Herman Goodden

Those of sound body and mind, and those not, are instructed to proceed for six o’clock this evening to the Art Gallery of Ontario, for an Event. This will be the Toronto book-signing for Herman Goodden’s, Three Artists: Kurelek, Chambers & Curnoe. The work contains a Foreword (by me) that may help explain why you will have done this. Perhaps the best thing is to reproduce that below, and mention that further information about this author may be had from his new website (here). His most recent collection of Catholic essays (No Continuing City, 2010) should also be obtained, if physically possible. For here is one of those rare contemporary authors, who has something to say, about matters of importance.


Through a generation of “media,” or two or three, Western, Christian man has lost his way entirely. (He had been losing it for a long time before.) This is often observed, and it should be, because it is the big fact of our epoch. By that word, “media,” I intend an antithesis to poetry and literature, art and architecture, music and theatre and dance — “the arts” as we sometimes call them, for bureaucratic efficiency. We might also observe great mountains of skulls, still rising from the most violent of centuries, through the period I recognize as “post-modernity” — since technical progress blossomed in its ultimate accomplishment of planetary Total War, in August of 1914. Everything in this book comes after.

It is full of three artists who “valued what they had,” in a time and country that seems to happen after everything good is over. Kurelek, Chambers, and Curnoe — each a little universe in himself — set out by ignoring the big fact and retrieving the small. Without patrons, without rules and inherited customs, without any sympathetic audience to begin with, each was “driven,” or I think, “called.”

I say this with confidence because in each case, a primal arrogance was beaten down. In true art there is only reverent humility.

Herman Goodden himself, as well as the Canadian artists evoked and discussed in this book, belongs to what I will call the Lost Tribe of the Found. What I mean by this paradox is, that in a time when media have generalized and homogenized human experience, each of the subjects of this book found a place, a location, a strand of continuity or orientation; which Goodden understands because he has lived it himself. And each came to it through circumstances over which he had, for all his wilfulness, little control.

Two of these painters “discovered” the Catholic Church, Curnoe remained a diehard “post-Protestant” to his sudden death. But I find all three God-haunted — and drawn along a passage through this earth very far from the generic. Each left a record of witness, whose attributes include beauty and truth, found in the most unlikely places; as well as a “rightness” that passes through the moral towards the mystical. Each was “made into an artist” by an agency outside of himself.

What “repression” in each of these lives, as Goodden adumbrates them! What ripe territory for psychologizing! In fact we are dealing with the opposite of repression; with a kind of exaltation, instead. And you must read Goodden to comprehend this.

He tells the “back-stories,” and why they are important. To understand them, we must submit to the conditions each artist imposed upon himself, along the pilgrim way. None, in his way, strayed far from “home” in the painting he attempted. Each lived “as if” post-modernity hadn’t happened, in an almost shopkeeping homage to “location, location, location.” This is quite different from “living in the past”: the usual gesture of contempt we offer to those who step outside the confines of the insistent media present; who find a way towards a rich imagery, in a world full of beautiful particularities, seen as if for the first time.

Kurelek, Chambers, and Curnoe: all three are now “famous Canadians,” but the national term is nearly meaningless, for different reasons in each case. It is only by adoption, or even appropriation, that they have become members of some Canadian Art pantheon. Yet not even Curnoe in his anti-American slurs showed allegiance to any political entity. His “patriotism” was to a room in the mansion of space and time, corresponding to London, Ontario. He made it his Firenze, and bicycled through its countryside with the fanatic loyalty of possession. Similarly, Kurelek and Chambers found all the universal themes they could handle, immediately at hand.

Note that Florence, Italy, through its artistic and cultural prime, had a population never larger than that of London, Ontario in the time of Curnoe and Chambers, Reaney, Dewdney, and others. It is a social world that Goodden describes from the inside, providing insights that might apply to many other places.

Goodden is himself an artist, a thinking reed in prose and stagecraft. He has painted for us these three portraits, better than any conventional biographies. Yet he has diligently done all the homework, and made himself an expert on each man, from out of an intimacy not of friendship, exactly, but of seer and subject. His portraits can be ruthless and surgical, in moments; but he is always presenting a whole character, never a placard or silhoeutte. Through the transformation of his very faults each of these much different characters is proceeding along a pilgrim’s way: shedding the commonplace of sin in his passage, and entering into a vita nuova unlike any life before.

He further turns these portraits inside out. For Goodden plays an artistic trick on us. We begin to see not only his subjects as spectacles in themselves, but ourselves and our world through their eyes. We begin to understand their art in a way that eludes the staleness of contemporary “art criticism.” He does not omit the fine details. We begin to understand what the artist is witnessing. Or, we do if we are following with that attention which Goodden can enthral and reward.

The religious aspect of each painter’s career is not quietly overlooked, as it is in the contemporary gallery scene. The book is no Catholic religious tract; it is no catechism; but it has the quality of a spiritual topography. Kurelek and Chambers were very unlikely Catholic converts, through whose dogged resistance, I think, Christ Himself found paths, to His Church which is no merely human institution. All three show pilgrim roads through the hills, presenting a succession of vistas.

Without reserve, I recommend this book to the reader, of any age, who wants to know what it is to be an artist — a real one, depicting what is real, in reverent humility; as opposed to a media poseur. Indeed, this book is a “classic” in that genre.