(TV ONTARIO, 1970)

In 1969 I proposed to the Director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, a series of annual solo exhibitions for Canadian artists in mid-career. They would be asked to agree to design a poster and sign fifty copies to create a low-priced collector’s item for students and others who would not normally be able to afford their work. The first of these exhibitions, which opened in February 1970, was given to Michael Snow (the catalogue, designed by Snow, is now a very expensive rare book) and the second opened at the end of the same year and was given to Jack Chambers (who, two years earlier, in my exhibition Canadian Artists ’68 had been awarded the REMACO $2,000 prize for painting, by the British juror Richard Hamilton, and the Labatt’s $1,500 prize for film, by the American juror Jonas Mekas).

The Chambers show we scheduled for 1971, but when I approached the artist he told me that the Vancouver Art Gallery had offered him a retrospective exhibition at the end of 1970 and we agreed that economy of time, effort and expense pointed to a single exhibition that would be seen in both cities and it became my role to organise the show and the catalogue—which I did on condition that, instead of an introductory essay, the catalogue would contain statements on his work by the artist from his various writings.

At the same time, Cynthia Scott, of TVOntario, offered me half an hour to interview Jack in her morning series called People Worth Knowing. The interview took place on November 5th 1970 and can be viewed below.

Dennis Young interviews Jack Chambers, 1970

Working with Jack on the exhibition, I learned a great deal about the character of an artist who in many ways went against the grain of his generation, especially in his painting—for which, largely oblivious of the modern tradition, he had spent five years at the San Fernando School of Fine Arts in Madrid—where he lived in extraordinary hardship, had to fend for himself, often went hungry and became ill, but learnt Spanish and eventually gained major scholarships to graduate as an academic artist in 1959.

That same year, he met his future wife, Olga Sanchez Bustos, a gently stoic young woman from a wealthy family in Northern Spain, whom he married in London, Ontario, after returning to Canada in 1963.

Olga, among various social activities, while bringing up their two sons, John and Diego, came to act as a translator for Spanish-speaking seasonal workers, especially in the courts, where she helped to see that justice was done on their behalf. She also spoke and wrote perfect French.

Jack and Olga became my friends in the years that followed—two firmly independent individuals of great inner strength whom I can only call “saintly,” but whose lives were to be troubled with, and eventually cut short by, cancer: his in 1978 after a nine year struggle with leukemia and hers just thirteen years later.

In their memory, two bronze plaques exist side by side, beneath two trees, in the turf of Gibbons Park in London, Ontario, where they often walked. Modest but enduring, the plaques make a fitting monument for two exceptional human beings.


Jack read and wrote prolifically about art, the spiritual life and their intricate relation to perception—and, once diagnosed with leukemia, travelled widely in the States and England to find a remedy for it, perhaps spurred-on after it actually went into remission in its early stage. His travels even took him twice to an Ashram in India, although, once there, he was told they could not help him—something that turned out to be so true that on both occasions they were obliged to call for Olga who flew to India to bring him home. The second of these journeys began in December 1977, in spite of the fact that, according to his friend, Greg Curnoe, he could scarcely walk, and, fetched home once again by Olga, he died in April 1978.

In late October, 1977, only six weeks before he set out on that second journey to India, his dealer persuaded him to attempt an autobiography, using his notebooks, photos and journals. However, it is not clear how far his work on this project had progressed, if at all, when he left for India only six weeks later, and some day, hopefully, someone will investigate how much of the style that characterises the book (published some weeks after his death) might have been lifted directly from the journals, even by someone else. This is important because four years later, in 1982, a biographical movie of Jack and his art seems to have been largely based upon the book—something on which it is interesting to comment.

An outline of the film, Chambers: Tracks and Gestures, was sent to me by either the producer, Christopher Lowry or the director, John Walker, perhaps while requesting permission to quote from the TV conversation featured above (their accompanying letter has been lost). The outline promises that “The film will capture the atmosphere and old world grandeur of Madrid and Castille, where he forged intense friendships, adopted a second family, fell in love with his future wife over a loaf of bread and a tomato, and came to know the timeless rhythms of shepherds, beasts, beggars and earth.....he studied, painted and lived life with an intensity and increasingly focussed potency which yielded extraordinary fruits, both there and later in the wholly “other” world of London Ontario.”

This is nicely put, but the movie does not live up to it. The narrator’s voice is clear but dull and the voices of individuals who knew the artist are not always well rehearsed, whilst a phoney “voice of the artist,” using Jack’s writings as found in the autobiography, often becomes a ridiculous caricature. Not only that, but Jack’s own voice, though scarcely heard in the film, is actually derogated by a “friend” of his youth, unkempt and swaying unsteadily in front of the camera, while telling us (and I quote) “...he spoke the foulest English I have ever known, with an Ontario accent and a nasal accent and, worse than that, was clipping his bloody words all the time – while, even more unbearable, he was laconic as well.” Some friend!  Nobody, I think, who has listened to the interview above will recognise such a voice. It is totally misleading and should never have been used.

London, Ontario, is cast as the place of ice, snow and pious humbug that, in part, it was in those days – a place from which Jack Chambers decided to flee first to Mexico and then to Europe where he landed in Naples from a freighter in late September 1953. At which point the movie creates an historical quagmire by taking as true something in the autobiography that Jack seems likely to have meant as a joke (unless it was inserted there by someone else).

The matter is best understood by beginning with the TV Interview above—where Jack is asked “When did you first realise you were going to be an artist?” and he replies, “I think in Mallorca,” and, with a sweep of his hand, adds, “I had come around from the Austrian friends.” His reference is that on the boat he had become friendly with an Austrian couple from Graz with whom he stayed over the Christmas period of 1953/4, leaving them at the beginning of January 1954 for Mallorca, in search of warmer weather.

If only it had been left at that in the “autobiography” written a quarter of a century later! But it was not. There, we read that, en route to Mallorca, he stepped down from the train in Cannes to get an audience with no less a person than Pablo Picasso who, he understood, lived in the pottery town of Vallauris, some four miles away.

The introduction of Picasso is highly problematic, for reasons to be discussed later, since at this point in the autobiography there is another problem: one that arises from a typographic error which, for the inattentive reader, confuses the events of late 1953 and early 1954—when the author, be it Jack or someone else, writes “Madrid in 1953 was still a leisurely and beautiful place.” This comes only a few pages after we have already been told that the author only heard about the Madrid Academy in January 1954 while living in Mallorca—a statement that is confirmed when he adds “It was near the end of March when I arrived in Madrid.” Attentive readers of the autobiography would surely notice that “1953” was a typo, correct it for themselves and pass on. Not so the AGO Catalogue of 2011. In its Chronology it prefers further confusion! It claims, with only the typo to support it, that Jack “arrived in Madrid in November 1953 and stayed until January 1954.” Not, it seems, noticing how this destroys both his story of the friends in Graz and his account of discovering news of the Madrid Academy in Mallorca in 1954, let alone the so-called visit to Picasso, which the autobiography and then the movie of 1982 place in Wonderland.

The book claims that, once in Vallauris (in January 1954), Jack actually found Picasso’s house, which, he says, had a high wall and a locked gate beside which, “in a smaller house,” he found a woman who told him Picasso was in Nice. With that information and the sighting of what he saw as a Great Dane (actually it was a Boxer, bought some years earlier as a puppy for Françoise Gilot, his current mistress, and their two children), he therefore retraced his steps to the town centre, took a room for the night and, returning next day, took sausage meat with him to placate the dog, climbed the wall and knocked on a side door that actually produced Picasso, whom he asked in schoolboy French for advice about becoming an artist—and was told to go to Barcelona!

That we hear nothing of this in the interview of 1970 may be understandable on the grounds that with just a half hour to talk and a need to keep things brief, he simply says, with the gesture already referred to, “I came around from Austria to Mallorca.” But was this for brevity, or was it the simple truth? I believe it to be the latter and I am convinced that the “Picasso” story was a fantasy, once told as a joke, which may not even have been approved of by Jack for inclusion into the autobiography. Dennis Reid, organiser of the 2011 exhibition of Chambers’ work at the Art gallery of Ontario, in his introductory essay calls the idea “astonishing” and the so-claimed conversation with Picasso “even more astonishing,” whilst a brief essay by the writer Christopher Dewdney, in the same catalogue, says of Jack that he had a marvellous sense of humour and his jokes were always followed by an appraising, conspiratorial glance. Something of the same was said of him by his close friend the artist Greg Curnoe.

Lured, however, by the mention of Picasso (and perhaps a chance to give the film a bit of pep) the cinéastes actually decided to take things further and to illustrate the episode with a two-second flash that showed a high wall of decaying brick, around a large stone house of three or four storeys with a flat, balustraded roof—implying that it was this wall that Jack had climbed and this house that Jack had visited. And after that, as if to validate what they had just shown, they obtained footage of Picasso himself, somewhere at work, drawing something on a wall that curves over him—perhaps old footage of the interior of the vault of a de-sanctified chapel given him years earlier by the people of Vallauris, where in late 1953 he had either installed on its walls, or was about to install, his two vast panels “WAR” and “PEACE.”

Now, in January 1954 Picasso certainly lived in Vallauris, though to visit his house on foot, from the centre of the town, would have required a lot of time and the energy to plod up the often snow-covered, terraced foothills of the Alpes Maritimes or the steeper pedestrian lanes that crossed them at right angles. And the seeker would have been lucky to find the house at first shot, hidden as it was among others just like it—for Picasso did not live in anything like the house the movie shows or that the biography describes!

Picasso was enormously wealthy and could have afforded anything but probably because he had become a communist (rather late, as members of the Resistance saw it, just after the Second World War) he likely did not want to display his wealth when, in 1946, he was able to leave Paris for the Côte d’Azure. He therefore set out with Françoise Gilot, looking for a very modest villa and found one called “La Galloise.” It was a very ordinary, forty-year-old stuccoed house that they chose for its seclusion among hundreds of similar houses in a maze of pathways that looked down on Vallauris—a house that had no more than three or four bedrooms, as proved by photographs that show its gable ends, and a house that was protected from intruders, not by a wall but by an un-scalable wire fence which was vocally disliked by several of his neighbours whom Picasso failed to impress!

Oddly, and not a little ironically, the confusion in the mind of the movie-makers could have been derived from the fact that, a year or so after Jack’s arrival, at the beginning of 1955, Picasso, by then less concerned about revealing his wealth, actually did buy a large house (though in Cannes, not in Vallauris)—a house which had once been the home of the Moët family of Champagne fame, known as “La Californie.”  However, even “La Californie” does not look like the house shown in the movie. Built not in common stone but in white marble, its facade is far more decorative. Neither was it surrounded by a wall any more than was “La Galloise,” but by a black iron fence with a lodge for a guard at its gate. (It can be seen today as yet another Picasso Museum.)

It is not without interest here, to add that while Jack Chambers was crossing the Atlantic something terrifying was happening to Picasso: he was losing his sadistic power over Françoise Gilot whom he had begun to torment and reject with visions of other women. Françoise, herself a painter, had lived with him for seven years in the work-a-day stucco house, with their two children, but on September 30th 1953 (about the time Jack was landing in Naples) she became the only one of his various women with the strength to leave him and take the children with her.  It was this loss that a year later drove Picasso to buy “La Californie” as soon as he was sure that Jaqueline Roque would take her place. Dora Maar, his woman just before Françoise, once said that, when the women changed, everything changed—even the dog! Meantime, during the winter months after the departure of Françoise and before his capture of Jacqueline Roque, Picasso, still in Vallauris, made some180 drawings of himself as a decrepit old man—drawings which his friend and biographer Roland Penrose saw when he arrived there in February 1954 (a month after Jack’s supposed climbing a wall) to see the newly installed panels, War and Peace, mentioned above. It was during that visit that Penrose, just beginning his role as Picasso’s biographer, recorded the impression made by “La Galloise” in winter:

“... snow was just clearing from the terraced vineyards, leaving puddles of icy water ... as the ice-cold morning mist dragged itself out of the pine-covered valleys ... as usual, the iron gate was locked and the wire fencing looked discouraging enough to send the unknowing visitor back on his tracks...”

Subsequent to this visit by Penrose, Picasso travelled to Paris (partly to forbid his dealers to show paintings by Françoise!) and later moved to Perpignon, on the Spanish border, to stay with the Comte and Comtesse de Lazerme after receiving custody of the children for the summer. The Lazermes had long been admirers of Picasso and in their mansion of 30 bedrooms they had provided everything he needed for his work, even accommodating the women now contesting for a place in his bed.

It may be said that Picasso was known to respond briefly to young artists who approached him in the street (mostly in Paris where his residence in the Rue des Grands Augustines was not far from the École des Beaux Arts) but, if he ever told them to “come back in the afternoon to talk” as, according to the autobiography, he told Jack, anyone who had studied his love of cruel jokes would know he would never appear. As for “climbing over walls” to see him, Jack was not exactly alone. There was a myth about this going the rounds in the 1950s. For instance, the English art critic Kenneth Coutts-Smith made a similar claim to have climbed a wall to see Picasso, during a public lecture at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design circa 1980 (a fact recently corroborated by my friend Clifford Eyland who heard the lecture as I did). Nor were Jack and Coutts-Smith alone in claiming to have known (surely by telepathy!) in which of Picasso’s various homes or studios he could be found, and how to find them, and at what time of day and, indeed, whether he was in Paris or on the Côte d’Azure. In fact, although an attempt to button-hole him at “La Galloise” was obviously futile, one had only to lounge around the centre of Vallauris until he came down from the villa with his chauffer to work in the old perfume factory where his various studios were to be found (no climbing of walls necessary), though even then one would  have had to suppose that he was not at a bullfight in Nimes or Arles (where he was honoured as president), or on the beach with his children, or entertaining his many distinguished friends and their spouses, including some of the great names of Hollywood, or dining with the few dealers and collectors he welcomed, or with his biographer Roland Penrose and dozens of others (one biographer even speaks of his “court”). And concerning “walls” it must be asked how such intruders thought they might converse with anyone, even were he there, without getting arrested or mauled by at least one dog, whatever its breed. Furthermore, Picasso grew increasingly reclusive. He had lived only four years in La Californie before he bought the huge Château de Vauvenargues, a remote property hidden in 2,000 acres of forest within sight of the famous Mont Sainte Victoire and into which he was to move most of his works and his own art collection -- this time protected by a Dalmatian—and Jacqueline Roque who became his second wife.

So this part of the movie makes a sad tale. No sadder perhaps than the essays and books which have repeated the Picasso episode without the fact-checking, or without at least the caveat, that scholarly integrity demands. Even if there were particles of truth in the story, I would have to suspend my belief every time I think of Jack and Olga, for such a fantasy is as far from what I knew of them as human judgement will allow. As for the rest of the movie, it has recently been reissued and its second half does give a wide-ranging view of the artist’s work. It could even be that 35 years later someone has edited out the whole of the matter just discussed. I hope so.     

Throughout the movie, images of Olga appear, but never Olga herself—and having known her I can easily believe that she would have been aghast at the thought. Indeed, I wonder if she ever saw the film.


Sources Consulted:

Roland Penrose: Picasso, His Life and Work, London 1958
Françoise Gilot: Life with Picasso, New York, 1964
“Jack Chambers”: (untitled autobiography, privately printed and distributed) circa.1978.
Arianna Huffington: Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, New York, 1988
Elizabeth Cowling: The Notebooks and Letters of Roland Penrose, London, 2008.

Post Script

Readers who may wish to learn something of the profundity of Jack Chambers and his works might like to find Jack Chambers: The last Decade, with an essay by José L. Barrio-Garay, 1980.