A NEW SHOW: 150 YEARS OF GREAT CANADIAN STORYTELLERS . . . 1867–2017

A new stage performance by DOUGLAS GIBSON, announced here first, to my faithful blog friends!

From coast to coast to coast (Ungava Bay, aboard an Adventure Canada cruise ship!) former publisher Douglas Gibson has given over 160 performances of the dramatized versions of his first two books. Against the backdrop of the brilliant author caricatures by Anthony Jenkins (of Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Pierre Trudeau, and many others), he has told behind-the-scenes stories about the men and women he got to know well.

Internationally, he has taken his show celebrating Canadian authors to London (where he fell off the Canada House stage, a West-End triumph) to Beijing, to Mexico, and beyond.

Now he has created a new show – again with the help of Anthony Jenkins – to celebrate our greatest storytellers  since Confederation….English, French, and Indigenous. People in many Canadian communities may think that staging  the show is a fine way to celebrate our Sesquicentennial.

The power-point show follows our history decade by decade. Each decade begins with a burst of Canadian music from the time. On screen we see a familiar photo of the decade (“Ah, yes,that was the time of the Klondike Gold Rush”), and then several iconic pieces of Canadian art, by people like Cornelius Krieghoff, or Lawren Harris, or Mary Pratt.  Then the burst of music stops, and the caricature of the chosen author appears, and fascinating (boiling his moccasins?) stories about the chosen author and his or her best book are excitingly told (in front of a train?)

Usually, in each decade only one novelist in French and one in English will be chosen. This means that the show will be controversial (“How could you leave out X from the 1980s?”), but Doug Gibson will be happy to provoke spirited debate about our best authors. And while the show will be in English, everything on the screen, such as book titles and the names of the translation (“Kamouraska and Kamouraska, you say?”) will be bilingual. We all may learn more about our greatest authors, including the epic Haida storyteller, Skaay.

To learn more about booking the show,which will run from May-December 2017, please consult www.douglasgibsonbooks.com, or contact Jane Gibson at jane1929@rogers.com ,or phone 416 489 1929.

Please spread the news.

A Montreal Coincidence

In July I gave my show at a Westmount residence for seniors named Place Kensington. It’s a fine, lively place (or Place) and the residents include two authors of mine, the charming Ted Phillips and my friend William Weintraub, the author of City Unique. Bill Weintraub is also famous for the  classic novel Why Rock The Boat?  and I proudly edited his last novel , Crazy about Lili,  providing  it with a very funny cover illustration by the wonderful Anthony Jenkins, whose path was later to cross mine, as my readers know.

In the course of my show, when I was talking  about James Houston going into the North, an older man in the audience asked me, “When was this?”

“In 1948,” I replied.

“Yes, that sounds about right.”

He went on to explain that he was setting up his medical practice around then, and had wandered into the Canadian Handicrafts Guild shop, and had come across a very fine portrait of a young woman (in those days a young “Eskimo” woman) in full sealskin traditional outfit. He stood there admiring this piece of finely drawn art that revealed another world, far from Montreal. Then another customer, a young dark-haired man, came and stood beside him, looking over his shoulder at the drawing.

“Do you like it?” the stranger asked.

“Yes, I do,” said the young doctor, “but I’m just setting up my medical practice, and I’m sure I can’t afford it.”

“Can you afford $50?” asked the man.

“Yes,” said the surprised doctor, and James Houston made the deal with him right there and then, remarking that this was the first of his Northern drawings that he had ever sold.

The doctor told us that he still had James Houston’s drawing, after all these years. And I told the audience that we had all been part of the sort of coincidence that weaves its web around us every day, in unexpected ways.

Later that evening Jane and I had dinner in Old Montreal, celebrating the coincidence that had brought us together at The Couchiching Conference, so that exactly 11 years earlier we had got married.

DOUG GIBSON’S TRIBUTE TO ANTHONY JENKINS AND HIS CARICATURES

If you like the caricatures that begin each chapter of my book, I have very good news for you. A new book has just appeared entitled A Fine Line: The Caricatures of Anthony Jenkins. It’s published by the small independent Nestlings Press, and the ISBN is 978-0-9691456. It contains over 100 of the best caricatures ever produced by my friend Tony Jenkins; you may even recognise a few of them from my book.

I had the chance to talk about just how much I admire his work in The Foreword.

Here is what I wrote:–

Anthony Jenkins is a dangerous man. I alarm the good people who come to see my stage show, Stories About Storytellers, by warning them that I am going to whisk them through a list of interesting authors by showing them Tony Jenkins’ caricatures of each writer. I stress, however, that this is a perilous business, because he is clearly in touch with devilish powers that would frighten off a sensible Faust. Or perhaps he drinks potions that endow him with the same sort of magical powers that Oscar Wilde revealed in The Picture Of Dorian Gray, where the flesh-and-blood Dorian remains eternally youthful while the portrait at home does all of his aging for him.

Tony Jenkins, I explain, is clearly in touch with the same dark powers. “When he produces a not-altogether-flattering portrait of you” (and here I put on the screen the Spring 2011 portrait of me that appears on this page) “day by day, week by week, month by month, you will come to look more and more like that portrait!”

The terrifying process continues to this day. So I am very keen to do everything I can to stay in his good books.

This book is one of them. When the publisher, my old friend Warren Clements, invited me to contribute a Foreword, I instantly agreed to do so, out of fear. But there was something else, too—admiration. Not to mention regret that in my publishing days I was never smart enough to think up this book.

In those days (and I was the publisher of McClelland & Stewart from 1988 till 2004, so I can’t plead lack of time), I was keenly aware of Tony’s excellent work in The Globe & Mail. On occasion I would suggest to our Art Department that he would be perfect for this or that book cover. One example that still gives me pleasure is William Weintraub’s 2005 comic novel, Crazy About Lili, in which an earnest young McGill student meets and falls for a famous Montreal stripper. Tony’s cover art, involving a dangling McGill pennant and a dangling scarlet bra, is perfect. And I once, as a private citizen, made a pilgrimage to Tony’s office to buy a wonderful portrait of Alice Munro, which now hangs in our front room.

But I, like other Canadian book publishers, simply didn’t wake up to see, and develop, this amazing talent in our midst.

In 2011, however, when I was writing my own book I finally saw the light. I realized that Stories About Storytellers, its 21 chapters devoted to descriptions of 21 authors, needed to show the authors. A book with no illustrations would seem dull, possibly even (shudder) earnestly academic. A book that used photographs of the authors would seem overly serious. Witty caricatures of the authors at the opening of each chapter was clearly the way to go. And for these caricatures, Tony Jenkins was the man, without question.

So, defying the usual publishing practice where the Publisher chooses the Illustrator, I approached Tony directly, long before I had a Publisher. I gave him a list of the authors in the book, and we made a private arrangement whereby I acquired the rights to use his portraits in the book, and in promoting the book on stage and screen (I was already thinking strange promotional thoughts). In most cases, when the author was Robertson Davies or Brian Mulroney, he already knew the look of the authors very well. In other cases, such as the cowboy author R.D. Symons, I sent along photographs to guide him. In a surprisingly short time, and after very few revisions, I had my 21 superb caricatures, which I thought caught the spirit of my book so well.

When I approached interested publishers, I stressed that these caricatures were part of the deal, thanks to a private arrangement between us. And the wise people at ECW Press recognized what an asset we had, and contributed to the cost, and made good use of his artwork. Tony’s caricatures attracted widespread admiration, both in book reviews and in general comments from readers. After my stage show, despite my opening warning, the most frequently asked question is: “Who did you say did the wonderful portraits?”

Let me step aside here, away from my own experience, to discuss what I think Tony Jenkins is doing. I believe that he is trying to scale the same mountain that has challenged artists from the dawn of art: to catch, in two dimensions, the essence of another person.

People have been trying to do this from the days when cavemen drawing on the wall ranged from showing deer and other prey worth hunting to portraying the faces around the fire. Children still do it every day with crayoned portraits of Mommy. And we all know how hard it is to create a straightforward, “realistic” portrait. Graham Sutherland, a veteran portrait painter of great skill, once bitterly described a portrait as a painting “with something not quite right about the mouth.”

Some cultures and religions even frown on the whole concept of portrait-painting, recognizing that these attempts to catch the essence—perhaps we might daringly use the expression “the soul”—of another person represent very dangerous territory. I think most thoughtful Westerners respect the alarm felt by distant peoples that a photographer catching their image is perhaps stealing something from them.

Western art, of course, has produced many superb specialists in portraiture, too many to name here. In the case of Rembrandt, scholars estimate that at least two-thirds of his work consisted of portraits. And while the Old Master was frequently hired to produce portraits that would look good on the preening Amsterdam merchant’s wall, he took the art much further. One biographer, Jakob Rosenberg, in his Rembrandt: Life and Work goes so far as to claim that by the end of his life, his “mature” portraiture was more than a caught moment in time: “[W]e feel, to a certain degree, the sitter’s past coming into the present, and even some premonition of the future.”

Another dangerous man.

We are clearly in the realm of great imagination here, far beyond mere “photographic” representation. Yet to complicate matters, here is the famous photographer, Yousuf Karsh, writing about what he tries to do in his portraits. He begins his first book, Portraits of Greatness, with this paragraph (and liked it so much that he opened his next book, Karsh Portraits, with precisely the same words): “The aim and art of the portraitist who works with a camera are not merely to produce a likeness but to reveal the mind and the soul behind the human face.”

“Mind” and “soul” revealed by the camera. Consider, then, the challenge facing the brave artist armed only with brushes and paint, and pens and ink, who hopes with a skillful eye and a steady hand to catch that same “mind” and “soul” in a piece of art that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as a “caricature; grotesque usu. comic representation of a person by exaggeration of characteristic traits, in a picture, writing or mime.” Interestingly, the word derives from the Italian caricare, which means “load, exaggerate.”

A “cartoon” is defined by the same source as “a humorous drawing in a newspaper, magazine esp. as a topical comment.” We are on familiar ground here. Every reader knows, and to a greater or lesser extent enjoys, editorial-page cartoons where recognizable (possibly even labelled) figures act out embarrassing scenarios, or spout amusing, often incriminating words. Tony Jenkins can play that game very well, too, as Globe and Mail readers in the past were reminded by the occasional appearance of his fine political cartoons.

Canadians, I think, are reluctant to place living cartoonists in the highest ranks of the art. (Someone more cynical than your humble servant might expand that to “living artists of any sort”.) Many were startled when the American critic Edmund Wilson, in his survey of Canadian culture, O Canada, devoted a section to the Toronto Star’s political cartoonist, Duncan Macpherson, boldly putting him in the august company of the greats like Gilray and Cruikshank. Today, kind words about our leading exponents like Aislin (Terry Mosher) might produce the same reaction; the everyday is rarely associated with the eternal.

Yet when you, dear reader, roam through the pages of this book, I think that you will start to conjure up names of the great caricaturists of the past. Tony Jenkins may have a very different style from Hogarth, Daumier and Grosz, or the more modern masters Ronald Searle, David Levine, Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman. But there is a very definite style here, one that is notably spare, using one line where others might use ten. Unused space—it would be wrong to call it “blank space”—is put to remarkable use.

Famously, defying the old proverb that “the eyes are the window of the soul”, Tony Jenkins has often seen fit to dispense with one of these valuable windows, preferring to let one eye speak for two. Again and again in these portraits, also, we see a tiny detail apparently catching the essence of the character, what in bolder times would have been called “the soul”. See for yourself.

As for me, I admire the art in this book immensely. These excitingly varied portraits constitute almost the work of a lifetime. They give us all a book to cherish by a superb artist—and a dangerous man.

Douglas Gibson

Toronto, February 2013