Read a Story - Arthur Lismer
From my window
by: Elaine Hoffman, Manager, Education, McMichael Canadian Art Collection
I’m used to snow: schnee, weib, kalte. But this snow is different: neige, blanche, froide. Ada and I used to love to come out of school and see big, lacey flakes of snow floating around us as we made our way home to Schiller-Strasse. Mutti would be looking out our living room window in anticipation of all the news we would want to share with her; the interesting things Frau Brunner had said in class and the way Heintz had teased me about my new haircut.
But here, I’m not sure about the snow, or even my teacher’s smile—warm and hesitant at the same time. As I approached our new home I looked up to see a familiar face at the window but the late afternoon sun had almost set and it was hard to make out the details in the dusk. The warmth of the stairway was welcoming as I shed my boots and book bag in the hall. Hoping to find Mutti preparing some food for me I headed to the kitchen. What is new for me is even more so for Mutti. She was used to a large home constantly full of visitors who came to see Vater about his business. Helga would come every morning to start preparing the house for our family and guests—meals to prepare, tea and coffee to be served to the buyers as well as the artists who sought Vater’s advice. Even though I was too young to understand the conversations, it was exciting to see the elegant men and women coming through the gallery. But to me, the artists were much more interesting—hauling in their canvases and sculptures, discussing news late into the night.
All of these memories are like scenes from a play performed so long ago. As I sat staring out of my window, I could hear children on the street speaking a language I was just starting to understand. The boys were so intent on their jeu de hockey, which is played every day after school. I wonder if girls can play hockey too. I haven’t seen any at school and no one has taken me to their home yet. Madame Fourchette, who has a magasin de tabac on the corner, has told me she has a daughter Francoise who is my age, but we go to different schools, so I have not met her.
My teacher at L’Ecole de Riviere has noticed my love of drawing. During our lessons my thoughts often wonder, returning to my old school. Before I realize it I have covered my exercise books with pictures from my imagination. Whenever Mademoiselle Livres walks by my desk she often stops to look at my doodles. Last week she spoke to Mutti and Vater about perhaps enrolling me in art classes. I was very excited and hoped to begin soon.
Wonderful news greeted me when I returned home from school after the weekend. Vater took me to the apartment next door and introduced me to Monsieur Lismer, an artist and teacher. He was so funny; the first thing he asked me to do was sketch his picture. Imagine me drawing a picture of my teacher! I was very nervous but with much patience he guided me along. “Look at me.” he said, “What do you notice first?” In a shy, quiet voice I answered, “You don’t have a lot of hair.” He laughed out loud and with a few quick strokes he drew tufts of hair sticking out from the head I had drawn. We spent the next hour taking turns drawing each other and I left feeling I had finally made a friend. He made me promise that I would practice before our next lesson and even told me that Mutti and Vater should try it too. He feels that everyone has an artist buried inside them, waiting to be freed.
The next day after school, I paid a visit to Monsieur Lismer. It was then that I noticed a picture on his windowsill that was familiar to me; a vase with sunflowers in it. It seemed to be set up with a shell and other objects for a sketching project. The name of the artist was unknown to me but I knew I’d seen the painting before. I remembered how the sunflowers had made me feel happy and sad at the same time, though I didn’t understand why. At dinner that evening I asked Vater about the picture because I was so surprised to see it here in Canada. He explained that it is a copy of a great oil painting, Sunflowers, by the Dutch artist, Vincent Van Gogh. As he answered me a wistful expression came over him and he seemed to be seeing things that weren’t there. He was very quiet throughout dinner even though Mutti tried to make him smile by describing the sweet scene she had seen out the window, a mother pulling her child in a sled through the snowy streets.
Finally after a long silence Vater looked at her and said, “So many great artists had to flee from Europe because of the war and they are the lucky ones. I hope new beginnings will be fertile ground for greatness here.” All at once I realized that the life we left behind was gone forever and I could only look forward from now on.
Arthur Lismer, 1885 - 1969
From My Window - Montreal ,1940-49
oil on panel
36.2 x 40.5 cm
McMichael Canadian Art Collection