01 February 2014

Snow Country: Walter J. Phillips

Walter J. Phillips - Winter Wilderness, 1918, from Winter Woodcuts portfolio - 1936.

"There is a whole epoch between us and, today, an entire country of snow". - Stephane Mallarme

More than any westerner I can think of, Walter J. Phillips channeled the spirit of the floating world of Japanese ukiyo-e in his woodblock prints.  Three-dimensional atmosphere is difficult to convey in two dimensions  but  Phillips combined negative space and his experience as a water-colorist to recreate the clear, dry air of the Canadian prairie, and never more so than in his winter scenes.  Phillips brought the eye of an outsider to this landscape, so different from his native English midlands.  Phillips had studied watercolor in Birmingham, a city that was practically ground zero of the Industrial Revolution.  So he was alert to the tentativeness of Winnipeg's growing suburbs, its newly built houses  only recently the last one on the block, looking out on open fields.   The silence of snow covered streets, with only the occasional appearance of a human figure stimulated his imagination.

Some people would say, Phillips wrote once, that the prairies of Manitoba and the Lake of the Woods had no scenery to boast of, no pictorial interest for an artist.  That the land was flat and banal is refuted by his deeply humanist view of nature.  Critics have often fretted that Phillips' images give an altogether different version of the natural world than the more emphatic and even savage works of Canadian painters, particularly those by the Group of Seven, as though it were necessary to choose between them.  His art managed to encompass the mountains and rugged forests of the Canadian west when he lived in Banff and Victoria.

Walter Phillips made his first color woodblock print in 1917.    It was an attractive but tentative image  of a snowy day, but nothing like as accomplished as Winter Wilderness, created just one year later.   How did he do it?  Phillips (1884-1963) had grown up with the paintings of John Sell Cotman and J.M.W. Turner.
After he emigrated to Canada in 1913 and settled in Winnipeg, Phillips tried etching but quickly turned to wood block printing where he could use his flair for color. He also began to study works  by Hokusai, Hiroshige, and Utamaro.  In his hands,  oil-based inks were made to function  like watercolors.  Both media require of the artist great technical skill. Paradoxically, his painstaking labors fixed moments of wonder so brief that words often fail to capture them.

Like Arthur Wesley Dow in the U.S., Phillips was an influential teacher, revered by his many students.  He was also a regular art critic for the Winnipeg Herald
The prints shown here were originally sent by Phillips to his friends as Christmas greetings and were later collected in his fourth portfolio Winter Woodcuts that was published in 1936 by Nelson & Sons of Toronto.

 Walter J. Phillips - Winter Sunshine, 1919, from Winter Woodcuts portfolio  - 1936. 

Walter J. Phillips - A Suburban Street in Winnipeg, 1920 from Winter Woodcuts portfolio - 1936.

Walter J. Phillips - Winter Evening, 1926, from Winter Woodcuts portfolio - 1936.

Walter J. Phillips - Our Street In Winnipeg, 1933, from Winter Woodcuts portfolio - 1936.

Walter J. Phillips - Rime, 1934, from Winter Woodcuts portfolio - 1936.

Walter J. Phillips - The Stream In Winter, 1935, from Winter Woodcuts portfolio  1936.

For much more by and about Walter j. Phillips, go here..


Cranky Bird said...

Awesome again--thanks for this, Jane!

Tania said...

Des visions très "graphiques" (how translate this ?)

Jane said...

C.B., you are right about Walter Phillips. Anyone who can make me admire snow is persuasive indeed.

Jane said...

Tania, I think you are describing how good Phillips was at matching his vision to the medium. Tres graphiques, yes!

Thalia said...


Jane said...

Thalia, yes, and delicate, too.

Martha Knox said...

What a lovely collection of images. Thank you for posting it.