Canadian Art, Vol. XVII #2, March 1960
Folk Painters of the Canadian West: Jan G. WyersRonald Bloore
The National Gallery, Ottawa (1959-60)
Wyers involves us immediately in the anticipation of all human harvests in his canvas, These Good Old Threshing Days. This painting has the richness of a fine tapestry that synthesizes action in depth with a vibrant colouristic surface. The painter has intuitively used baroque subordination and a subtle fusion of diverse elements. He has created an impressive visual unity radiating a sense of promise and fulfillment.
The joy of the painting is eternal. It is a psalm of thanksgiving whose profound simplicity originated in the man's humble response to life without regard to tradition or society. In 1913 Jan G. Wyers left his home in Holland, in the inland town of Steenderen, where he was born 72 years ago, to go to the United States. Later he moved to Ontario where he found employment as a night-watchman in a German prisoner-of-war camp; one of the prisoners there helped him with his painting. Wyers had ample time during the day to paint. After the war he moved to the area of the village of Windthorst, in the south-east corner of Saskatchewan, where, through the thirties and while convalescing from illness, he again found time to paint. Recently, he has painted only in winter, when his farm does not require attention.
The number of his works is small, and he has encountered indifferent success in his occasional attempts to exhibit them locally. However, in the summer of 1959, the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina acquired his largest canvas, These Good Old Threshing Days, and he was represented by eight paintings in the exhibition, Folk Painters of the Canadian West, which was organized and circulated by the National Gallery of Canada in 1959 and 1960.
Frequently Wyers's works are dismissed out of hand because he knows no artistic style but his own, which he has evolved only for himself and to further his communion with nature. Unfortunately, stylistic pigeon-holes tend to pre-establish our basic attitudes, especially towards so-called primitives, so that it becomes difficult to comprehend, without adverse associations, the significance of an isolated man's creative urge. The label 'primitive' conjures up a host of identifying characteristics which reveal nothing of the reasons for painting. Stylistic identification can destroy appreciation and, frequently with primitives, tends to be condescendingly patronizing. Hsieh Ho wrote centuries ago, 'There have always been good and bad paintings...in art, however, the terms ancient and modern have no place.' Quality transcends style.
Throughout the long, cold winter months of snow in Saskatchewan, Wyers paints his incredibly luminous works in his small one-room village house. He paints scenes from his memory of past years, affectionately and intensely. From the time when countless horses on the prairies were the servants and companions of men, come paintings of harvests pulsating with his natural pleasure in the unity of nature - canvases glowing with a sense of ultimate well-being. In the springtime he returns to his gently rolling fields to sow them again with wheat and flax.
No single painting can be regarded as typical of Wyers' style, although certain details and types of subject-matter have remained constant over the last few winters. Whether he creates from memory, photographs or calendars, he approaches each work with a fresh spirit. Like the impressionists, he avoids the unseemly, the ugly or the atypical; but unlike them, he disdains objectivity. He said of Horse Parade (which he translated from a small black-and-white magazine reproduction - an indoor scene of horsewomen jumping), that he found it necessary to change the photograph 'quite a bit.' His second version of this painting - he not infrequently makes duplicates - in turn varies considerably from the first. My Home in Holland, which dates from the 30s, is a formalized, almost classicized, rendering from a photograph. He began These Good Old Threshing Days about 1942 and started to rework it about four years later because his technique was improving 'quite a bit': the improvements were mainly concerned with colour. Indeed, there is considerable repainting in small touches throughout the rich, sun-yellow near the horizon, in the clear blue sky and elsewhere to the extent that in those areas the paint is seriously cracking. However, in the centre of the composition the inexperienced horses, which shy away from the noise of the engine, are so thinly painted that the initial pencil drawing is quite visible: it is a very nervous line describing the essential details. Although Wyers is almost incapable of talking about his paintings, except in a most rudimentary way, he is exceptionally conscious of all aspects of them.
One aspect of his formal development reveals how clearly defined the image of the composition is in his mind. His more recent works have been begun, without preparatory drawing, directly on unprepared tempered masonite with a brush. He started another version of The First Saskatchewan Harvest from memory by sketching the horses in with white paint. This change from pencil outline drawing to direct painting has had the effect of making his latest works appear to be broadly and rapidly executed with fewer details to enrich the surface.
In These Good Old Threshing Days Wyers has recorded all of the work connected with threshing. Under a brilliant September sky, he has condensed the distribution of field activities with the clarity of a cartographer. It is a vision from memory, from nostalgia for the pre-combine era, before mechanization took complete command, when engines were surrealistic beasts, terrifying the horses with fire and smoke, hissing and roaring, panting and thirsting. The fireman, first of the crew to arrive before dawn, blew the engine's whistle when the steam was up to call the other men and continued to feed the voracious creature straw all day. An engineer with a large oilcan stands attentive to the whims of a whirling governor, the greased cog wheels and a flapping, endless belt. From across the fields, the water wagon is driven in rapidly - speed is indicated by the running, spirited horses - and the angled left front wheel suggests that the wagon is being turned sharply to avoid the field wagon pulled by frightened horses which is taking its place in line with the threshing machine. A teamster assists two spike-pitchers as they feed sheaves of grain onto the carrier of the threshing machine. The head of another man is seen in the granary, while to the right of it a wagon is being loaded with grain from the final separator. There is another waiting wagon on the left, and one almost loaded on the right; the detailing of the operation is completed with lunch, brought in by a thirteenth man driving a carriage pulled by the thirteenth horse.
Wyers has reversed the usual scale of relative values; the men are puppet-like, whereas the dogs smile and the horses have personalities. Even the stubble is activated from sharp, dry, glistening spikes into a flickering, rising bank, resembling candle flames, moving irresistibly towards the brilliant yellow area by the distant threshing machine. Beyond, stocks of grain like dulled saw-teeth form the transition from field to sky. The potentially ugly engine's smoke, blown and trailing off above the crows, unites the many details.
The use of the puppets raises the painting above the anecdotal aspects of, for example, Cornelius Krieghoff's Merrymaking in which, as in Wyers's painting, virtually all of the possible happenings around a central theme have been listed. But Wyers has had to resolve his own technical and formal problems, and he has done it with originality. All of the selected details are on a level of equal significance within a harmonious and ultimately non-descriptive whole.
Wyers's themes, set at the end of time, are pregnant with the implications of renewal, regeneration and continuity. His compositions are primarily of harvests, sunsets, the end of the workday, and the winter. His canvases, drawn entirely from his love for animals and his experience as a farmer, are simple, direct and compelling. To paint them gives Wyers a deep feeling of satisfaction.
Canadian Art, Vol. XVII #2, March 1960.
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