- Rolph Scarlett: Painter, Designer, Jeweller
Judith Nasby's Rolph Scarlett: Painter, Designer, Jeweller is as much a project in reclaiming Canadian cultural production as it is an interrogative biography of one particular artist. As Nasby traces the seventy-five-year career of Canadian artist Rolph Scarlett, describing him as a 'dedicated modernist' who 'successfully fused multiple artistic practices into a single vision,' she simultaneously alludes to the absence of critical attention to Scarlett in Canadian art history, noting that he has been reduced to a mere footnote in Dennis Reid's A Concise History of Canadian Painting. To assess critically the manner in which artists and objects have historically and categorically been included in and excluded from the public narrative of Canadian art history is, perhaps, beyond the scope of this book. The discipline's conventional narrative would, no doubt, have little room for Scarlett's cultural production on a number of grounds, most notably the fact that he cared less for landscape painting and more for the 'pure visual music' of Wassily Kandinsky. As Nasby herself points out, 'It would have been impossible for Scarlett to establish himself as a successful abstract painter in Canada in the 1940s.'
Why was it impossible for Scarlett to establish himself in Canada at this time? Nasby's book falls just short of answering such questions. Instead Nasby offers a detailed assessment of Scarlett's cultural production, mapping his artistic development from his early days in the 1920s as a set designer in Guelph, to a period in which he enjoyed significant patronage from the Guggenheim Foundation based on his vision for non-objective painting, to his final years in the 1960s and 1970s spent making jewellery and works on paper. Indeed, Scarlett's was not the steady transition I might seem to imply here, for as Nasby shows in her brilliantly illustrated volume, his work received mixed critical reception and support both in Canada and the United States throughout his life. Nasby includes such interesting material as letters from the Guggenheim Foundation threatening to cancel Scarlett's scholarship based on the fact, in the words of one letter, that his own 'self-centeredness prevents [him] from atmospheric reaction and sensitiveness to the infinity of spirituality which creates this spell which is the magic a masterpiece should have to be lived with.' This contentious and even strange relationship between Scarlett and the Guggenheim culminates in Nasby's conclusion, in which she discusses the [End Page 555] museum's recent de-accession of thirty Scarlett paintings, the majority of which were sold to private New York dealers. Ironically, this occurred just after Scarlett met with a sort of homecoming at the University of Guelph, which presented him as hometown hero in a 1978 exhibition there.
What remains to be connected in Nasby's account is a more detailed investigation of Scarlett's relationship – inclusive or exclusive – to Canadian art history. By this I don't mean to imply that inserting Scarlett in some sort of pre-established dominant narrative is necessary or even desirable. Successful artists in Canada have historically been determined according to what Lynda Jessup in a recent article has described as their 'stylistic association with ... a "generation" or "school" of Montreal and Toronto landscape painters in the late nineteenth century' or in relation to 'the definitive landscape painting produced by the Group of Seven, beginning in the 1920s.' In addition to prescribing membership to the narrative along such regulatory terms, such associations in Canadian art history – like all histories – are undoubtedly categorized along raced, classed, and gendered lines. Probing the histories of expatriate artists such as Scarlett along these lines would be fruitful and would perhaps offer further indications of why so much cultural production remains reduced to a footnote in Canadian art history.
Erin Morton, Department of Art History, Queen’s University