Bertram Brooker: When We Awake!

Galleries West

By: Paul Gessell

April 5, 2024

Original URL: Bertram Brooker: When We Awake! – Galleries West

Bertram Brooker (1888–1955), Shoes, c. 1936, oil on canvas marouflaged to paperboard, 27.4 x 35.2 cm, Gift of Phillip Gevik, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 2020.2. Photo: Alexandra Cousins

Bertram Brooker opened an exhibition at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto on Jan. 22, 1927. It was an important date in Canadian art — the first exhibition of abstract art in Canada. The reception was frosty. Group of Seven member J.E.H. MacDonald dismissed Brooker’s abstracts as “riddles” that defied solutions.

Dismissing new forms of art by the old guard is common. Only a few years previously, the Group of Seven formed, immediately attracting scathing reviews of their nationalistic landscapes. Those paintings eventually became THE face of Canadian Art. Likewise, abstract art eventually dominated Canadian art for decades. Brooker was simply ahead of the times.

A few days after the opening at the Arts and Letters Club, Group of Seven artist Arthur Lismer asked Group colleague Lawren Harris to speak to an assembly about Brooker’s paintings. Harris dodged the invitation and, soon, everyone vacated the room, leaving Brooker sitting alone and unheralded.

These anecdotes are related by Michael Parke-Taylor in the catalogue for the Brooker retrospective he curated, When We Awake!, at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont. With 150 paintings and drawings, it is the largest-ever exhibition of work by Brooker, who died in 1955 at the age of 66.

The last retrospective, a travelling show, was organized by the National Gallery of Canada in 1972 and contained only 30 artworks that were displayed mainly in small, minor venues. The gallery did not even exhibit the paintings in Ottawa.

No records were kept listing the paintings in the 1927 Toronto show, although Brooker described the pictures as stemming from a deeply personal response to music.

Bertram Brooker (1888–1955), Oozles, 1922, tempera on paper, 22.8 x 17.8 cm, collection of Agnes Etherington Art Centre, purchase, Consolidated Fund, 1976, 19-004

Brooker’s pioneering abstracts from this period remain his most famous: Sounds Assembling, 1928, Oozles, circa 1922, and Alleluiah, 1929, are all in the McMichael exhibition. Amazingly, a century afterwards, the energetic geometric forms still seem futuristic, as if created by a computer.

The British-born Brooker, who lived in various Manitoba locations before moving to Toronto as a young man, largely remains an enigmatic and, still, unheralded character in art history. The McMichael exhibition tries to change that. By the 1930s, he turned to figurative art but still did some abstracts or mixed the two genres together. He was constantly reinventing himself, never developing a specific style, making him an easy fellow to forget.

“People have not been able to peg him in any sort of specific brand of Canadian art history because he was always doing his own thing,” says Parke-Taylor.

The exhibition includes Brooker’s series of dramatic drawings inspired by works of literature, including the Bible’s Elijah, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. There are portraits of author Morley Callaghan and a rather unflattering presentation of Brooker’s daughter Phyllis. There are still lifes and landscapes and some nudes, including the very realist Figures in Landscape, 1932, which was yanked from an Ontario Society of Artists exhibition at what is now the Art Gallery of Ontario because organizers felt the painting inappropriate for young eyes. That painting of two women had seemingly disappeared for decades, only to be found recently by Parke-Taylor and McMichael curator John Geoghegan in the possession of a private collector.

Bertram Brooker (1888–1955), Phyllis (Piano! Piano!), 1934, oil on canvas, 101.9 x 76.5 cm, Art Gallery of Ontario, purchased with assistance from Wintario, 1979, 79/59. Photo © AGO

Brooker’s output was diverse. But so were his influences: William Blake, James McNeil Whistler, Marcel Duchamp and, perhaps most profoundly, Canada’s Kathleen Munn, a pioneer of modern art.

Brooker was a true Renaissance man. His artistic endeavours, beyond his fine art, included graphic arts, books, screenplays, acting and newspaper columns. He won the first Governor General’s Award for fiction for his novel Think of the Earth in 1936. He paid the bills by being a successful advertising executive. Like a 1960s hippie ingesting LSD, Brooker was constantly seeking enlightenment, dabbling in various mystic philosophies, including one called “cosmic consciousness.” Don’t even ask what it’s about.

The artist had a complex relationship with the Group of Seven. He hung out with members of the Group and they sometimes allowed him to exhibit with them. But he was never invited to join the group or to go sketching with them. He was opposed to their use of art to boost nationalism.

Brooker’s best friend for much of his career was Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald, a Winnipeg artist who joined the Group of Seven in 1932. The two artists influenced one another. FitzGerald inspired Brooker to paint the natural world; Brooker’s spooky trees look like FitzGerald’s. In return, Brooker inspired FitzGerald to try abstract art.

In the end, how could one compete with the Group of Seven? The Group painted landscapes to tap into Canada’s desire for an independent identity following the First World War. School children were taught to revere the Group.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, journalist and critic Hector Charlesworth, who repeatedly pilloried what he considered the superficiality of the Group a century ago, called Brooker “a genius.”

Brooker gave us “cosmic consciousness,” whatever that is, and musings about the fourth dimension. He remains what Parke-Taylor calls “an outlier” in Canadian art, a fascinating character too easily defying definition and thus too easily dismissed and unheralded.

Bertram Brooker: When We Awake! is at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont. now through June 2.

Media wishing to request an interview with exhibition artists, curators, or to obtain high-resolution images of the artworks are asked to contact Sam Cheung at [email protected] or 905.893.1121 ext. 2210.

Ces informations sont aussi disponible en français. 


The McMichael Canadian Art Collection is an agency of the Government of Ontario and acknowledges the support of the Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, and the McMichael Canadian Art Foundation. It is the only major museum in the country devoted exclusively to Canadian art. In addition to touring exhibitions, the McMichael houses a permanent collection of more than 6,500 works by historic and contemporary Canadian artists, including Tom Thomson, the Group of Seven and their contemporaries, Indigenous artists and artists from many diasporic communities in Canada. The Gallery is located on 100 acres of forested land and hiking trails at 10365 Islington Avenue, Kleinburg, north of Major Mackenzie Drive in the City of Vaughan. For more information, please visit 


Sam Cheung
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McMichael Canadian Art Collection
905.893.1121 ext. 2210
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McMichael Canadian Art Collection
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