Cecil Buller (1886-1973) - Canadian Modernist Printmaker
Cecil Buller produced innovative and inspiring woodblock and linoprints between 1910 and 1930. Yet today her name is little known in Canada. She was born in Montreal in 1886. Her father was a physician and member of the Art Association of Montreal (AAM). Her mother had French-Quebecois heritage. The parents encouraged their three daughters to study and practice art from an early age. The family’s cultural circle included William Brymner, director of the AAM, wood engraver
Edwin Holgate, and portraitist Randolph Hewton.
Edwin Holgate, and portraitist Randolph Hewton.
In 1902 at age 16, Buller travelled to Europe with family, experiencing first hand the dramatic new styles of Impressionism, Cubism and the Fauves. She visited and may have taken classes at the famous Academie Julian in Paris. (Women were not accepted at Julian until 1895, and in 1902 still not listed in their rosters.) On her return, Buller attended classes at the Art Association of Montreal. William Brymner the director encouraged Buller’s artistic talent. All students spent hours drawing, studying the human figure through anatomy, sculptures and live models.
In 1910, Buller attended New York’s Art Students League, a liberal school conducted like a French art academy. In 1912, she travelled to Paris to study and lived there until 1916. These formative years in Paris launched her career, ignited by artistic influences of the day: Cezanne, Matisse, Gauguin and print-maker Maurice Denis. Her early small drawings and paintings from this time are light-filled with gestural flowing brushwork.
Summer Afternoon (above) is a small linocut about 6 by 9 inches. One of the first known prints by the artist, it was completed in 1915 at age 29. An idyllic world has been detailed in this small space, in which three female figures repose near a shaded stream. This innocent rendering of summertime youth and beauty offers a fresh perspective on European traditions of placing nude female figures in natural settings. Suzanna and the Elders (above) circa 1920, is 9 by 6 inches, and shows innocence interrupted by evil intent.
In 1915 Buller visited Concarneau on the coast of Brittany. In the town’s harbour sits an island with a walled medieval town. In Market in Concarneau a group of nuns set up their wares. Buller’s aerial perspective and careful positioning of shapes and forms, give an abstracted vitality to this busy crowd scene. Details are less obvious in Breton House, which is a loosely painted watercolour. The sandy foreground suggests dried and cracked soil. Weathered buildings, sporting the same ochre palette, tilt awkwardly near the horizon line. A glimpse of blue sea and puffy clouds add a measure of space to this compact composition.
In 1916 Buller studied with printmaker Noel Rooke in Britain. She met her future husband John Murphy at this workshop and they married in 1917. The couple moved to New York City in 1918 and became active in the worldwide resurgence of block printing. The process of print making is complex and labourious. Few women choose to excel in this challenging medium. Each of Buller’s prints starts with a simple sketch of the full composition. Many drawings follow to highlight forms, volumes, shapes and shading. The final drawing was transferred with pen and ink onto a woodblock painted white. Buller used photographs to check the composition before cutting into the block. Wood engraving uses a variety of pointed tools to make precise cuts.
Buller’s major project the Song of Solomon was published in 1931 in Paris.This set of eleven prints came in an limited edition of 25. These prints reimagine the erotic poetry of the biblical passages in Song of Solomon. The images glorify the union of male and female in harmony with nature. These delicately wrought wood engravings on ivory laid paper average 6 by 8 inches.
Buller transformed classical themes into uniquely humanist tableaux. She was a Modernist reinventing traditional ways of seeing and recording. We can compare her Picnic (1956) with Manet’s famous Lunch on the Grass of 1863. Both artists were mature successful artists, pushing boundaries in their respective fields, practicing almost 100 years apart. It's likely that Buller saw Manet's original painting while in Europe, or others featuring nude females in outdoor environments.
Luncheon on the Grass by impressionist Edouard Manet is monumental at seven by eight feet. The painting caused a stir in 1863, and was not accepted for the prestigious Salon Exhibition. Luncheon showed in the Salon des Refuses. Viewers were affronted by the odd juxtaposition of a nude woman seated with two dressed men. The interaction between the two men and the outward gaze of the woman raised more questions. Manet used family members and friends as models. They appear to be real people not idealized mythological figures as seen in academic paintings.
The Picnic is a small wood engraving completed by Buller at age 74. The title and figure placements suggest a response to Manet’s artwork. The image repositions the tradition of male artists placing nude females in landscapes. Buller goes further than removing the clothes from the seated male. She also removes the skin from the left side of his body, to expose the bones and musculature below. The symbolic stripping away of the skin of life is enigmatic and startling. But the picnic group appears relaxed, accepting of the two worlds presented: inner and outer. Buller’s notions of duality are enhanced by the black and white medium. The artist alerts us to the underlying essence below the polar opposites of male/female, clothed/naked, life/death.
In 1957 the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts gave Buller a solo exhibition - her first in Canada since 1920. The artist moved back to Montreal in 1959. She died in 1973 at age 87.
Her world travels and modernist ideals resulted in artwork with an international flavour. Largely unknown in Canada, a major touring exhibition in 1989 produced by the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, reestablished her important place in Canadian printmaking.
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