When Canadian ambitions toward high culture land on the third art rather than the fourth (sorry Glenn Gould!), attention is frequently given to the Group of Seven, a collection of Canadian landscape painters from the 1920s and ’30s that established a Canadian Modernist style and provided a distinctly Canadian aesthetic by which artists could interpret and interact with their national subject. Allan Wargon’s Varley (1953) provides something of an introduction to Frederick Varley, then 72 years old, two decades removed from the Group of Seven’s disbanding, living an impoverished life, and with his best years as an artist now well behind him. Wargon initially envisioned the film as a celebration of the painter “as a hero and a wise man,” but Varley rejected such a portrayal of himself in favour of a reworking by Wargon that approached the film as a psychological study. Without great interest from the National Film Board for a documentary on Frederick Varley, Wargon lacked the necessary budget for Ektachrome film stock until the Director of the National Gallery took pity on him and offered to make up the shortfall, thereby allowing the film to get made. Varley was the only member of the Group of Seven to specialize in portraiture and Wargon’s film seems to emphasize this work almost ahead of Varley’s more renowned landscapes. Wargon’s camera ruminates on the thick “Hot Mush” of the painted canvas and the rough, etched face of Varley, revealing the artist and his art as distorted and weathered in appearance, yet entirely noble in spirit.
Those looking for more on Allan Wargon and Varley should head to the filmmaker’s highly informative blog.
As per the NFB:
This short documentary is a portrait of Frederick Varley, Canadian painter and member of the Group of Seven. In the film, Varley returns to his studio in Toronto after a sketching trip. The camera moves about the studio selecting examples of his canvases and watches him as he begins a new painting.