Published November 29, 2017
In the image above, St. Nicholas has a sword in one hand and a shield in another. It’s Santa Claus as a warrior.
He’s precariously balancing on his left foot. Is he about to fall over? Or go on the attack? It’s difficult to tell.
His opponent, by comparison, looks smaller but solid. His feet firmly are planted on some kind of rocky surface. He has a sword, much smaller than Santa’s, and a shield, also smaller. Wearing leggings and what looks like buckskins, he resembles one of the first European settlers who lived close to the land and relied on indigenous people to survive. He’s St. Michael.
The acrylic on canvas painting is called Clash of the Titans: St. Michael vs. St. Nicholas by David Mayrs.
At 1.39 m (55 inches) by 1.62 m (64 inches) it’s a big painting. It’s a strong, bold work that anchors a remarkable exhibition at the West Vancouver Museum. It’s in We All Drew, Always, which, in addition to the work of David Mayrs, includes work by his three brothers Bill, Frank, and Charles. Born in Winnipeg, they grew up in Vancouver after their family moved west to Kerrisdale in 1947.
All four brothers went to the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University of Art + Design) in the 1950s and 1960s when being an artist had none of the cachet that it does today. In fact, the oldest brother Bill had to fight with his mother who wanted her boys to go to university. After attending first-year university, Bill persevered and went to art school which cleared the way for his three younger brothers to do the same.
They achieved such success that in 1960 all four showed their work in a group exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery with artists such as Michael Morris, Toni Onley and Ronald Stonier.
The exhibition focuses on an often overlooked part of the art history of Vancouver: the period between, roughly, the death of Emily Carr in 1945 and consolidation of conceptual art practices in the art world in the 1980s. The post-war period was a time when modernism came to Vancouver and painting was the dominant medium.
I had known about David Mayrs because I’d written about a notorious case involving one of his paintings several years ago (see below). But I didn’t know much else about him. I didn’t know that he continued painting even when painting was no longer valued in the local art world like it once was.
Mayrs painted Clash of the Titans in 1993. If St. Nicholas represents Santa Claus, you could read the work as a metaphor for how how far the saint will go to defend Christmas. But even if St. Nicholas will resort to violence to perpetuate a tradition that’s become central to capitalism, he’s a bit unstable on his feet. He could topple over at any time.
The exhibition includes an excellent and comprehensive catalogue. The main part is written by curator Kiriko Watanabe, the assistant curator at the museum. Based on interviews with the brothers and extensive historical research, her text tells the story of what happened in one unique family of four young artists when modernism came to B.C.
The catalogue has a engaging section about the family written by Charles Mayrs.
“No one can quite understand, how or why, four brothers from a historically non-artistic Irish family, all became artists,” Mayrs writes.
“All attended four years at the Vancouver School of Art, all graduated with honours, all received awards and scholarships at various times during art school, and all acquired success in their chosen fields of art during their lives.”
Mayrs singles out one key element to explain how four brothers became artists. Their father William, who ran a grocery and butcher store, regularly brought extra wrapping paper home. To keep the four boys under control, Dad sent them to their bedrooms to draw on the paper.
“And draw we did,” Mayrs writes. “We drew and drew and drew.”
Their mother Marjorie grew proud of their talent and enrolled the eldest three in Saturday morning art classes at the Winnipeg Museum.
“Relentlessly, we drew, using any and all kinds of materials, pencils, pens, chalk, scissors, paint and especially pastels. Give us blank paper and we brothers created art, which our mother proudly pinned to our bedroom walls.”
In her text, Watanabe puts together the pieces about how the four brothers fit into the world of modern art in Vancouver after the Second World War.
In addition to painting, Bill, the eldest, became art editor of Prism, an influential journal of contemporary writing in Vancouver. When it started in 1959, it was the only literary magazine west of Toronto.
Frank became chief designer for the Canadian pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair where he had his first solo exhibition. He died in 1994.
Charles won his first colouring contest when he was 10 years old. A graphic designer, poet and cartoonist, he worked in advertising and later published limited edition letterpress books.
In 1964, David succeeded his brother Bill as art editor of Prism. By then it then become affiliated with Creative Writing at the University of B.C. and was known as Prism International.
David achieved the greatest notoriety of the four brothers in 1967 when one of his paintings was, in effect, put on trial for obscenity.
In an exhibition of David’s works at Douglas Gallery, Vancouver Police seized St. George Ten Minutes After Slaying the Dragon. It showed a figure above a naked woman in a position that could be interpreted as depicting sexual intercourse. Gallerist Douglas Christmas was charged with exposing the public to obscenity. The judge dismissed the charge. (On the advice of a lawyer, another painting called Jesus Masturbating – which showed the back of a naked male facing the viewer – was retitled.)
“The case was a milestone in the history of visual arts in Vancouver,” Watanabe writes.
(As part of a series on Vancouver’s art history, I wrote about the David Mayrs case five years ago.)
Although St. George Ten Minutes After Slaying the Dragon, arguably one of the most notorious paintings ever made in B.C. history, is not in the West Vancouver Museum, the exhibition includes Old Maid at the Age of 26 from the same period. Like David’s later work such as Clash of the Titans, it’s a figurative painting with a flat, modernist space. Figures don’t stand out as isolated objects against their background; they’re painted so they’re integrated into the overall surface of the work. David’s paintings, judging from what’s in the exhibition, stand out as the most accomplished of the four brother’s works.
Watanabe says that a common thread runs through the story of the four brothers.
“Critical reaction from the art world and the public towards some of their works may have occasionally discouraged them, but they have continued to rigorously interpret and reinterpret their work . . . . ,” she writes in the catalogue.
“Their practice over the past fifty years has enriched local, national, and international art scenes, forming a vital part of Vancouver’s cultural history.”
We All Drew, Always is
at the West Vancouver Museum to Saturday, Dec. 16.
Editor's Note: David Mayrs taught at Emily Carr from 1964 until his retirement in 1996.