THE LIFE & ART OF FRANK MOLNAR, JACK HARDMAN, LEROY JENSEN
By Eve Lazarus, Claudia Cornwall, Wendy Newbold Patterson
Mother Tongue Publishing
146 pp., $34.95
Review by Brian Brennan
Frank Molnar, Jack Hardman, and LeRoy Jensen were three dedicated and unfashionably tradition-based Vancouver artists of the 1960s who today are largely forgotten. Because they operated outside the confines of the exclusionary and restrictive Vancouver art establishment, their contributions are known only to a handful of collectors, fellow artists, and former students. However, thanks to the efforts of a gutsy little Salt Spring Island press, Mother Tongue Publishing, the three are now getting the broader public recognition they deserve. They are the featured subjects of the second book in a brave new series titled The Unheralded Artists of BC.
I say brave because the publishers, Salt Spring Island poet Mona Fertig and her printmaker husband, Peter Haase, gambled on launching their own trade publishing enterprise when they couldn’t find a British Columbia publisher willing to take on the series. Forgotten artists, it seems, don’t sell as well as roguish ex-politicians or sexually abused hockey players.
But how good were Molnar, Hardman and Jensen? That hardly matters. The point, as Lions Bay man-about-the-arts Max Wyman notes in his introduction, is that “we now have a clearer idea of what was going on in our small corner of the world of art than we had before.” When the trendy American-influenced abstractionists like Jack Shadbolt, Gordon Smith, and Peter Aspell were getting all the public attention and the big commissions, the European-influenced representationalists and expressionists like Molnar, Hardman, and Jensen were quietly writing their own chapters into the history of art in British Columbia.
Molnar, born in Hungary and trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, never gained acceptance in Vancouver because he dared to paint nudes with pubic hair showing. He refused to create works for commercial gallery owners who wanted landscapes, trees, and lakes, and he refused to produce canvases to match the sofas and drapes of would-be art buyers. Shut out of the major galleries, suspicious of art dealers, and unable to make a living from his art, Molnar taught art for 30 years at North Vancouver’s Capilano College (now University). Today, at age 73, he shows his work by appointment only at his home in Point Grey.
Hardman was a largely self-trained sculptor and printmaker from New Westminster who taught art in London for a couple of years during the 1950s, then returned to Canada to establish himself in Burnaby, first as a high school art teacher and later as director of the Burnaby Art Gallery. When his terra cotta sculptures were first featured in group shows in Vancouver and Toronto, Hardman told reporters that teaching was his hobby and sculpting his profession. However, because his occasionally figurative work ran counter to the prevailing abstract styles, he was marginalized. Feeling neglected and unappreciated, he destroyed two of his large sculptures in 1969. Forty years later, he was finally recognized, posthumously, with a retrospective of his prints at the Burnaby Art Gallery.
Jensen, born in Vancouver and trained as a painter in Copenhagen and Paris, found it impossible to break into the cliquish art scene when he returned to Vancouver in 1955. Like his fellow outsiders Molnar and Hardman, Jensen too found his niche as an art teacher, most notably at the revolutionary Vancouver Free University. Through his association with other radicals at this now-defunct institution, Jensen eventually became one of the first members of Greenpeace, sailing to Alaska in 1971 in a converted mine sweeper in a futile attempt to stop the United States from conducting underground nuclear tests at Amchitka Island. Jensen spent the last two decades of his life on Salt Spring Island, where he painted while exhibiting his work at galleries in Victoria and Nanaimo.
The best feature of this book is the artwork. Photographers Janet Dwyer, Ingeborg Hardman, Dan Fairchild, and Ernest Vegt have done an excellent job of capturing the artists’ work on camera, and the reproduction quality is second to none. So too is the design work by Jan Westendorp and Mark Hand. This really should be a hardcover coffee table book to do full justice to the photography and design, but I suspect that would incur an unrecoverable expense for the publishers.
Less satisfying is the accompanying text. While authors Eve Lazarus, Claudia Cornwall, and Wendy Newbold Patterson have done a good job of researching the stories of their individual subjects, the storytelling lacks energy, coherence, style, and flow. It feels as if some paragraphs were deleted from a longer original text for space reasons, and that other paragraphs were moved around to fit with the book’s design concept. The end result reads more like a product of expedient editing and restructuring than a work of creative literary endeavour.
That quibble aside, I recommend this book as required reading for curators, collectors, critics, art history enthusiasts, and others interested in knowing what was happening in the rest of the West Coast art scene when all the attention was being given to the teachers and students at the Vancouver School of Art, and to the local artists whose works were being exhibited at and acquired by the Vancouver Art Gallery. Molnar, Hardman, and Jensen were quickly consigned to the scrapheap of art history before a serious evaluation of their work could take place. Now, as Wyman says, it’s time for attention to be paid.
Author Brian Brennan has published numerous biographical profiles of West Coast artists, including Gathie Falk, Joe Plaskett and Takao Tanabe.