Jock Macdonald

Jock Macdonald in Nootka Sound, c. 1935-36
Vancouver Art Gallery Archives

Over the course of his career, the subject of Jock Macdonald’s work slowly shifted from the outer to an inner landscape. A contemporary of the Group of Seven, his early work mirrors theirs in appearance and intent. As his career progressed, landscape painting became an inadequate visual language for his artistic voice and he instead turned to abstraction to express a higher reality. Influenced by spirituality and Surrealist thinking, Macdonald believed that the artist’s task was to “break out of the tangible reality of daily existence to realize the highest planes of art expression”. (Pg 15, Thom, The Early Work: An Artist Emerges) His career was an artistic journey in a perpetual state of evolution and growth. As a founding member of Painters Eleven, Macdonald’s contribution to abstract painting in Canada is seminal.
Art now reaches the place where it becomes the expression of ideals and spiritual aspirations. The artist no longer strives to imitate the exact appearance of nature but, rather, to express the spirit therein.

James Williamson Galloway Macdonald (or Jock as he became known) was born in Thurso, Scotland in 1897 to a family who was noted for their accomplishments in arts and culture. His father was an architect, his uncle a painter, his twin sister a musician, one brother an engineer and the other an architect. Following a three year service in the British Army and with creativity in his genes, Macdonald enrolled at the Edinburgh College of Art where he graduated with a Design Diploma in Art and a Specialist Art Teacher’s certificate in 1922. Macdonald demonstrated an early passion and gift for teaching that would become a lifelong vocation through which he shaped a new generation of artists. The year he graduated he married fellow student Barbara Niece.

Macdonald immigrated to Canada in 1926 after securing the position of Head of Design at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts. Today this influential institution is known as the Emily Carr College of Art and Design. It was here that Macdonald met Group of Seven member Frederick Horsman Varley who had been hired as the head of the painting department. Varley and Macdonald became colleagues and close friends. Under Varley’s mentorship Macdonald learned much about painting in oils.

In 1933 Macdonald and Varley left their positions at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts due to Depression salary cuts and opened their own competing art school with fellow artist and friend Harry Tauber. It was called the British Columbia College of Arts Limited. Although the school’s history was brief – open for only two years before declaring bankruptcy, it was ground breaking in its visionary approach to art education. With an interdisciplinary curriculum, the lines between art, theatre and music were blurred. Discussions on the topic of Metaphysics were also pervasive in its teachings.

After the school’s closure, Macdonald moved his family to Nootka on the west coast of Vancouver Island where he began his first experiments with abstraction. Macdonald would later refer to these semi-abstract experiments as “Modalities”. Eighteen months later the Macdonald’s returned to Vancouver and Jock took up various teaching positions over the next three years. In 1939 on a trip to Los Angeles, Macdonald was introduced to the great Modernist works of Picasso, Braque, Modigliani, Derain, Ernst, Gaugin, Miro and Kandinsky. He was profoundly moved by this experience.

In 1940, Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris moved to Vancouver. Harris became a friend and an important intellectual influence in Macdonald’s practice. Harris shared Macdonald’s interest in the spirituality of art and introduced him to Theosophy and Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (a text on colour and the nature of art). This same year Macdonald gave a public speech titled Art in Relation to Nature that brought together his theories of abstract art and spirituality in painting. Shortly thereafter Macdonald was introduced to the Surrealist practice of “automatic painting” (or painting from the unconscious) by Dr Grace Pailthorpe. Under her influence he produced the first of his automatic works and later wrote that he found in her a “spiritual awareness…and quality of consciousness of true value to humanity” (Pg 75, Jacques, Finding His Way: Jock Macdonald’s Toronto Years).

In 1960, the year of his death Macdonald was elected a life member of the International Arts and Letters Society. He was also offered the high honour of a retrospective at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario). This was the first retrospective ever offered to a living artist who was not a member of the Group of Seven. Jock Macdonald taught his last class December 2nd. He died on the first day of the college’s break before Christmas on December 3rd 1960 of a heart attack.