Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

THE AESTHETICS OF MENACE: Stan Brakhage, Tom Thomson, and the Group of Seven

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

THE AESTHETICS OF MENACE: Stan Brakhage, Tom Thomson, and the Group of Seven

Article excerpt

Résumé: Dans son essai « Space as Menace in Canadian Aesthetics : Film and Painting », publié en 1998, Stan Brakhage postule une esthétique de la menace qu'il partage avec Tom Thomson et le Groupe des Sept. Selon lui, une aversion profonde contre l'énormité terrifiante de leur pays poussa ces artistes canadiens à représenter le vide menaçant du paysage immense en utilisant des modes d'expression qui mettent l'emphase sur la surface du canevas par l'intermédiaire d'un style de peinture graphique ou en filet. On retrouve des équivalents cinématographiques de ces techniques dans certains films de Brakhage comme The Wold Shadow, Rage Net et Visions in Méditation #2: Mesa Verde. L'intention centrale de cette esthétique de la menace est de permettre aux individus de réaffirmer leur humanité face au mouvement totalisant de l'idéologie du progrès technologique.

This camera, I take it with me everywhere now.... I took it last night into East Berlin. I was, from the very entrance, in a state of terror that I had not imagined existed before. Finally the tension mounted till I felt compelled to take an image, which is the only time when I do work, when that compulsion or need arises directly from something in living.

Stan Brakhage (December 1965, Berlin)1

Stan Brakhage's 1998 essay "Space as Menace in Canadian Aesthetics: Film and Painting" is one of many manifestations of his interest in Canadian art and culture, as well as a product of his long-time friendships and frequent visits to, Canada. "The seed of the cultural ideology of this writ," he writes in a note to the essay, "was planted midst discussion primarily with Bruce Elder, as well as Kathy Elder, Marilyn JuIl, James Tenney, and Tom Thibault at the McMichael Canadian Collection in July, 1988, after viewing the Group of Seven paintings there."2 In 1989 Brakhage delivered a lecture at the Art Gallery of Ontario, which was inspired by his McMichael Gallery excursion. "Space as Menace" is an elaboration on this lecture and upon nearly twenty years of his reflections on this topic. His essay looks at Canadian art and brings into focus Canadian aesthetics through the lens of Stan Brakhage. What is more important, perhaps, it also reveals a striking resemblance between Brakhage's own views on art and filmmaking (as delineated in his previous writings) and Canadian aesthetics. The question is: What is the basis of this resemblance?

Brakhage begins "Space as Menace" by proposing that at the core of Canadian aesthetics is a defensive response to space. According to Brakhage, this defensive attitude is a deeply rooted cultural response, reflecting Canadians' aversion to the harsh northern climate as well as the terrifying enormity of their country. This position is in line with Bruce Elder's theory on Canadian aesthetics in Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture, which Brakhage encourages the reader to turn to for further elaboration on this topic in the ending note of his essay.3 Indeed, a brief explication of Elder's position on this topic will prove illuminating for the purposes of this essay, especially because both artists had an ongoing dialogue on this topic. In the first chapter of Image and Identity, titled "A House Divided," Elder provides a heart-wrenching description of the struggles and sufferings which marked the day-to-day existence of the early Canadian settlers in the already highly diverse, both in ethnicity and religion, late eighteenth-century Canada. Elder notes, however, that,

Religious and ethnic traditions may have divided the settlers of Canada, but there was one point on which there was universal agreement among them. The landscape and climate of the country they had chosen to call home were at best inhospitable and at worst life-threatening.... Those who arrived in Canada had no tradition that allowed them to understand and to relate to Canada's stark and inhospitable landscape.4

According to Elder, this feeling of helplessness and incomprehensibility, which marked the everyday experience for these early immigrants, has taken a similar path in the art of these people, for whom "the limitless, empty space was too terrifying to depict. …

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