by Gary Geddes
We have art in order not to die of the truth. These words of Nietzsche haunt me. They do not speak of art as a means of escape, but rather as a way of giving the most grim and chaotic reality shape and meaning, so that we might, at least, endure it, or, at best, triumph over it. Through the artist with his urge for order, such redemption as there is becomes possible.
Conrad once described Henry James as a ‘historian of fine consciences’. He was thinking of that tribe of cultured and sophisticated characters parading back and forth in James novels between American innocence and European experience. Where James only hinted at the baser motives beneath the veneer of manners, Conrad imaged those emotions powerfully in his work – greed, racism, lust, murderousness. His feet were firmly planted in the European tradition, with its wars and betrayals and mass exterminations, where, as he said, the celestial city is not only far from being built, but also does not even have the ground for its construction cleared of the brush.
Conrad belonged to the great tradition of moralists, in which I find painters such as Bosch, Hogarth, Goya, Francis Bacon and William Caldwell. Such painters offend us and scare us with their brutal honesty, their depiction of our deepest and coarsest actions and motivations: the cruelty and tyranny at the root of our domestic relationships, which is writ large in our commercial and political structures and behaviour. Such confrontations send us in search of more comfortable visions. The shock of recognition is too great. Faces emptied of all but the most elemental emotions. No prettiness, no fashions, no endearing landscapes, no vocabulary of pleasant colours, no language of elegant rationalization. Creatures naked and exposed, a hundred Belsens in our brains, a thousand Hiroshimas in our hearts.
Canadians are not ready for the work of William Caldwell. God knows, we need it. Dead Indians, dead lakes, dead expressions, dead dreams. When we cannot face reality, we adopt the terminology of slaves – free love, free trade, free form. Who is there among the community of artists, critics, statesmen who will dare to face Caldwell’s terrible vision, his austere charcoal and chalk, his dreadful economy of line and colour, and find there the honesty and beauty that might still redeem us, make us human again?