Harold Klunder’s Language and Music

Review by Darby Milbrath
Language and Music at Clint Roenisch Gallery
27 October – 16 December 2017

Harold Klunder is one of Canada’s leading painters. Now 74 years old, he has exhibited constantly since his first solo show in 1976, through many fluctuations in the art world. Klunder immigrated to Canada with his family from the Netherlands in 1952. He studied painting in Toronto under Canadian Doris McCarthy, who was taught by the Group of Seven, and his works are now held in the permanent collections of several Canadian and international art galleries. 

His current exhibition at Clint Roenisch Gallery, Language and Music, was my first time seeing his work. I was at once struck by how impressively large they are. The paintings are certainly an “enormous confession,” as (the fictional) Hans Klingsor once said of his work. Klunder talks about his painting very physically. He works every day, pushing paint around until something emerges. He works on canvases that are large enough that to paint them requires a full extension of the limbs. 

“It’s probably very rational but on some levels it’s completely irrational, in the world the way it is, to be painting pictures every day. It’s kind of a strange thing. If not recognized, it’s purely the artist, the brush and the surface you paint on, and that’s a very direct, one-on-one experience. I like that risk or scariness of doing it all by yourself, to accept what happens and live with it.” Harold lives and works in Canada and through the Canadian winters. His studios are in Montreal (Quebec), Flesherton (Ontario) and Pouch Cove (Newfoundland). For years, he worked with no heat in a snowmobile suit with his paints stiff and nearly frozen. The Canadian landscape is felt in his works. 

Hans Klingsor wrote, “The picture is above all a symphony of colours, a marvelously harmonized tapestry that, in spite of all its brilliant hues, gives a sense of tranquility and nobility…The face is painted like a landscape, the hair reminiscent of leaves and the bark of trees, the eye sockets like clefts in rock.” Klunder’s ongoing exploration of self-portraiture merges elements of abstract, figurative, and landscape painting in what he calls “psychic realism.” He explains: “There’s a kind of inner realism that manifests itself artistically. In a sense, it’s similar to music in that if it is a dark and dreary day you will play deep chords that reflect that day. That to me is a psychic sense of connecting with something, and that is what I try to implement into my paintings.”

It wasn’t surprising to learn that Klunder is also a musician, as his paintings have a movement and rhythm reminiscent of improvisational jazz. The paintings are like diary entries to me.  It’s like he’s playfully wrestling himself and the world around him. He begins a painting with a figurative drawing on the canvas which has an intrinsically rudimentary quality. The floating heads and inquisitive eyes in the paintings seem voyeuristic, searching and inquisitive.

Whereas Klunder’s earlier works echo the Dutch tradition of thick impasto painting, his recent works are airier, leaving linen untouched and paint applied subtly like a thin stain. Klunder spends up to ten years working on a single painting, watching it in different moods and in different lights of day while inevitably permeating it with his lived experience as it evolves over time. Philip Guston wrote in his essay “Faith, Hope and Impossibility”: “To paint is always to start at the beginning again, yet being unable to avoid the familiar arguments about what you see yourself painting. The canvas you are working on modifies the previous ones in an unending, baffling chain which never seems to finish. For me the most relevant question and perhaps the only one is, ‘When are you finished? When do you stop? Or rather, why stop at all?'”