Last week I had a meeting downtown in a building that I used to work in, back when dinosaurs still ruled the earth. From where I was sitting in the coffee shop, I would occasionally see people entering and exiting a doorway.
Curiosity got the better of me and after my meeting I decided to see where this doorway would lead me. I had been in this building many, many times. I used to do banking in the building which these doors led to. The bank itself, which occupies the main floor, has a meritorious collection of art, including a very fine selection of Nicholas de Grandmaison [1892-1978] pastels of indigenous peoples and it also sponsors a student art competition as well – one which someone I have known for a number of years was a regional winner last month. It is a nice building, but I don’t recall ever seeing any art in the public areas or the exterior of the building.
Given this context, imagine my complete surprise when I entered the +15 level and almost immediately saw a major wall-mounted, cast aluminium, multi-panel mural in a semi-public interior space. This was especially surprising to me as the most current standard reference book published in 1992 (notwithstanding its obvious biases, significant oversights and lack of current content) – Barbara Kwasny and Elaine Peake’s A Second Look At Calgary’s Public Art – makes no mention of this work, even though they mentioned another work by the artist in a different location.
This work, one of the few large murals found in local interior public spaces, especially in the downtown core, is made up of 18 panels approximately 2 feet (60cm) wide and visually would seem to be around 10 feet (305 cm) high (and quite possibly higher). According to sources that I have no reason to doubt, this mural covers 405 sq. feet (37.6 sq. metres).
Barcelona-born, Québécois artist Jordi Bonet [1932-1979].
As a sculptor, Jordi Bonet overcame much. While still a child, at the age of 12, his father a medical doctor had to amputate the artist’s entire right arm. That he chose to be a sculptor, makes this fact even more remarkable. He studied at a school of art located in Barcelona and subsequently came to Canada in 1954, when he was in his early 20s.
Here in Canada, he established himself as an important voice in post-war visual art both in Canada and internationally. Somewhere along the way he crossed paths with Salvador Dali and his work generally has a more European sensibility than many of his contemporaries who worked in Québec at the same time. He seems to be a bit of an anomaly more than anything else, and as a result probably does not fit easily within the art historical narrative of the time. This, in spite of the fact that he had many significant public, corporate, and private commissions; and his work is found in public and educational buildings (amongst others) both in Canada and around the world. He was also probably quite successful as a result.
Unfortunately he died quite young. In 1971 his son passed away and in 1973 he was diagnosed with leukemia and given six months to live. He passed away in 1979 as a result of his illness.
As a former art dealer, I always loved the research part of the business. I still do. Those who have dealt with me in the past, understand this and appreciate it. I have always had a soft-spot for the underdog, and maybe this is a good example. It was always a difficult way to make a living, but I enjoyed it while I was able. It is unfortunate that circumstances fell as they did, and that I must now make a living doing something that I am not nearly as passionate about as I was when dealing in art. C’est la vie.
I will apologize in advance for the length of this entry (3500+ words). I guess I got carried away.
Context for Bonet’s work
As stated previously, Bonet’s work is a bit of an anomaly. My comments will focus on his sculptural and mural work, rather than his two-dimensional work. I have done this because of the nature of the comparison between the mural that I have photographed above and other comparable works created by the artist.
- We know that Bonet did a substantial amount of liturgical and religious works throughout his career. Some of these are absolutely beautiful, but the reality is that Québec in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s was a society that was rapidly changing. We see this in its politics and the Quiet Revolution. This led to things such as the October Crisis and Nationalism. The role of the church also was changing at the same time, while the province was becoming more secular. Les Automatiste was the leading avant-garde artist group in Québec during this time. The publishing of the revolutionary and ground-breaking manifesto Refus Global in 1948 signed by Les Automatiste members, announced the break away from the church, by this group of highly-influential artists, all of whom are well-collected by art institutions both in Canada and elsewhere.
- Bonet’s work was often figurative. This, no doubt, partly had something to do with the liturgical nature of some church commissions. It also placed him within a less contemporary and older group of artists that were in the leading edge during in 1930s. These groups, although probably still active (or at least some members were still living and presumably painting in the 1960s and 1970s), initially surrounded Edwin Holgate, namely the Canadian Group of Painters and the Beaver Hall Hill Group.
- Bonet’s work often incorporated landscape into the imagery. The avant-garde in Québec during this time, both with Les Automatiste and Les Plasticiens were more interested in pure abstraction – a situation that would largely define significant themes in visual art in Québec during this period. The landscape as a medium, was perceived in the 1970s to be tired and held a connection to the English-Canadian centered Group of Seven who had already passed their prime as an artistic movement. The focus of course was on the new, as the baby-boomers were coming of age. Ironically as a genre it still held relevance to a significant amount of collectors of Canadian art (and artists) and to be fair, it has never completely gone out of style just as is the case with figurative art.
- Bonet focused mostly in sculptural work during this period which does not easily encourage comparison with others, by its very nature. Especially when one considers that many of these pieces were commissions that would take extended periods of time to create. Most professional artists in the post-WWII period were often painters or working in a different medium – a situation that is still somewhat relevant.
- Bonet died reasonably young. He was still in his 40s.
It is my opinion that these elements as a whole, led Jordi Bonet to be often overlooked by many art historians, curators and collectors. Maybe it is this reason that his work has not been collected by some significant art collecting institutions, as many of his contemporaries have – often in depth. I suspect that it is only a matter of time before this oversight is rectified, and the strength of his work is noticed. A case in point, the National Gallery of Canada has no works by Jordi Bonet in its collection.
The Calgary mural
This work was completed in 1970. This seems to be a very important period in his oeuvre. It was the year after he moved to a new home which fueled his creativity and the year prior to his son passing away. It is the year prior he completed a significant aluminium and bronze work that stands in the entrance hall of the Bibliothèque Nationale du Québec. It would appear after the Calgary work was installed, that he began work on the 12,000 square foot controversial, and some would say scandalous cement mural for the Louis Fréchette Hall of the Grand Théâtre de Québec which incorporated a quote into the work from the Québécois poet Claude Péloquin which reads as follows – Vous êtes pas écœurés de mourir bande de caves? C’est assez!
Initially the Calgary piece was not located in Calgary. Rather, based on information obtained from the artist’s estate, it was located in a Bank of Montreal branch located on the corner of Rue Sainte-Catherine Ouest and Rue de Bleury in Montréal. There is no longer a BMO branch located at this location.
Where exactly this branch stood I cannot state with certainty. I suspect that it was located on the main floor of this office tower which appears to be partially vacant. This assumption is based on the large round pillars located inside the building and the type of windows both of which are visible in this photo, although it is possible that they are not the same building.
Prior to the opening of the new Ste. Catherine & Bleury branch, a cut-away architectural mock-up was prepared. This mock-up, was used on the invitation announcing the branch relocation and opening. Prominently placed on this mock-up, and located behind the teller’s wicket was a large wall-mounted mural that appears to be the same image as the Calgary mural. Manager D. J. Neville announced that the opening was to occur on Monday, April 27, 1970. In looking at the artist’s website we see a golden coloured work from 1970 that is very similar, but the colour does not seem correct, as the Calgary work is aluminium. I suspect that they both are the same, except that the lighting used in the Montréal branch must have given off a golden hue or alternatively, the source photograph may have yellowed over time. Regardless, another photo provided by the artist’s estate shows the work in situ. Based on the styling of the woman’s dress, hairstyles and furniture it would lend itself to the 1970s . Therefore we can safely assume that the Calgary mural was located in Montréal circa 1970. This also corresponds with the artist’s website which states that he completed a mural under commission for the Bank of Montreal. Here is the photo of this mural in the Montréal branch.
At some unknown time it made its way to Calgary. Here a bit of speculation is in order. Understand, that this is rank speculation – but possible.
The Calgary Building
The office tower that this mural is presently located at houses the main administrative branch and offices of the Bank of Montreal in Calgary. This building is called First Canadian Centre which relates to a name sometimes used by the Bank. In fact the term “The First Canadian Bank” was prominently used in the original invitation to the opening of the Montréal branch on the opening line.
With that in mind, First Canadian Centre started construction near the tail end of “The Boom”. The boom came as a result of the 1970s energy crisis; rapid exploration of the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin; technology that allowed this to happen; foreign multi-nationals with capital and knowledge workers; and the resulting requirement for rapidly increased building infrastructure and housing to accommodate all the increased population. The end of the boom more or less corresponded with the introduction of the National Energy Program (NEP). This was a program introduced by the federal Liberal government of the day to ensure energy security by creating a state-owned oil and gas company (Petro-Canada, which later went public and subsequently merged with Suncor). When the boom ended, much blame was placed with the NEP and the political party that introduced it, often failing to recognize that the macro-economic tailspin also came as a result of the 1970s energy crisis whereby production and demand had started to align and world energy pricing had begun to fall. But I digress.
First Canadian Centre located at 350 – 7 Avenue SW began construction on what was proposed to be a two tower building that was scheduled to be the tallest building west of Toronto. Only the first of two towers was built and when completed in 1982 this tower was the tallest building in Calgary at 41 stories. The second tower was to be built upon completion of the first and was scheduled to be 63 stories tall. This never happened. The site for this second building was converted into a “temporary” bland and non-welcoming park-space which has remained vacant for the 30 years since that time.
First Canadian Centre was designed by the architectural firm Bregman + Hamann Architects. The lobby of this building is characterized by soaring angular space with lots of natural light and light granite stone. In my opinion, it is a beautiful space, in fact one of the nicest in the city. The only commercial activity in this building in the public part of the building is and open-concept bank facility which occupies the centre part of the main floor, and is set back from the windows.
Having said that, this building is remarkable for having no visible art on the main floor, to enhance the architecture. Nor are there any sculptural objects in the public spaces surrounding the building.
In a recent walk-through this past week, I did notice a few large Yolanda Van Dyck pastels from the 1970s or 1980s, something like her Prairie Grasses; Musical Note or other related series from that period. These works were visible from the elevator lobby above the cubicles in the closed off back-office part of the bank. Having represented her previously, I think the pastels from this period are some of her best work. During this 1970s and 1980s period she had solo shows all over North America with regular coverage in newspapers and art journals. However, these comments do not suggest that her other work is any less significant. I met up with her at a recent cocktail party and it is unfortunate to hear that she is no longer producing artwork. Instead she is focusing on making a living. This is something that I understand fully – even though it is always sad to hear it from yet another artist once again.
Ironically, and in this context it is worth mentioning, in the Canadian Art magazine blog John Kissick wrote the following yesterday in relation to a piece about competitions in visual art and specifically recognizing the 15th anniversary of the RBC Canadian Painting Competition, ”as a country, it is downright scandalous how poorly we treat our senior artists, many of whom now live in poverty and obscurity, and whose once-significant contributions to Canada’s visual culture are either forgotten or sneered at by the hip young things that run many of our public institutions.” It just goes to prove how tastes change and how fickle they can be. But once again, I digress.
On the same block as First Canadian Centre is what is now called Intact Place, which is a smaller two tower building located at 311 and 321 – 6 Avenue SW. According to the landlord’s website it was built in 1980 at the peak of the boom. I used to work in this building for a number of years. This building never used to have art displayed in the building. It does now. One painting is now located above the each entrance to the lobby between the facing banks of elevators for each tower. If I recall correctly, one has a large painting by David Alexander, it is quite possible that both are works by him. They also used to have a painting in one of the same locations by Brent McIntosh, but I have not seen it for quite a while, possibly for a year or two now.
Where the mural is located
The Bonet mural is located on the +15 level. Both Intact Place and First Canadian Centre connect a very short distance from where this is located. The Kwasny and Peak book published in 1992, makes no mention of any art in First Canadian Centre. This is not surprising given my comments about no art visible on the main floor of both buildings on this block as stated above. I was working part-time weekends in a gallery that was located in Intact Place while keeping a full-time job a few blocks away and also deliberating on the purchase of the gallery I was working at during the year the book was published. I suspect Kwasny and Peake may not have gone upstairs. This is entirely understandable why it was missed.
The mural has been incorporated into the wall. The walls surrounding it have been painted since it was installed. I know this, because there are a few small drips of paint on the mural that match the existing wall colour. This does not necessarily mean much. The wall potentially could have been painted the day before I viewed it. I doubt it, but it is possible.
Getting back to when it was installed. Because of the Bank of Montreal connection, it is possible that it was installed when the Calgary building opened in 1982. This could mean that the branch located at Ste-Catherine and Bleury had a ten-year lease on the space. This would seem a bit on the short-term on a commercial lease for a bank, but it is possible that it was a 25 year lease with a renewal point at ten years when the lease could be broken. Maybe that location never worked out as well as originally planned. If so, this would make sense that it would have been removed from the branch location and sat in storage for a year or so, prior to being shipped to Calgary in time for the building opening in 1982. Especially given that there are regional offices located mere steps away from its present location. This seems to be the most plausible explanation.
An alternative to the location mentioned at the top and the preceding paragraph, is a second potential location also on the same street corner of Ste-Catherine Ouest and Bleury which I have placed directly above which shows a vacant lot under construction. This is kitty-corner from the first location posted. Was this the former location in Montréal? If so, was the building demolished at the end of the bank tenancy of let’s say 25, 35 or 40 years, which would place it around 1995; 2005 or 2010? If the building was to be demolished, the artwork was subsequently removed and a new location considered. In time, the present location of a contiguous wall that is nearly a half block long (a short block, but still a long expanse) with no artwork on it was proposed and approved. This is another viable possibility.
Either way, I can’t believe that I have never seen this work prior to the last few days. I guess I must have used the other, more visible and actively used +15 entrance to this building when going there.
Other Jordi Bonet works in Calgary
The 1965 Commission
According to the Jordi Bonet website under the list of commissions during 1965 the following is found and described thus:
- The Calgary Herald, Entrance hall ceramic mural 132 sq.ft.
The Calgary Herald in 1965 was still located in the former Southam Chambers Building which was built in 1912. It is the companion building to what is now the Len Werry Building as both were across from the street from each other and shared a similar Edwardian style. Obviously based on the date 1965, the building owners must have anticipated doing some renovations to the building and updating it. These renovations were significant and occurred in 1967. As can be seen from the following picture which shows a before and after view of the same building which was copied from the Calgary Heritage Initiative Society forum pages which is used for illustrative purposes.
As seen in the picture of the two versions of the Calgary Herald Building the blue bar pointing to the main floor shows where the entrance was located. Presumably the ceramic mural would have been located toward the elevators at the back of the lobby. Presumably the ceramic mural survived the 1967 renovations as they took place within two years of being installed. There are a number of questions about this work as a result:
- Was the ceramic mural covered to protect it during the renovations?
- If covered, was it ever uncovered afterwards?
- If left covered, was something built in front of the temporary protective wall, thinking that this wall was permanent?
- Was it was removed when the Herald left the downtown core in 1981 or not?
- If so, where is it now?
- Was it removed at some point after the Herald left, either to be donated, sold or reinstalled elsewhere?
This building was probably vacated in 2011 or 2012. It was then slated for demolition beginning in late 2012 or early 2013 and is now a multi-level hole in the ground making way for the parkade that will be placed below the new 56 storey building – the new Brookfield Place Tower One (225 Sixth Avenue SW).
Finally, the biggest question of all:
- Did it inadvertently, or with intent, get left in the building when demolished and now is landfill?
The 1967 Freestanding Sculpture
According to Kwasny and Peake the Calgary and District Dental Association gifted a sculpture called The Others as a Centennial gift to the City. I could not find any images of it online, or in my own image library, so here is the image from the book.
This image from Kwasny and Peake was taken on location at the Centennial Planetarium. This also was a centennial project. It would therefore seem appropriate that the two be placed together which they were.
With the construction of the west leg of the C-Train within the last couple years, the platform surrounding the Planetarium had to be partially destroyed to accommodate the right-of-way for the train tracks. Presumably as a precautionary measure it appears if this work was removed off that platform at some unknown time.
This is a City owned asset and catalogued as part of the Civic Art Collection. As a result, I suspect it has either been re-situated elsewhere in the city or alternatively is currently in storage waiting to be re-situated.
As seen here, objects we think will belong in certain places will in time change. Having been an art dealer in the past, uses of art work will occasionally change places and sometimes change hands. Occasionally they may on occasion be destroyed as well, sometimes inadvertently and sometimes with intent. Old artworks can also take on a new life elsewhere, as someone’s old hat can be someone’s new exciting find that is just the item they were looking for and perfect for the new situation.
Kissick, John. “Painting and Potential: John Kissick on the Art Awards Scene” Canadian Art. February 21, 2014. http://www.canadianart.ca/features/2014/02/21/rbc-painting-competition-at-15/
Kwasny, Barbara and Elaine Peake. A Second Look At Calgary’s Public Art. Calgary, AB: Detselig Enterprises Ltd, 1992