of Saint Eustace, in which the hart serves as an instigator of conversion, might further testify to Chambers’ film and its role in the greater allegories of Chambers’ life. As a General in the Roman army named Placidus, Eustace was on a hunt when he experienced an ecstatic conversion. A vision of a crucifix appeared to him, fixed between the antlers of a stag. Eustace subsequently converted himself and his family, and changed his name. After this, he suffered a series of calamities, like those of Job. His faith was tested through poverty, the death of his servants, the kidnapping of his wife by a seaman and of his sons by a wolf and a lion. Despite his grief, Eustace did not lose his faith. His family was restored by the endurance of his faith, but he was consequently condemned to death by the Emperor Hadrian for refusing to make a pagan sacrifice. As in Eustace’s trial of faith, Chambers’ faith, which is simultaneously Roman Catholic and more broadly encompassing, endures this lamentation of the miseries and terrors of the world.
Much of this account of the mythological significance of the hart is condensed from a more detailed account found in Boria Sax, The Mythical Zoo: An Encyclopedia of Animals in Myth, Legend, and Literature (New York: Overlook, 2013), 141-149.
This claim has been advanced widely, most recently in Mark Cheetham’s Jack Chambers (Toronto: Art Canada Institute, 2013). It is important to state Chambers’ diagnosis as an influence on the film, but to regard it as the key to the film supports the mistaken belief that The Hart of London is merely a set of stages on the Elizabeth Kübler-Ross chart of grief, that ends with the Perceptual Realist paintings as ‘acceptance’. To view Chambers’ work in such a trajectory is a disservice to him, to his most difficult works of the 1960s, and to the profound and complex pleasures of the Perceptual Realist paintings, the power of which is too often treated in step with the low ambitions of American photorealist kitsch.