The beautiful Ideas that kill

Excerpt from Jackson’s Wars: A.Y. Jackson, the Great War, and the Birth of the Group of Seven, a work in progress under contract with McGill-Queen’s University Press

The Caudron biplane seen by A.Y. Jackson over Étaples in June 1912. Maurice Gaillaux’s passenger, A.M. Ramsay, was a partner of aviator William Hugh Ewen in a Glasgow business that represented the French manufacturer Caudron in Britain. Ewen made a tour of northern Britain with the aircraft for the Daily Mail.

Alexander Young Jackson was sketching on the English Channel coast near Étaples, France, in 1912 when a droning, sixty-horsepower Anzani radial engine drew his attention away from dunes and into the summer sky. Overhead, Maurice Gaillaux was delivering a new two-seater Caudron biplane to London. Gaillaux and his passenger, the British aeronautical engineer A.M. Ramsay, had left Paris at 6:10 a.m. on June 21. They had landed just down the coast from Jackson, at Crotoy, before resuming the journey; their flight path had taken them northwards up the coast, over Jackson, before crossing the channel at its narrowest point, the Strait of Dover.

As the Canadian artist explained to his mother, he had seen “a Frenchie going from Paris to London, but they don’t take much notice of a little thing like that now, about three lines in small type.” Flights were still a novelty, but indeed were becoming more routine, especially in France, which was leading Europe in manufacturers and licensed pilots. The third Paris Aero Salon in December 1911 had featured monoplanes and biplanes from twenty-eight different manufacturers. “An aeroplane passed over here yesterday,” Jackson already had informed his mother in April 1912 from Picquigny, “but I did not see it: saw quite a number round Paris, they don’t attract much attention now.” Nine miles miles north of Étaples was the beach resort of Hardelot, where Louis Blériot had a seaside villa, built after his historic solo English Channel flight in 1909, and he maintained an airfield and hangar there. The American screenwriter Harriet Quimby had become the first woman to fly solo across the English Channel on 16 April, 1912, piloting a Blériot XI from Dover to the beach at Équihen-Plage, just north of Hardelot. Only a few days before Jackson was buzzed by Gaillaux, a young Welsh pilot, Bentfield Charles Hucks, made an unscheduled stop at Hardelot in a new two-seater Blériot XI-2 with its owner, a wealthy Australian named Harold Barlow, en route to London. While at Blériot’s airfield, Hucks took vacationers for short flights; if Jackson was painting in the dunes, the Blériot monoplane and its seventy-horsepower Gnome rotary engine would have been hard to miss as it made its circuits of the countryside.

Aircraft embodied the zeitgeist of speed and change, as well as the speed of change, which in heavier-than-air flight was relentless, and invariably surprising. Only nine years after the first, brief Wright brothers flight at Kittyhawk, someone like Jackson, hearing a gasoline engine overhead, could look to the source of noise and not be sure what to expect. As recently as 1909, when Jackson first took notice of aircraft over France, most of the machines had seemed like elaborate, motorized box kites; by 1912 they were monoplanes and biplanes with more enclosed fuselages, flying higher, faster, and farther than ever before.

An accelerating revolution in technology was mirrored in, and emulated by, the accelerated ingenuity of art. Like the new age of air machines, avant-garde art represented a profound break with the past. A steady parade of new isms was challenging the aesthetic and professional dominance of naturalism. In this constant pictorial evolution, the recent past was not without its lessons, as the work of the late Paul Cézanne in particular was embraced by Cubists, but the avant garde rejected other movements as yesterday’s models and made something once as revolutionary as Impressionism an artifact of another century. A certain amount of hot air was required to keep the new artistic movements aloft, but artists who continued to value Impressionism as means of interpreting the world were treated like balloonists trying to share the skies with roaring, ever faster, motorized aircraft.

Many pilots and key industry figures had only been involved in the young enterprise of heavier-than-air flight for a year or two. Flying was covered in the French press as a sport, and more than a few key figures had gravitated to aircraft from cycling. Failures and fatalities occurred at an appalling rate—Harriet Quimby died on 1 July, 1912, when she and her passenger tumbled out of her Blériot above Boston—but the crashes and deaths were considered unavoidable and necessary to progress. The Salon dAutomne, the foremost annual Paris showcase of the daring and new in art, was similarly committed to rewarding risk-taking, in the name of advancement. If good artists were left by the wayside, then so be it. There was no longer any such thing as an aesthetic to be mastered or appreciated, based on ideas of the picturesque or beautiful. Arsène Alexandre, writing in Le Figaro, defended the 1912 Salon’s offerings by conceding the exhibition might refuse excellent works, but they “do not bear that je ne sais quois of the clumsy or aggressive, which must distinguish a revolutionary painting or a sculpture.” The Salon “prevents artists from falling asleep, in two ways. It misleads some, but it excites others to do better, at the moment when the wrong is fashionable…Those who are mistaken, we lose nothing; they would have been as uninteresting in docility as they are [in risk-taking].” A.Y. Jackson, painting new canvases at Étaples, would be among the artists whose work was rejected by the 1912 jury. His worked lacked daring, and risk-taking. About to turn thirty, Jackson was safely, securely grounded in the past.

•. •. •

A.Y. Jackson, Sand Dunes at Cucq (1912). Collection: National Gallery of Canada

A.Y. Jackson was making his third visit to France when Gaillaux and Ramsay passed overhead in their Caudron biplane. His first visit had been a tourist’s jaunt with his older brother, Harry, in the summer of 1905. He was just shy of twenty-five when he arrived for the second time, in September 1907, to enrol as a student at the Académie Julian in Paris. Although he left the Julian after six months, he had stayed on, mainly in France and mainly at Étaples, striving to master drawing and painting. And he began to watch the sky, for the harbingers of the modern.

Jackson may have seen his first aircraft when he was in Paris in the autumn of 1907, but he did not start to take real notice of them until the summer of 1909, after he left Étaples after about a year to travel and sketch in northern Europe with an older British artist, Dudley Hardy. Hardy’s company would have helped to fuel Jackson’s interest in aircraft, as Hardy would contribute caricatures of pilots to the souvenir programme of the first air show (and air race) in Britain. The Doncaster Aviation Meeting (15-23 October, 1909) used contracted French flyers that were rounded up by event manager Frantz Riechel, sporting editor of Le Figaro, and Hardy would have been sketching them that summer, along with other figures.

Jackson wrote his sister Catherine (in French) from Episy on 28 July, 1909, three days after Blériot made his historic English Channel flight. “Hardy receives the Daily Mail every day, so for now we have the news. Now it’s nothing but M. Bleriot and his aeroplane. If they are not too expensive when I leave Paris, I will bring one for each of you.” To his mother he wrote from Episy on 14 September, 1909: “Big airship passed here the other day, but met with an accident about 30 miles south of here.” La République, a semi-rigid airship built in 1908 for the French military, had been damaged in a forced landing at Jussy-le-Chaudrier on 3 September, and would be destroyed altogether on 25 September, in a crash that killed all four crew.

Jackson was also following news of the summer’s historic air races, the first of which had been held at Juvisy, south of Paris (the site today of Orly airport), on 23 May, 1909, by the Société d’Encouragement à l’Aviation. All summer, competitions had provided a spectacle of gravity-defying machinery, numerous crashes, a grandstand that blew down in a storm, and the out-of-competition fatalities of Eugène Lefebvre, the pilot of the French Wright company, on 7 September at Juvisy, and Louis Ferdinand Ferber, near Boulogne-sur-Mer on 22 September. Jackson mentioned in his letter an air competition featuring the American Glenn Curtiss (who in 1908 had been a partner with Alexander Graham Bell in the Aerial Experiment Association in Cape Breton) and the Anglo-Frenchman Henry (Henri) Farman. The event was La Grande Semaine d’Aviation de Champagne at Reims, 22 to 29 August, the first truly international air race, with competitions for airplanes, balloons, and dirigibles. Curtiss and Farman were the most successful aviators in the multi-event competition. Blériot almost plowed into the viewing stand one day, and demolished his monoplane in a crash that he survived on the final day.

Paul Clemen, writing in the catalogue of the touring exhibition of contemporary German art that opened at the Metropolitan Museum of New York in January 1909, drew a direct line from Impressionism to the new machinery of the skies. “Perhaps Impressionism is a characteristic of our whole culture and at the same time the harbinger of the highest subjectivity…And perhaps above and beyond all this the discovery of light and air is what remains. This is really what is new, quite new, that the age has brought us, and in this the great art exploits and victories of the nineteenth century can be found. The era at the close of which Count Zeppelin and Orville Wright have achieved the conquest of the air has also witnessed its mastery from an artistic point of view.”

Jackson’s art in 1909 was becoming Impressionistic, but despite Clemen’s efforts to link Impressionism with modernity, and Camille Mauclair’s declaration that the two chief characteristics of Impressionism were “search for a new technique, and expression of modern reality,” Jackson was resisting the modern, as he roamed Northern Europe like a salvage anthropologist in hope of capturing images of a world increasingly out of time. Impressionism already was being supplanted in Mauclair’s judgement by 1890, by what Félix Fénéon had called néo-impressionisme. Still to come when Mauclair wrote his landmark text on Impressionism in 1903/04 was Fauvism, which horrified Mauclair (“a pot of paint flung in the face of the public” he declared after witnessing its debut at the Salon d’Automne of 1905 ). By 1908, Fauvism was in decline, about to yield to still more radical movements. As Jackson’s first painting sojourn in Europe drew to a close—by June 1909 he was so poor that he was practically dressed in rags, with nothing to wear that would make him fit to be seen in London—art had begun to embrace the modern in all its exhilarating and disturbing connotations: its industry, its machinery, its breathless pace, its spectacle of destruction, and its transformative violence. By then, violence and art had become intertwined. For some, to destroy art was to make a statement about society; for others, to destroy society was an ambition of art.

•. •. •

A.Y. Jackson was probably painting at Danville, Quebec, planning his September move to Paris to begin studies at the Julian, when at three in the afternoon on 7 July, 1907, a visitor to the Louvre paused before Nicolas Poussin’s Déluge. The visitor, a thirty-one-year-old man from Lorient, took in the dark Arcadian landscape, in which figures scrambled to escape floodwaters in small boats. As if inspired by a bolt of lightning that slashed diagonally across the painting’s stormy sky, the visitor produced a knife and began hacking at the canvas, delivering eight cuts that measured more than two meters in all. He stopped only when he was subdued by a crowd of gallery patrons and two guards.

The assault on Déluge by Paul Cousin was a shock for the national treasure house of art, where security was minimal and anyone could roam its galleries, free of charge. What sort of act was this? Was Cousin some avant-garde artist striking a blow against hidebound academic tastes? Was he a socialist or anarchist trying to make a statement of some kind against wealth and the elites? Paul Cousin was none of those things. At first, he said he had lost his job at a green grocer’s, had nowhere to live, and was angry at his well-off parents for refusing to come to his aid. He wanted to commit a notorious act that would sully the name of his family and draw attention to his plight. Slashing up Poussin’s painting fit the bill. He had not had Poussin or this particular painting in mind: it just happened to be the one he was standing in front of when he decided to act.

Three days after Cousin slashed up Deluge, the art critic, collector, and sometimes dealer Jean Schopfer (writing under his pen name Claude Anet) published in Les Annales his assessment of the attack. Cousin had decided to take vengeance on society for his misfortunes. As art treasures at the Louvre belonged to the entire nation, by attacking a painting, he would inflict a wound on society. Schopfer also believed Cousin wanted to make a name for himself, and compared him to Herostratus, who burned the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, simply to be renowned. Schopfer’s more erudite readers would have known that to deny Herostratus his glory, Ephesian authorities (after torturing and executing him) forbid his name ever being uttered. Schopfer similarly wanted Cousin’s name to be forgotten, but he was concerned that unnamed journals were making a hero of him. “The great danger in an act like that of Cousin is the folly is contagious,” Schopfer warned. “We now have to fear a series of similar acts.”

A doctor assigned to examine Cousin decided he was hallucinatory and exhibited classic traits of paranoia, along with a persecution complex, and advised the court that he could not be held criminally responsible. He was, however, a danger to society and others. Heeding the doctor’s advice, the judge, rather than send Cousin to prison, committed him on 30 July to a mental institution.

Two months later, on 3 September, Schopfer’s worst fear came to pass. The contagion spread. Another Louvre visitor, twenty-seven-year-old Valentine Cantrel from Rouen, pulled out a pair of scissors and began stabbing Ingres’ La Chapelle Sixtine, which portrayed Pope Pius VII and three cardinals in the Sistine Chapel. She plunged the scissors into Pius’s eyes and disfigured the cardinals. As the painting was in a seldom-visited gallery and Cantrel was unable to draw attention to her act, she went to a police station to report what she had done. Under questioning, Cantrel revealed that she had read about Cousin’s attack and had decided it suited her own needs. She was portrayed in the press as a young women in distress who wanted to commit a crime just serious enough to land her in prison, where she would have a place to live and something to eat. She admitted that she had previously smashed a glass case (and killed the butterfly in it) at the Jardin des plantes, but a gendarme had taken pity on her and let her go without charges.

A more political dimension to Cantrel’s attack on the Ingres painting emerged in questioning. Society must provide everyone with the material before the ideal, she lectured. A museum belongs to everyone, but not everyone can enjoy it. “A worker like myself, who works all week, does not have the time to go to the Louvre. It would be best if there were fewer paintings and that every worker were assured of having a good soup every night.” Asked where she got such ideas, she said they came to her on her own, although she added that as a child, she heard her parents complain that we do not pay enough attention to the fate of workers. “They had reason to do so, and I well understood, when I saw the enormous expenses devoted to pleasure, especially to entertain monarchs, when that money could be best employed helping the people.” The Louvre’s administration proposed that if all workers were as unhappy as Cantrel and followed her reasoning and example, the budget for painting repairs would have to be increased by a factor of ten and the museum would have to close while all the damaged paintings were mended.

At her trial on 3 October, Cantrel (who, unlike Cousin, had been found of sound mind) declared the assault on Ingres’ painting was meant to protest her state of misery. She was accused of being a lazy thief who had stolen 1,200 francs from her pastor in the Salvation Army, before coming to Paris. She replied that she had been working since the age of thirteen as a seamstress and had never earned more than seventy-five centimes a day. How was someone supposed to live on that? She blamed society and the pastor for her misery.

Unimpressed, the assistant prosecutor demanded a severe penalty, as a deterrent to others who might decide to vandalize national treasures. Sensing that her case was going badly, Cantrel spoke up, offering her profound regret for the act, firstly because the painting was a fine work, secondly because she now understood that the artist had suffered misery throughout his life, as she had. Her lawyer asked the court to be lenient, as she had considered suicide, and a couple of good heart were prepared to take charge of her. The court instead sentenced her to six months in prison and a fine of 100 francs.

In shocking, quick succession, the vandalism at the Louvre in 1907 had made violence against art a compelling political act. As much as he abhorred Cousin’s attack on Poussin’s painting, Schopfer had admitted that there was a logic to the reasoning he presumed was behind it—indeed, he articulated it in a way that Cousin, plainly of unbalanced mind, never did. Schopfer understood why someone might attack fine art, even if the culprit did not. The works by Poussin and Ingres were repaired and rehung; attacks at the Louvre ceased, perhaps because of the deterrent effect of Cantrel’s sentence and increased security.

A.Y. Jackson had arrived in Paris that September, and visited the Louvre in November, seeking inspiration for a Julian assignment and reporting to his mother: “There are heaps of things to see there.” Cantrel’s trial by then was over, and if he took notice of the alarming attacks, he did not comment on them in his letters home. The idea that the state ought to be feeding workers, not filling museums with art, would have appalled him, regardless of his increasingly left-wing sentiments about class. Disgusted with the failure of Montreal’s elites to patronize young artists like himself, by 1913 he would be urging the National Gallery of Canada to support domestic artists through acquisitions. The first Jackson painting the gallery would purchase, in 1913, would be Sand Dunes at Cucq (1912), which he may have been working on when Maurice Gaillaux flew overhead. But the relationship between art and violence that Cantrel’s attack embodied was gaining additional dimensions that Jackson could not ignore.

In the language of the avant-garde, the new was routinely obliterating the old, even if the idea was metaphoric. Already, in Fauvist circles, something of a link had been forged between art and literal violence. “There is evidence that some of the Fauves, though not Matisse, were attracted to anarchism in their early years,” John Elderfield has written. The critic Félix Fénéon was even implicated in an anarchist bombing in the 1890s, but they all had left their radicalism behind them when the Fauvist movement gelled in 1905, and there was never a manifesto linking the art movement to political ideology or action. Still, violence was erupting in the artwork around Jackson. His friend and Julian classmate, the American William Balfour Ker, was creating illustrations of violent class struggle, with Jesus leading a mob of workers out of a flaming city, and the world’s oppressed punching through a ballroom floor. Another friend and Julian classmate, the New Zealander Spencer Macky, would recall confronting the disturbing images of the Salon des Indépendants—quite possibly with Jackson in the spring of 1908. “You can’t imagine how horrible it is,” Jackson wrote home of the 1908 exhibition, “room after room of the most atrocious things that were ever created.” Macky viewed “pictures which would not be allowed to be hung in any public building in Paris because they were beyond the pale…And people would be in there just splitting their sides looking and laughing at these things…I saw [an image of] two nude women mutilating themselves, cutting themselves off here, and blood running down into great jars; pornographic things; frightful things—anything, anything that the human mind with its bestiality could think of was on those walls…I’m telling you, what we used to say walking around—We used to say, ‘Gosh, there’s going to be a war pretty soon. There must be. This is symptomatic.’”

•. •

Art and violence became explicitly associated on February 20, 1909, just as Fauvism had run its course, when the Futurism manifesto of the young Italian poet, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, appeared for the first time in print, on the front page of Le Figaro in Paris. Marinetti spoke of poetry, but was reaching out to artists in general in articulating an expressive philosophy that was vigorously, dangerously, young and male. Superficially, it was a celebration of the machine, of automobiles, locomotives, and airplanes, of mass manufacturing, all of which he associated with masculine power and youth. The oldest of us in the Futurist movement, Marinetti advised, was not yet thirty, which was not true: Marinetti had turned thirty-two in December. Still, Futurism was modernity with youthful testosterone as the fuel firing the engine of progress. To move forward, young artists needed to destroy, or at least reject, the art of the past, along with the social impediments hindering the ambitions of Marinetti and his acolytes.

Futurism’s essential elements, Marinetti declared, were courage, audacity, and revolt. It celebrated aggressive movement, and a new beauty in the world: speed. Marinetti praised the racing car, with its exhaust pipes like snakes with explosive breath. A roaring vehicle that seemed to run on grape shot, he declared, was more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace, a Hellenistic sculpture in the Louvre. There was no greater beauty than that of struggle, no masterpiece without aggression. Poetry must be a violent assault on unknown forces, making them lie down before man. “We are on the extreme promontory of the ages! What is the good of looking behind us, when we have to smash the mysterious windows of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, since we have already created ever-present, eternal speed.” Marinetti’s declaration recalled the euphoric report of sporting editor Frantz Reichel on the front page of Le Figaro some four months earlier, on 4 October, 1908, after he flew for the first time, with Wilbur Wright at Le Mans. “I have today experienced a magnificent intoxication. I knew the sensation of a bird. I flew! Yes, I flew!…I have, for almost an hour, lived the dream audaciously and vainly pursued across the centuries by so many reckless people: to fly, to fly to enslave space, we who can do nothing against time!”

Marinetti declared that Futurism’s aim was to glorify war, the sole cleanser of the world, along with militarism, patriotism, “the destructive gesture of the anarchists,” and les belles Idées qui tuent, “the beautiful Ideas that kill.” He endorsed “contempt of the woman” and vowed to “demolish museums, libraries, fight moralism, feminism, and all opportunistic and utilitarian cowardice.” Museums were no different than cemeteries, where bodies unknown to one another lay side by side. Marinetti conjured “the mutual ferocity of painters and sculptors killing each other with lines and colours in the same museum.” To admire an old painting, he charged, “is to pour our sensibility into a funerary urn instead of throwing it forward with violent jets of creation and action. Do you wish, then, to spoil your best energies in a useless admiration of the past, from which you inevitably emerge exhausted, diminished, trampled on?” For an artist, daily attendance at museums, libraries, and academies–cemeteries of spent effort, crucifixes of crucified dreams, registers of worn-out energy–was like intelligent young people, drunk with ambitious talent and willpower, enduring the prolonged guardianship of their parents. The admirable past is, perhaps, a balm to the wounds of the moribund, invalids, and prisoners, Marinetti allowed, since the future is denied to them. But we—the young, the strong, the living futurists—do not want it!

It was remarkable, even astonishing, that Marinetti’s manifesto commanded the front page of the Paris daily less than two years after the Louvre attacks by Cousin and Cantrel. For jabbing a pair of scissors into Ingres’s La Chapelle Sixtine, Cantrel was imprisoned and fined. Now, Marinetti was calling on artists to destroy entire museums, to reject the past and embrace violence and the cleansing properties of war. Marinetti understood the role of the provocateur, and revelled in the outrageous. If he was not actually organizing mobs to tear down the Louvre and other great museums, he was arguing that the new generation of artists had nothing to learn from the works of past masters. So much of Marinetti’s rhetoric was metaphorical, yet Futurism was, in Marinetti’s own words, a “manifesto of overthrowing and [of] incendiary violence.” It was (and remains) difficult to overlook his starry-eyed love of destruction, of violence, of militarism, of war, of nationalism, in concert with the power and speed of new machines like the automobile and the airplane. Marinetti compared the sound of an airplane’s propellor to fluttering drapery and the applause of an enthusiastic crowd. In full rhetorical flight, Marinetti assured Le Figaro’s readers that he and his fellow Futurists would be found “on a winter’s night, in the middle of the country, under a sad hangar drummed by monotonous rain, squatting next to our throbbing airplanes, warming our hands on the miserable fire made by our books of today, burning gaily under the glittering flight of their images.”

Speed was inseparable from machinery, and machinery was inseparable from explosive combustion. It was all explicitly violent, and explicitly male. The Winged Victory of Samothrace was a female figure propelled by silent wings; Marinetti’s beloved race car, superior in its aesthetic value, belched exhaust from snake-like pipes. Art as articulated by Futurism turned on Art itself, and on society. The feminine, moralism, and cowardice were reviled impediments to art’s necessarily destructive path.

In his introduction to the exhibition of German contemporary art at that opened in New York in January 1909, Paul Clemen thought heavier-than-air flight and Impressionism shared a conquest of the air, but the sky was a domain that the Futurists claimed for themselves only a month later. The conquest in any case was not as complete as Clemen imagined. The following summer brought the first air races to the skies of Europe, as well as the shocking fatalities of September 1909. The La République disaster of 25 September, which A.Y. Jackson reported to his mother, stunned Le Figaro, coming so soon after the deaths of two well-known pilots. “After Lefebvre and Ferber, four more victims! The enthusiastic struggle, the joyous struggle, has become the tragic struggle…One would think to see in this series of terrifying accidents the revenge of the element too quickly and too recklessly conquered— a hostile Nature in struggle with man, defending itself.” But Le Figaro (the item probably was written by Frantz Reichel) stressed the importance of recognizing the fatal nature of all progress, “the inevitable price of triumphs of tomorrow.” The new age defined by speed was speeding forward, and everyone along for the ride had to brace themselves for the inevitable casualties.

Violence defined the new age, and was its medium of transformation. When violence was granted an aesthetic dimension, as in the Futurist manifesto, it implicitly became an artistic act. Even artists that rejected violence would have to confront the impending, appalling destruction of the age, and many—A.Y. Jackson included—would find themselves recognizing and depicting its aesthetic.

•. •. •

In late 1909, A.Y. Jackson returned to Montreal and the drudge work of commercial art, producing black-and-white illustrations of women’s boots, mattresses, and cigar labels. Jackson was discouraged by and disgusted with the general indifference of Montreal’s elites to the work of Canadian artists, and anything more recent or adventurous than nineteenth-century canvases of Europe’s Barbizon and Hague schools. “As far as Canadian Art concerns me, it can go to —,” he informed his cousin, Charles Clement, in October 1910. “There never will be a school of Canadian art. The natural centre for Eastern Canadian artists will be New York, and it will be better for themselves and their art when they recognize it.” At the Royal Canadian Academy annual exhibition in late 1910, hosted by the Art Association of Montreal, Jackson nearly changed his mind. He saw a painting, A Grey Day, by a Toronto artist, J.E.H. MacDonald. “The canvas had little knowledge of continental works,” Jackson would recall. “It was a more direct re-action [sic] from Nature. It was hard and meticulous and lacked all the technical qualities of good painting but there was a native flavor to it.” Jackson thought of writing MacDonald, but let the idea drop. Over the next few months, a career as a fine artist very nearly slipped away.

Prodded by his old Julian classmate, William Balfour Ker, and Canadian Randolph Hewton, who was painting in Paris, Jackson shook off his lethargy and ill humour. If he was going to paint, it would be in Europe. He returned to France in October 1911, accompanied by a fellow Montreal artist, Albert Robinson. Before leaving Montreal, Jackson destroyed most everything he had produced to date, some 160 works, in a furnace bonfire. He had made his own incendiary break with the past.

Settling in Étaples in the spring of 1912, Jackson was immersed in discordances of time, technology, and taste. While mingling with an older generation of artists producing the same old genre scenes in the same old styles, he strove to master the Impressionistic techniques of plein air painting (while executing the occasional Tonalist nocturne) that Europe’s avant garde had aggressively abandoned. Back home in Montreal, Impressionism may have been in ascent in the work of active artists, but collectors clung to the resale market’s offerings of the Barbizon and Hague schools. While Jackson’s first art instructor in Montreal, Edmon Dyonnet, was comfortable with the influence of Impressionism on French Canadian artists, he was proud and relieved to declare in 1913 that “no French Canadian painter fortunately has dreamed of following in their folly those despisers of art who have undertaken the mission of denying beauty and proscribing truth. Cubists and Futurists may go by. Our country is too young not to be attracted by novelty, but it has enough good sense not to allow itself to be made a fool of, or to take the grin of a monkey for the smile of a woman.” Yet for all the rhetorical excess of Futurism, the movement recognized the need for art to engage with the modern: the world of mass production; of internal combustion; of electricity, gasoline, and diesel; of dynamic and even violent motion.

While fascinated with aircraft, which served as a central image of the Futurist manifesto, Jackson continued to seek artistic inspiration in scenes of a preindustrial age. When he visited Paris in the spring of 1912, he found an art scene that had changed profoundly since he last visited, in 1909. “Impressionists are back numbers now over here,” he wrote his cousin, Florence Clement. “Now it’s the futurists.” The movement’s embrace of technology, speed, and the here and now (if he even understood it), left him cold, as did the rest of the avant garde. Cubism, which had made its debut at the 1910 Salon d’Automne, struck him as a colossal joke. “The Futurists, Cubists and Post-Impressionists are working feverishly and already the old impressionist movement seems like ancient history in Paris,” Jackson informed the art critic Albert Laberge of La Presse in October 1912, after his work was rejected by the latest Salon d’Automne. To his cousin Charles Clement he observed that December: “The latest vogue in Paris is Cube ism, square heads and trunks, and everything. Its only use appears to be that it makes all the other brands of Extremists look almost serious.”

Meanwhile, the aircraft that so inspired Futurism and mirrored the avant garde’s love of ever-spiralling progress were acquiring a new lethality, above and beyond their propensity to kill their pilots and designers. They were undergoing a rapid evolution from a technology associated with sport to one of war. One week after Jackson took note of an aircraft over Picquigny in the spring of 1912, a White Paper announced a new air organization in Britain, the Royal Flying Corps, with military and naval wings, a central flying school, a reserve arm, and a royal aircraft factory. War in Europe to many was on the horizon: on October 1, 1912, the day after Arsène Alexandre published his philosophy of the Salon d’Automne in Le Figaro, the newspaper carried alarming news on its front page: “Le Danger Balkanique. Mobilisation serbe et bulgare. La guerre ou la paix?” Europe was a tinderbox of regional strifes and maneuvering empires. The new flying machines were to be a crucial part of the coming conflagration, for Jackson and his friends and relatives. Art would be left to wonder what role it could possibly play, after Futurism got what it wished for in militarism, patriotism, the cleansing property of war, and the rise of the beautiful idea that kills.

Four years after seeing Maurice Gaillaux drone above his easel in the dunes near Étaples, A.Y. Jackson would find himself in another corner of northern Europe, on another June day, one of “glorious sunshine,” watching the latest iteration of the gravity-defying modern. A German spotter plane was “circling overhead like a big hawk, signalling to the artillery who were trying to blow us up,” as howitzer shells continued to rain down on the trench in which Jackson sought shelter, spewing the shrapnel that might yet finish him off.

Copyright Douglas Hunter 2019. Not to be used or reprinted without permission.

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