McMichael - Canadian Art | Collection d'art Canadien

Past Exhibitions

 

Read a Story - Christiane Pflug

 

 


Memories Triggered by Seeing This Painting Again

by: Esther Pflug (Christiane’s daughter)

One of the earliest jobs my grandmother Regine Faust (Christiane's mother) had in Canada, as an immigrant starting over at age forty, was at Regal Toy, designing doll’s clothes. At Christmas she gave my sister and I these life size black dolls with beautiful clothes that she designed.

This is my sister Ursula’s doll because she had the one with braids; mine had short hair. They were the same but my doll had a slightly different expression, the subtleties of the painted face indicating a different character, the way identical twins, cast from the same mold are not actually the same. I preferred my sister’s doll, feeling wronged due to my perception that my sister, the "little one" often received preferential treatment.

Great importance is often attached to my mother painting dolls as often as she did but I believe the reality is more mundane. Dolls remain still when posed, do not squirm or ask for snacks the way my sister and I did. My mother had two girls so we had many dolls in our house, they were not intentionally sought as subjects but as a plentiful domestic object standing in for live humans they added a personal touch to many of my mother’s paintings.

Two boys about my age lived in the house you see in the darkness across the street. One day I gave them some matches, filched from my father’s desk. I watched with amusement as they immediately built a roaring fire on the lawn of their house. Moments later their mother came charging out. I was reprimanded but not punished and felt I had gotten off lightly.

I love the mysterious atmosphere of this painting, the white room, the posed doll, the darkness outside and the reflection in the window of the ceiling, the tops of doors on the opposite wall and my mother’s easel. It's all so very long ago, we moved out of this house when I was ten and my mother died thirty-seven years ago. Seeing her paintings always makes me sad, but I am nevertheless glad they are there to be seen.

Seen from the Island

by: Liese Binnie, Weekend Docent, McMichael Canadian Art Collection

With her free hand, she pulled the chain dangling beside the light bulb in the furnace room and tugged open the door, which led to a rough wooden staircase that zig-zagged sharply down into the dust-laden air. She descended just past the very narrow point she’d reached on the same mission yesterday and stopped, gripping the banister. The dense odour of the alley cat that must live there in the dark filled her nostrils. She stared up at the shaft of grayish light casting confusing geometric shapes. But she must go on. A few more tentative steps, and she nearly nudged the feline with her sandal. But the animal bit her exposed foot and moved down into the darkness. Shocked, she climbed wildly back up, nearly losing her hold on the sketchpad under her free arm, thudded the narrow door behind her and sidled past the window through which she had glimpsed a courtyard in dim evening light – its abundance of frames and angles just waiting to be filled with lines and an opaque sheen and mystery – and back through the narrow corridor that led into the apartment. A feeling of extreme fatigue overcame her. She laid down the art materials and went to bed, sleeping for the rest of the afternoon.

Since arriving here in Toronto, fatigue overcame her daily. Her husband, would not be there for some time to help her get started in this unattractive, visually unrefined city. She barely glanced outside through the third-storey windows. This was not Paris, or Tunis with its eternal summer. How to continue her elated years of painting en plein air now, and coursing through the buzz of the market, surrounded by friendly comments about her pinceau? There was so little joy here and she was so tied down.

Later, fully awake, a view she’d never really looked at before startled her: On the other side of the street were wires tracing strong, parallel lines through the sky over the apartment buildings, above boxy houses with chimneys sticking up like exclamation marks: “Paint me! Paint me!” The whole was heavily underscored by railway tracks almost parallel to the wires. How intriguing, the geometry of the sky, and the thick diagonal of cascading leaves. She stepped back from the window: It was the perfect frame. She would just create this scene from indoors. She began mixing and painting intently. From the safe haven of the apartment she realized that this maze of frames – the corridor, the windows, the doors opening to the bedrooms and kitchen, the glass door to the balcony beyond that, its cage-like bars and railing – could contain further, future paintings, even portraits of her girls. But painting, searching for truth, always left her empty, exposed, exhausted, and so the seasons marched by.

Winter took a toll on her desire to paint, or even to sew or cook. But in the very early spring, she began to crave Toronto Island, a sprawling oasis within view of the dense city. She had boarded the ferry to take her there several times the previous year and sketched waves carving sand, the boardwalk underscoring sailboats, the sun flitting through the trees, feeling free and wild as the wind. At other times she had simply stretched out in the sand, returning home to her husband and the girls many hours later and laughing at her lack of discipline. But disembarking today, on April 4, 1972, at Hanlan’s Point on the island, she found that the air was quite cold and stopped beside a sheltered, mossy patch that beckoned to her. She stepped toward her shadow and sat down, buttoning up her jacket and fingering a little package in her pocket, its contents methodically finding their way into her mouth. She could see the grayish buildings of the city across the water. She thought that later in the season, when the weather became much warmer, there would be the people strolling and sitting down to eat together in cafés among those buildings, and she had wanted to paint that. But there wasn’t an ounce of creative drive in her now, just this craving for sleep.

She laid down her head on the moss, as she’d so often done instead of studying the small creatures around her, instead of sketching them and giving them life on canvas. Drifting off, she remembered a recent photo of a mother and child and thought how for them it was a picture of a “hopeful moment,” and she thought of her beautiful, lively daughters for whom “everything is still possible.” Then image after image floated by of her own mother on her way out the door, out of the house, for months or for years – away from her and whatever family she happened to be staying with this time – seldom there for the “war child,” as her mother’s friend, not smiling, had referred to her. “Be quiet!” “Go to bed.” “Don’t touch our things, don’t break the lamp.” Crash! “I didn’t do it!” “You’re lying!” Never to really play with the toys of the children who lived in this house or that apartment, and her there as a fifth wheel. Not her toys; not her homes. Not to be horrified after Regina, the spoiled daughter of her mother’s friend, brashly defaced, maimed and broke her baby doll. Stiff, cold and unable to rush into Regina’s too-silent governess’s arms for imagined comfort.

She shivered. Her legs were like lead now, her eyes closed, her body heavier on the cold ground. A nightmare of a storm, that had been recurring for years, again paralyzed her. There were Regina’s ten fashionable, untouchable dolls lined up in shock against the wall, engulfed in crazy flashes of light in the night, and her unable to move, unable to help them. Then a lovely Christmas tree with lit candles drifted by, and Mother and Grandfather smiling and handing her sweets to eat, and lilies, and playing with her and a magical doll’s house with tiny people made of wool, with furniture, cutout pictures with frames, carpets, windows, curtains and doors – and Mother sending her to bed, angry. Then in marched the memory of a stiff soldier occupying a train compartment with her and admonishing her – “It won’t change anything!” – for sobbing for hours after straining to touch through the train window Mother’s disappearing hand waving good-bye, good-bye, good-bye…. And her own teenaged daughters turning their backs on her, “relegating me to the role of servant,” and her husband urging, urging her to paint. Books drifted by that she remembered reading, art that she’d looked at and paints and sketchpads with which she’d created a whole world for herself, and all of that ended in her final, permanent sleep that day on Toronto Island.

Pictured Above:
Christiane Pflug , 1936-1972
Interior at Night , 1964-1965
oil and resin and/or oil medium
140.1 x 127.3 cm
Gift of ICI Canada Inc.
McMichael Canadian Art Collection
1995.19.42

 

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