Monday, June 6, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: "DEAR M: Letters from a Gentleman of Excess" by JACK POLLOCK

~ Reference for Morrisseau's collectors and investigators

"Dear M: Letters from a Gentleman of Excess" by Jack Pollock;
Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1989 - ISBN 0-7710-7027-6
/Click on image to Enlarge/ 

In this book, Jack Pollock makes the prophetic utterance: “I just take it for granted that everybody knows the story of how we got together. I’m sure that, if I were to die tomorrow, the single most important thing people would remember me for is, damn it, the discovery of Norval Morrisseau.”[p.37].

Pollock gives the details of that event, and outlines how that gave him first refusal rights on all of Morrisseau’s work from 1962 to 1979. During that time, Pollock also organized most of Morrisseau’s shows. [Exhibitions at Pollock Gallery in 1962, 1963,1967, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977 and 1979; hosted elsewhere by Pollock in 1965 (Hart House) and 1978 (First Canadian Place)].

But this is NOT a book about Norval Morrisseau, although he must feature so prominently in it. Jack Pollock and Selwyn Dewdney were the two individuals who were, in the 1960s and 1970s, the most prominent influences in Morrisseau’s life, and both had a symbiotic relationship with Morrisseau. Pollock states: “That exhibition [Morrisseau’s first commercial show at Pollock’s gallery in September,1962] made both him and me. It brought him to international attention and it made the Pollock Gallery a public name. So, fame happened to both of us at the same time.”[p.40].

The two men who were such formative influences to Morrisseau had very different personalities. Dewdney was a totally right-brained individual who saw Morrisseau as an artist (not a shaman) who could be made to conform to the white man’s intellectual and anthropological stereotypes of the shaman, without any understanding or feeling or emotion for the sacred meaning of the images, or the spiritual tasks of the images; constantly ignoring that there was a reason that Morrisseau consistently referred to his work as “medicine painting”! Dewdney’s approach was intellectual, period. He had no understanding, in his guts and his feelings, for that zealous Morrisseau, who said: "I am a shaman-artist. Traditionally, a shaman's role was to transmit power and the vibrating forces of the spirit through objects known as talismans. In this particular case, a talisman is something that apparently produces effects that are magical and miraculous. My paintings are also icons; that is to say, they are images which help focus on spiritual powers, generated by traditional belief and wisdom. I also regard myself as a kind of spiritual psychologist. I bring together and promote the ultimate harmony of the physical and the spiritual world." [from The Art of Norval Morrisseau by Lister Sinclair and Jack Pollock, Toronto: Methuen. 1979, p.7]. Jack Pollock, on the other hand, was a primarily left-brained individual who saw Morrisseau as a shaman (who also happened to be an artist), and Pollock reacted to the images from his gut: “Intuition, gut feeling, is at the base of much of my observations.”[p.254]

Michael Ignatieff, in the Toronto Star review of this book, wrote: “This is a collection of letters that you can read like a novel. It has all the manic narrative drive of late modern fiction. Jack Pollock, artist, gallery-owner, raconteur and cook, has managed to get the wild, hilarious and ribald pyrotechnics of his life between two covers. The result is an unsparing self-portrait of the artist as desperado, joker and survivor.”

Research has shown that there are three ways that individuals inter-face with the world around them. 60% of people inter-face with their eyes; 30% inter-face with their ears; 10% inter-face with their heart. This book clearly puts Pollock, like Morrisseau, in that 10%. [Dewdney is in the 60%.]

In the 1974 motion picture, The Paradox of Norval Morrisseau, Jack Pollock says: “I saw a sense of purpose, a direction, and an inner strength. Looking at it from a painting point of view, I found an incredible sense of design, a power of imagery, and a uniqueness. You know, there is a sense of the unique. Obviously, he is one of the few people who have interpreted the legends and myths. But, his images of those demigods, the animal world, the Merman - things of this type were unique to himself, I felt. I felt that I had not seen this before." Pollock felt a difference; he reacted with his emotions.

During the filming of The Paradox of Norval Morrisseau Pollock also went to trial as a defendant against civil servants who were trying to confiscate Morrisseau work which had been consigned to Pollock’s gallery. Jack was acquitted and completely vindicated [p.178-186]. However, evidence given at the trial leaves an implication that a large body of what Pollock calls Morrisseau’s best work [p.179; the work produced while in prison] was stolen by civil servants, and that this is the reason that these outstanding 1970s pieces so often nowadays lack provenance: a true provenance would confirm property was stolen. [The Statute of Limitations ran out in 2004, so Robert Fox (and other persons) should no longer fear breach of trust and/or theft prosecution and can now return from Mexico (or come out from other closets).]

Pollock is highly critical of Tom Hill and Elizabeth McLuhan [now a member of the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society] for not supporting him during his trial. This comes after his earlier criticism of those two [p.69] for deliberately selecting Morrisseau’s most inferior work for inclusion in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s first aboriginal exhibition. He criticizes the AGO; he attacks the art critics of the Globe and Mail for the entire 1960s to 1980s period; he attacks and explains his withdrawal from the Art Dealers Association of Canada [of which he had been a founding member]. His exclusive rights to Morrisseau were taken away (after 17 years) through a trick by a dishonest competitor. This could have been prevented by ADAC enforcement of its own rules. These were all events which were highly-charged with emotion.

While Dewdney sat in his museum, writing dead things to Morrisseau, Pollock encouraged the joy and the emotion. While Dewdney told Morrisseau not to use certain colours because there was no historical precedence in the aboriginal art examined by him, Pollock gave Morrisseau new colours, sent him to France to experience new things, reminded him that he was unique. While Dewdney wrote to Morrisseau not to use certain images, or argued against the validity of certain specific images which did not meet historical precedents, Pollock felt from his heart that Morrisseau had a unique message which must be brought out. While Dewdney warned Morrisseau not to let Catholicism speak from his paintings, because Catholicism was not aboriginal, Pollock understood the shaman’s role in expressing the universal Christ consciousness.

How does a shaman heal?

The shaman takes on the malady of the patient; the shaman becomes the patient; the image in Morrisseau’s painting reflects the patient; hence he says that each painting will find its own proper owner; each painting will speak directly to the one who has experienced what is portrayed. This is how Morrisseau got inside you, not through a copying of others’ lives, but by a becoming of your life [as St. Paul says:”I become all things to all men”]. Dewdney was totally against the Christ consciousness, so far from it in his own life; he saw it as catholicism, not as the universal principle displayed in every religion, a principle which must come out, which must speak [as St. Peter says at Pentecost: “I can’t help myself, I must speak”]. Pollock was willing to let it speak.

Morrisseau painted two types of paintings. The ones that he referred to as “Legend” paintings were the ones that Dewdney wanted to SEE; the ones he referred to as “Medicine” paintings were the ones that Pollock wanted to FEEL. Morrisseau accepted the guidelines from Dewdney’s dry mausoleum and tried to ensure the anthropological accuracy desired in his drabber Legend paintings, but it was in the unrestricted Medicine paintings that he portrayed the glory, the majesty and the emotion of the Christ-consciousness within us all.

The shaman makes the subconscious known; he brings it to the surface – the x-ray painting looks inside, through the flesh, to the heart of a matter, to the real issue, to the real beef. Thus Morrisseau became a drunk, he became a druggie, he became the pervert displayed in his erotic art, he became an asshole --- because that was what he was healing. He experienced in his own flesh and in his own emotions, every emotion which required healing. This was not a desire to please those around him, though often seen as such. This was the taking on of our stripes and our wounds, as the Christ-consciousness has done at all times, in all seasons, everywhere, in all religions, in all traditions, and continues to do so this day, today, here, now.

Each Morrisseau painting renews that message from all times to all peoples.

But this is a book about Jack Pollock’s emotional life. After more than two decades of the excess referred to in the title of this book, Pollock’s cocaine addiction had so damaged his body that he required open-heart surgery, and had so damaged his pocket-book that he declared bankruptcy. His flamboyant, gay life-style led to a positive test for HIV. Pollock gave up, and attempted suicide in 1983. When it became clear that he might live, he moved to France to recuperate. From April, 1984 to March, 1987, he came to terms with himself and wrote letters back to his Toronto psychiatrist, (the Dear M in the title of this book) in which he makes a courageously honest assessment of his life, his work, and his self-worth. He outlines his thoughts and feelings on religion, on the power of sexuality, on art. He provides details on his encounters with many painters, although he concentrates on David Hockney, Victor Vasarely, Richard Hamilton and Norval Morrisseau. In 1989, these letters were edited to create this autobiography.

Pollock recognized in Morrisseau a persona which the two shared. But Pollock was more in control of his life than Morrisseau. He recognized a need to be practical: “[the]detached me that demands my needs be met”[p.133]. He sought to help Morrisseau look after himself in this respect as well. Morrisseau should no longer give away a painting for the price of a bottle or a one-night stand. Morrisseau should sign all of his paintings to facilitate future authentication, because the art would be extremely valuable in future. Morrisseau should title his paintings to give the viewer a kick-start in the desired emotional interpretation. Financial success would facilitate spiritual goals; would grant more time for the soul, for the shamanic practice. Trying to guide Morrisseau along such lines was a struggle for Pollock, because it was a major problem in his own life, indeed, one to which he succumbed in 1983.

Morrisseau had his own difficulties with establishing lines and borders. Where was the border between becoming the shaman’s patient in the house of invention, or just kissing ass? Morrisseau was very eager to please others. He grovels frequently in his correspondence with Dewdney, desiring approval from that anthropologist. In the August, 1962 press release in which Pollock announced the first show, Pollock spelled Morrisseau’s name incorrectly. Morrisseau obligingly thereafter kept the extra letter in his name [originally, there was only one ‘s’ in Morrisseau]. Morrisseau was always eager to play the roles assigned to him by others. Throughout his life, Morrisseau permitted personal care-givers to have a pecuniary interest in his artistic production, and this pecuniary interest often crossed the boundaries of what was morally justified: Morrisseau was frequently taken advantage of. Nor was he reluctant to sign paintings or documents, or place his fingerprints upon, items which were not his: if it would please somebody, Morrisseau didn’t care. Quite contrary to what Pollock tried to instill in Morrisseau in the 1970s, recent court cases have clearly established that Morrisseau was not an expert witness concerning his own work, and that his affidavits cannot be relied upon. Somewhere between losing Pollock’s guiding hand in 1979 and the latter’s departure to France in 1983, Morrisseau crossed over to become the performer so long desired by Dewdney. He began to live with companions in environments which were totally anti-spiritual. From then until the end of his life Morrisseau’s production was increasingly inferior stereotypical work -- the stuff that you buy to match your drapes and carpet, not for what it does for your soul and spirit. Morrisseau caved in to his commercial tormenters and lost the soul of the shaman, although he had occasional brilliances from the few remaining sparks amongst the heaps of ashes.

This is not a book about Morrisseau, but it is a must for collectors of Morrisseau who wish to have a more intimate understanding of the 1960s and 1970s world in which he was constantly being urged to produce his best work, by a fellow-artist --- Jack Pollock --- who could feel its impact, and experience it in his spirit.

"...Norval, with his incredible ability with the formal problems of art (colour-design-space) and his commitment to the world of his people, the great Ojibway, give one the sense of power that only genius provides... It is sufficient to say that in the history of Canadian Painting, few have, and will remain giants. Norval shall."

Jack Pollock (1930-1992)

[This item has been adapted from a 1989 book review in The Toronto Citizen by Norman Jakob Craven. Copyright © 1989, Norm Craven; adapted with permission. Craven was married for 28 years to the late Sarah Weinstein, thus making him brother-in-law to the woman who made the first documented purchase of a Morrisseau piece. Craven first met Morrisseau in the late 1950s while visiting those relatives. For many years, Craven sold glassware in Kensington market, later expanding to a second location in Gerrard Village, steps away from Pollock’s Gallery, where he continued to run into Morrisseau occasionally. He paid tribute to Morrisseau in Portrait of Norval, a sketch and poem in his 1979 poetry collection, Saturday Rap [Toronto: Toronto Library Board. 1979], and more recently in Thoughts on the Morrisseau Affidavits [Brampton: Tuk-METAphor. 2008]. Craven served as art critic to The Toronto Citizen, The Spadina Express, The Parkdale Community News, and South of Tuk at various times from 1963 to 1994.]

Karl Von Harten

BLOG MASTER'S COMMENT: "Norval Morrisseau was first discovered outside the Aboriginal world by Dr. Joseph Weinstein and his wife Esther (Netanya, Israel) who lived in Cochenour, Ontario in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They saw in Morrisseau's crafts, that he was selling door-to-door, the potential art... and the rest, as they say, is history."

~ For additional information read "The gay scene has no shame" - EMOTIONAL BAGGAGE / Downcast gays have passed into homo history by Brent Ledger, "Provocative psychiatrist constantly healed himself" by Ron Scillag & NO! NO! MORRISSEAU - Review of 'Christmas Letter to Norval Morrisseau' by Robert Lavack. 

NOTE: This correspondence consisting of several hundred letters to "M," a psychiatrist [Murray Wilson], written between 1983 (when the Pollock Gallery failed and he moved to France) and 1987, when Pollock returned to Canada because of illness. Many of the letters were published (in whole or in part) by McClelland and Stewart in 1989 in "Dear M. - Letters from a Gentleman of Excess". These letters were donated to and are currently part of CANADIAN LESBIAN + GAY ARCHIVES (CLGA) . Drafts of the book are also included in the donation, as are M's replies.

>>> Reference posts:
- Recommended readings (Part I)
/'Dear M: Letters from a Gentleman of Excess' by JACK POLLOCK/,
- Recommended readings (Part II)

- Recommended readings (Part III)

/'History of the Ojibwa People' by WILLIAM W. WARREN/,
- Recommended readings (Part IV)
/'I am an Indian' - Edited by GEORGE KENTNER GOODERHAM/,
- Recommended readings (Part V)

- Recommended readings (Part VI)

/'Crooked River' by SHELLEY PEARSALL/,
- Recommended readings (Part VII)

/‘Me Sexy: An Exploration of Native Sex and Sexuality’ by DREW HAYDEN TAYLOR/,
- Recommended readings (Part VIII)
/'Ojibway Heritage' by BASIL JOHNSTON/,
- Recommended readings (Part IX)

/'Windigo and Other Tales of the Ojibways' - Edited by HERBERT T. SCHWARTZ/,
- Recommended readings (Part X)
/'Norval Morrisseau: Travels to the House of Invention' by NORVAL MORRISSEAU/KRG/
- Recommended readings (Part XI)

/"Sacred Legends of the Sandy Lake Cree" by JAMES R. STEVENS/,
- Recommended readings (Part XIII)
/"The White Ojibway Medicine Man And Other Stories" by Joseph Weinstein, Md/.
An Illustration for this post: "Dear M: Letters from a Gentleman of Excess" by Jack Pollock; Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1989 - ISBN 0-7710-7027-6 

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