As though no time had passed by Ihor Holubizky

As though no time had passed

Ihor Hol­u­bizky

(excerpt – full essay appears in Chron­i­cles of Form and Place: Works on Paper by Takao Tanabe)

There are many and var­ied ways to approach Takao Tanabe’s works on paper pro­duced over sixty years. A ret­ro­spec­tive con­ven­tion is often bio­graph­i­cal, a lin­ear record of time and place that insists on an ever-evolving style. Sub­ject mat­ter is another typ­i­cal approach. Land­scape is some­thing that Tan­abe returns to con­sis­tently, although for him it is vastly dif­fer­ent from what we might project. Fold­ing him into the Cana­dian national school story, and thus equat­ing Canada to land­scape, has a lim­ited value.1 Artists stand for them­selves, and not a ‘project for the nation’. Yet from another nation-view per­spec­tive, Tanabe’s work, which spans span half of the 20th cen­tury, and enters the 21st, can be seen to weave through many of the con­cerns and modes of rep­re­sen­ta­tion that are equated with the devel­op­ment of con­tem­po­rary art in Canada. A rad­i­cal approach is to dis­rupt the bio­graph­i­cal arrow of time and to look at his work as though no time had passed—to con­sider what has changed and what is eter­nal, and what are the pat­terns and tex­tures that can only be under­stood and revealed in hind­sight and in juxtaposition.

The ear­li­est work in the exhi­bi­tion is West of Win­nipeg (1949). It presents us with the bold abbre­vi­ated short­hand line draw­ing that was seen else­where in the post-WWII period, a visual lan­guage that was in the air—for exam­ple, the work of Nico­las de Staël (Russian-French 1914–1955), Pierre Soulages (French b. 1919), Hans Har­tung (Ger­man 1904–1989), Maria Vieira da Silva (Por­tuguese 1908–1992), and Gra­ham Suther­land (British 1903– 1980), albeit for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. The short­hand stroke reap­pears in Tanabe’s Rocky Moun­tains works of 2007–2009, but it is buried in the larger view and can be over­looked if all we want to see is “moun­tain.” It is a test of look­ing and per­cep­tion for the viewer, but not made as a test.

The landscape-inspired work from Denmark—produced dur­ing an early and for­ma­tive travel and work expe­ri­ence for Tan­abe in 1954—is a view reduced to a horizontal-sublime, which reap­pears in his cel­e­brated Prairie-inspired works of the early to mid-1970s. The 1970s series titled “The Land,” also appears in the title of the Den­mark work. This tells us of the artist’s inner expe­ri­ence rather than a lit­eral depic­tion of “this is”; here I was, what I saw. It is one of the para­doxes of draw­ing and paint­ing on paper—a com­po­si­tion of marks that are what they are, but can be read as a some­thing, as what we want. In his review of a 1956 Tan­abe exhi­bi­tion, George Swin­ton com­mented on the six Den­mark period water­colours (one exam­ple is included in this retrospective)—that while they only “suggest[ed] the landscape…the land­scape becomes fully understandable”:

The artist here has acted as a trans­mit­ter of what he saw, and makes us see what he wants us to see. And we are impressed with that. We can feel and not merely see. These pic­tures then become a direct visual expe­ri­ence, not for what they rep­re­sent, but for what they are. 2

In another col­lapsed time view, sim­i­lar­i­ties appear—the tonal draw­ing of Eng­lish Bay, Dawn (1974), char­ac­ter­ized by its noc­tur­nal den­sity and dra­matic light, and like­wise in Howe Sound Dawn (1993). These are not the Prairie or Den­mark land­scapes, nor even seascapes, but per­haps use a pic­to­r­ial com­po­si­tion as “thinking-looking” to a hori­zon where sky and water meet in a play of light. In con­trast, an inner view propo­si­tion can be extracted from the Cedar draw­ings (1993), inspired by Tanabe’s walk through a Cana­dian west coast forest.

Other equally reveal­ing com­par­isons appear when con­sid­er­ing dif­fer­ent com­po­si­tions such as the Sumi ink and water­colour Hill­side at Dusk (1960), with the hill form iso­lated on the paper, and the over­all and impres­sion­is­tic picture-space of Five Islands #2 (2006). Hill­side at Dusk may be ascribed to Tachisme, the French-European style of the 1950s, but can also be attrib­uted to Tanabe’s time and study in Japan, 1959–61, whereas Five Islands #2 is impres­sion­is­tic. Yet these terms are mal­leable, and deter­mined by our atti­tude towards them, and not nec­es­sar­ily rec­on­cil­able in art and his­tory.3


This hard­cover pub­li­ca­tion of Takao Tanabe’s works on paper, beau­ti­fully illus­trated in colour with over 60 of the artist’s works, is avail­able directly from the Burn­aby Art Gallery. Includes essays by Dar­rin Martens, Ihor Hol­u­bizky and Denise Leclerc. Con­tact info@burnabyartgallery.ca to order a copy.


  1. Author’s note: I would describe this as the bur­den of the Group of Seven and the Group-generated mythol­ogy of Cana­dian “place-ness.” It can only be one ver­sion, and only if place-as-identity is con­sid­ered above every­thing else []
  2. George Swin­ton, “Tanabe’s Impres­sion­ism,” The Win­nipeg Tri­bune, 11 April 1956 []
  3. Author’s note: Tachisme can be pre-dated to the works on paper by poet and nov­el­ist Vic­tor Hugo, done while in exile in the Chan­nel Islands, Jer­sey then Guernsey, from 1851 to 1870. Hugo worked with what­ever mate­ri­als were at hand, cof­fee grounds and soot, some­times work­ing with his fin­gers or match sticks. If, as is sug­gested, Hugo was tap­ping into the uncon­scious, some works could be described as pro­to­sur­real. See Shad­ows of a Hand: The Draw­ings of Vic­tor Hugo (New York: The Draw­ing Cen­ter, 1998) []