June 2004 to March, 2012
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Barker Fairley’s struggle with John Robert Colombo

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This is the third picture that Barker Fairley made of John. Only one other sitter gave him as much trouble – Northrup Frye. It took three tries to do him too, so John is in good company.

As this is my blog, I get to throw out my hypothesis about why Fairley might have had such difficulties with both men. I think he was a little overwhelmed by them… a bit intimidated. Why? Well, Northrup was a close friend of Barker’s but he was also a colleague and highly respected literary critic (still is). I read Barker’s comment about his final success in capturing Frye, that he was pleased that Frye’s humanity had shone through at last. What had Fairley been painting before that humanity showed up in his images of Frye? Maybe a literary giant, a competitor?

All this is preamble to the John Colombo picture. As I’ve noted earlier, John doesn’t particularly like the picture Fairley made of him. To his credit, he accepts the work as the vision of another artist and even hangs it on his wall next to Ruth’s. I see why John doesn’t like it… or at least why I wouldn’t like it if the same had been done of me. It’s mainly that cruel mouth, isn’t it? Off-centre and framed with a harsh line that seems to cut and sneer.

But, John, let’s say what there is to like here. I’m sure you have seen it all along. This is a strong face with a lot of character. Compared with Ruth’s light colours, yours are solid concrete. At the time, your name was a household word in Canadian literary circles and you were one of the young ones pressing into Barker’s world. My guess is that Fairley was as overwhelmed by you as he was by Northrup Frye.

In your picture, you look away from us, unlike Ruth. The light hits the planes of your face very decisively, emphasizing physical presence. One thing I don’t care for in the composition is the size of your head relative to the overall rectangle. It seems too large to me. Did Barkley think you had a big head, John?

Perhaps Fairley did capture some character traits accurately… a grasp of the real world, physicality, determination, independence and strong will. But I don’t see the cruel mouth at all. I’d say that we are looking not at John Colombo but Barker Fairley’s reaction to him. It seems to have been a little fearful and suspicious. The need for three attempts speaks volumes. Fairley literally did not know what to make of John Robert Colombo.


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