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The Jack Bush Retrospective at the NGC

By John Olsthoorn on December 1, 2014

On the cover of the May 3, 1947 issue of the Saturday Night weekly magazine, a poem by Harold Caverhill. The second stanza reads:

I feel an echoing emptiness

Through doorways roll

in this hollow shell of yesterday

Without a soul.

Jack Bush, Yesterday, 1947, oil on Masonite, white lead ground, 121.9 x 91.4 cm (48 x 36 in.), Jack Bush Heritage Corporation © Estate of Jack Bush / SODRAC (2014) Photo: Michael Cullen, TPG Digital Art Service.

Jack Bush, Yesterday, 1947, oil on Masonite, white lead ground, 121.9 x 91.4 cm (48 x 36 in.), Jack Bush Heritage Corporation © Estate of Jack Bush / SODRAC (2014) Photo: Michael Cullen, TPG Digital Art Service.

Also on the cover was the poet’s inspiration, a Jack Bush artwork, Yesterday. The oil on masonite painting, created in 1947, is one of more than 130 of Bush’s paintings, drawings and commercial illustrations on display at the National Gallery of Canada’s retrospective exhibition of his work.

Yesterday hangs in a room with other paintings of the early post Second World War era of Bush’s artistic career. It stands out as both a doorway to the past and one to the future. The dark colors and gloominess capture the beginning of the post war period when the reality that followed the celebrations of the war’s end began to settle in. That reality was not entirely bright.

On the wall next to this painting the museum text speaks of a “mood indicative of the postwar state of mind, and many of Bush’s subjects from this time express a sense of uncertainty about the future.” Two other oil on masonite paintings in the room reflect this sentiment, Rushing Home (1948) and more poignantly The Broken Window (December 1950-January 1951).

It is Yesterday that stands out, though, with its black drapes, nightstand and floor, dark crimson reds and browns, a splattering of dark blue and green suggesting a sense of within-looking-within, a claustrophobic darkness. Both the room in which the viewer is positioned and the one across the hall carry this darkness and its hint of fear. Yet despite this, Bush allows a ray of hope. In the hall between the dark rooms bright light shines across the floor, offering a passage to a better future just to the right – or so we can imagine.

Borrowing perhaps from German expressionism, Bush has also introduced deliberate distortion into the architecture, such that the geometric lines of the rooms, the doorways, the floorboards, the walls and the hall become precise in their imprecision. This, as well as the colors deployed – yellow, white, light green and orange – hint to Bush’s abstractionist future, a bigger, more exuberant one starting in the later 1950s and continuing on until his death in 1977.

Yesterday stands out as a significant painting suggesting a doorway to both the past and the future – just so long as one doesn’t venture too far and cross into the room across the hall. It hints to the lines, shapes and splashes Bush uses later, for example in the 1958 oil on canvas Down Sweep (pictured above) or the 1964 oil on canvas Pinched Orange.

Not since the 1976 retrospective of Jack Bush’s work at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto has there been such an extensive gathering of his work. This retrospective spans five decades of Bush’s artistic achievement and includes sections of his unpublished diaries offering rare insights into the mind of an artist. It runs until February 22, 2015.