Artwork by James Williamson Galloway Macdonald,  Untitled (Two Creatures)

Jock Macdonald
Untitled (Two Creatures)

watercolour
signed and dated 1947 lower right
7 x 10 ins ( 17.8 x 25.4 cms ) ( sheet )

Sold for $6,600.00
Sale date: December 3rd 2020

Provenance:
Acquired directly from the artist
By descent to the present Private Collection, Toronto
Preparing for his 1947 move to Toronto to teach at OCA (now OCADU) and his exhibition of automatic paintings at Hart House, Macdonald commented: “What reactions the ‘pollywogs’ will have on my new appointment to the College, goodness only knows. It will be easier for me to explain my attitudes towards art in this show than for me to say it in words.”

In this delightful painting, painted that same year, Macdonald follows Pailthorpe’s instructions religiously. Only after the initial automatic abstract painting is complete, does he extrapolate and embellish upon the painterly arabesques and discs of colour that appeared during the first phase of process. Horizontally aligned, the painting implies a landscape of undulating shapes and growth in the swaying flower forms. The framing device of the mandala is gone and the white of the ground offers breathing space for the lyrical movement of the composition. The rhythm of the imagery suggests that the artist was likely listening to music as he painted. Once the initial automatic phase of the painting was complete, Macdonald began the search for natural imagery and fantastical creatures that lay within. There, for us to discover, are two creatures who dominate the painting, each pulled from the painted surface through painterly and linear elements which tie the imagery both to the natural world and to the world of fantasy. Caught in flight, the eight-legged creature at the top of the composition turns to follow a swiftly moving projectile. Below, a twenty-one legged hybrid creature lounges, looking lazily upwards. Behind them are a hilly landscape and garden. Is it possible to look at this work and not smile at the sheer light-heartedness and pleasure of the imagery?

Introduction to Automatic Painting in the Work of JWG Macdonald (1897-1960)

A pioneer in abstract painting in Canada in the 1930s and, in the 1950s, a member of Painters Eleven, the group of artists who promoted and brought recognition to abstract painting in English Canada, Jock Macdonald exhibited throughout his career nationally and internationally.

Macdonald arrived in Vancouver in 1926 to take up the post of head of design at the newly established Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts. A designer by profession, he had also studied painting during his studies at the Edinburgh College of Art. In Vancouver, overwhelmed by the landscape, he went camping in the mountains with Group of Seven member and head of painting at the VSDAA, Fred Varley, and fell in love with the rugged B.C. landscape. Macdonald quickly found that landscape painting, even that inspired by the expression of the Group, was not enough for him. In 1932, he became one of the key pioneers in the exploration of abstraction in Canada, creating what he called “abstract and semi-abstract creations of pure idiom ... statements of the new awakening consciousness.”

In 1938, Macdonald exhibited four of these abstract paintings at the Vancouver Art Gallery to a surprisingly positive response.

Yet by the end of the decade, Macdonald found himself stuck and searching for a new approach to abstraction. He found the answer in the work of British Surrealist artist (and psychiatrist) Grace Pailthorpe, who taking refuge from wartime Britain in North America, arrived in Vancouver in 1943. Macdonald heard her lecture at the VAG, shortly after her arrival, and realized he had found a kindred spirit. Pailthorpe’s introduction to surrealism and automatic painting would shape his art and teaching for the rest of his life. In her lecture, she described surrealist art as “purely psychic and automatic, intended to express the real process of thought ... the expression of the subconscious.”

Invited to critique his work, Pailthorpe found it rigid and lacking ease, still strongly influenced by his design training. Jock joined Pailthorpe’s class on automatic painting and spent three months of intensive study with her. Provided with large sheets of wet paper, ink and aniline colour, students were instructed to “just take a brush and put on a great big splash and to stop working as soon as conscious effort took over from the unconscious.”

Automatic painting provided the breakthrough experience for which Macdonald had been searching. His discovery of automatism is the key to all of his future painting. His method of constructing a painting changed dramatically and he found that he could paint almost continuously when the mood was right. The automatics were created with colour, not line as was the case in his early work. After the initial creative process, line was used to draw out the themes and images hidden within the painted surface. A painter-colleague of Macdonald’s recalled that Jock “was doing them with a great amount of joy, more or less experimenting and getting a great kick out of doing them...”

In 1946, the Vancouver Art Gallery held a solo exhibition of these works. In 1947, an exhibition of the automatics was mounted to positive reviews at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and in 1947, the year of Jock’s move to Toronto, the University of Toronto’s Hart House Gallery featured an exhibition of the automatics.

Macdonald introduced several generations of students at the Banff School and at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto to automatic painting and its basic principles would shape their artistic practice. He wrote to Alexandra Luke about her automatics: “Things are beginning to move ... One cannot account for what comes forth and in truth it doesn’t matter. However, now that you find things definitely suggestive of nature forms, you can be sure that the door is now open – Excellent!” - Joyce Zemans, C.M.

We extend our thanks to Joyce Zemans, art historian, curator, professor at York University, former director of the MBA Program in Arts, Media & Entertainment Management at the Schulich School of Business, and curator of the exhibition: “Jock Macdonald: The Inner Landscape” (AGO, 1981) and author of several publications (NGC and ACI: https://www.aci-iac.ca/art-books/jock-macdonald) on JWG Macdonald, for contributing the preceding essay.

Share this item with your friends

James Williamson Galloway Macdonald
(1897 - 1960) Painters Eleven, Canadian Group of Painters,

Jock Macdonald was born on May 31, 1897 in Thurso, Scotland. A graduate of the Edinburgh College of Art, Macdonald emigrated to Canada in 1927 to become head of design and instructor in commercial advertising at the newly established Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts (now the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design). Inspired by the natural environment, Macdonald and his colleague Frederick Varley, head of drawing, painting, and composition, spent much of their free time on weekends and summer vacations on sketching and camping trips in the Garibaldi Mountains. When the Depression forced severe salary cuts in the art school budget, Macdonald and Varley decided to found the B.C. College of Art. It quickly established a reputation as a centre of new and stimulating ideas in a variety of art forms including music, dance and photography as well as the visual arts. The school operated for two years before declaring bankruptcy, but its influence on the local cultural community of the period is now legendary. Macdonald himself was infected by the exciting ideas fostered at the College and he began experiments in abstraction. He soon found landscape painting in the tradition of his Group of Seven contemporaries too confining whereas abstraction opened up new vistas of expressive freedom. During his twenty years in B.C., Macdonald was active as artist, teacher, exhibitor, and arts organizer. He was a member of the B.C. Society of Artists, with whom he exhibited regularly; a charter member of the Federation of Canadian Artists; and a member of the Vancouver Art Gallery Council for eleven years, serving on its judging, exhibitions and hanging committees, and implementing its popular Saturday morning classes. The Vancouver Art Gallery accorded Macdonald his first one man show in May 1941 and five years later mounted a solo exhibition, of his "automatic" watercolours. Macdonald moved to Toronto in 1947 and became instructor of painting at the Ontario College of Art. In 1953 he was instrumental in the founding of Painters Eleven, a group dedicated to the promotion of abstract art. He wrote later: "In training young students I believe it absolutely necessary that the student be provided a program of study which forces him to observe nature very closely in many diverse directions. After some two years of such study I encourage the student to expand his inner self and begin to expand his personality. I am quite aware that the young student is often intuitively aware of his consciousness of the twentieth century and could create in modern ways but I believe that every student should, first of all, increase his vocabulary of form and colours by observing nature forms and be initiated into the laws of balance and dynamic equilibrium." Jock Macdonald died at the age of 63 on December 3, 1960.