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The Iconography of the Imagination:
The Art of James Reaney

January 26 to May 18, 2008

In a career that spans more than six decades, James Crerar Reaney has written poetry and plays for audiences of all ages.. A prolific writer, he has won a Chalmers Award and three Governor General’s Awards, and is a recipient of the Order of Canada. Although admired as one of Canada’s literary giants, very little is known of Reaney’s visual art practice. The Iconography of the Imagination: The Art of James Reaney will introduce Reaney as an artist and provide an overview of his artistic production from the 1940s to the mid-1990s as well as examine his art in relation to his writings. Reaney states that art has been a “constant” in his life, and much like his writing grew out of a desire to “keep a record” (Jean McKay, “What on earth are you doing, Sir?” ArtScape, Issue 5, June 2006, 10).

Seen in the context of his writing, the exhibition probes ideas of play, home, regionalism, symbolism, and the interplay between text and image. Through Reaney’s sketches, drawings, and paintings of emblems, figures and archetypes, as well as the Canadian landscape, the exhibition explores the themes most prevalent in his writings.

The artist’s landscapes consist of sketches made during his 1969 and 1970 cross-country tours with his wife, poet Colleen Thibaudeau, and their young family. These and other impressions of towns and rural regions in Ontario, executed in subsequent years, were kept as visual diaries of the places he had visited. Reaney’s landscapes are charming vignettes that reveal his deep-rooted preoccupation with small-town and farm life and have both personal meaning and collective appeal.

While Reaney’s art is self-referential, a reflection of his imagination, it also contains universal messages. Replete with recurring motifs of the everyday and from literature, his images reflect not only common local experiences but also convey a Romantic nationalism. Some images unravel myths, others express religious undertones, while still others are comical or invite contemplation.

The Iconography of the Imagination is the first major public exhibition of the artist’s work. The exhibition features more than fifty works. In addition to previously unseen images, it will include Reaney’s well-known literary masterpieces Twelve Letters to a Small Town, Souwesto Home, and The Dance of Death at London, Ontario, on which he collaborated with artist Jack Chambers.

MacLean Township

James Reaney, b.1926
Maclean Township , nd
watercolour and ink on paper
17.4 x 25.4 cm
Collection of McIntosh Gallery
The University of Western Ontario
Purchase, Abbott Fund with assistance from Wintario, 1988

The Painter's Table

James Reaney, b.1926
The Painter's Table, 1994?
mixed media on kraft paper
28.25 x 22.25 in. framed
Private Collection

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