each 50x75 cm2
A love story between Emma and Clement:
An anecdote, that did happen but not necessarily as it is recounted;
It’s an old story that is supposed to explain a lot.
Emma lived on the prairie. She wasn't all that sophisticated, but she had aspirations.
One day, a man named Clement came from a big city to the east. He was suave and sophisticated, and he represented everything
that Emma wanted from life. He brought some friends with him, and they all spoke about the ‘truth’ and painting
and such stuff. Some of his detractors thought that Clement spoke too much, that he had ‘airs’ about him,
and — perhaps worst of all — that he let his friends do all the work. This didn't deter Emma at all —
instead, she fell in love.
In front of her vanity every night she would practice speaking like he did, and when, during the daily chores, she found
herself picking up the mannerisms of this charming stranger and his friends, she would smile to herself. When he was around,
she would respond with a passion to everything he had to say. Clement must have felt something in return as he would return
every year to visit.
During those long winters when Clement was away, Emma would work hard in refining her manners. She would try to do everything
as she imagined Clement’s friends out east would. As well you could imagine, most of her friends on the prairie
didn’t always appreciate the change in her character. This didn’t deter her. In fact, it only made her try
harder. Each time Clement came to visit, she showed him what she had done in his absence. She hoped that she could convince
him one day to stay, or (better yet) that he would take her away to the big city to live with him.
Some say that he lost interest, others say that his fortunes had shifted and that he could no longer afford such extravagant
vacations. Others didn’t care why, they were just happy that he stopped coming every year. Most would agree that
Emma sacrificed everything for him, however, for the rest of her life she would remember those warm summer nights fondly
when Clement said such nice things to her. Her children say she lived in the past, and they’re resentful of the
attentions that Clement once paid to her. It’s a Freudian thing.
For a while there were rumours of a child, and that when Clement refused to marry her, she forbid him to return. Alas,
the truth of this rumour went to the grave with Emma. Maybe there was some truth to it, as a few years after her wake
Clement himself died on his farm in western New York. By some coincidence, Emma’s funeral received much more attention
in the papers.
* * *
A second anecdote, or, an alternate version of the first anecdote;
Barnett Newman was once queried as to why he never painted horizontally — his reply, perhaps aprocryphal, was a
disdainfully phrased, “I don't paint landscapes.”
There is something obviously wrong with the narrative of the first anecdote. We can read it as the classic hollywood tale
of a small town girl seduced and then abandoned by the sophisticated city boy. I wonder if it might be necessary to understand
their relationship as being reversed — to see how Clement was seduced by Emma.
Until recently, Saskatchewan painting could be divided into two distinct traditions: the Emma Lake School and watercolour
landscape. The relation between the two could be considered analogous to the relation between history and genre painting
in the 18th-century in France. Real painters painted history, and those who couldn't painted genres. The value judgement
implicit in this division of 18th century painting carries as much legitimacy as the contrast between abstract and landscape
in Saskatchewan — to be blunt, not much at all. And yet, this distinction still has cultural currency.
Where the landscape tradition came from is fairly easy to see — and it is a matter of seeing. Living on the prairies,
one can’t but help being faced with it. I want to implicitly pose the question of where the tradition of abstract
art came from. Was it really an imported praxis, brought through the agency of Clement Greenberg and 'his' painters via
the Emma Lake School? Or is, perhaps, something else at work …
• Group. “Aerial Farm Photography,” toured by the Dunlop
Art Gallery, curated by Helen Marzolf
• Marzolf, Helen. Aerial Farm Photography (Regina: Dunlop Art Gallery, 2003).
images of project