by Ron Clancy
While BC-born painter Joseph Plaskett left Canada in the 1950s to live in Paris, his connections with his native country remained strong, as demonstrated by his well-written, richly illustrated autobiography, A Speaking Likeness (Ronsdale Press, 308 pages, $37.95, ISBN: 0921870671).
The book reads like a who’s who of Canadian art and literature. The foreword was written by George Woodcock; it was one of the last pieces he wrote before his death. Other notables that pop up regularly include close friend Mavis Gallant and mentors such as A.Y. Jackson and Lawren Harris. Plaskett’s narrative skilfully weaves these names into the whole of his life story, without ever resorting to name dropping.
The book is divided into two main parts, the first devoted to his life, the second to his works. There is, however, much crossover between the two.
The first part takes us briefly through his early years as the son of an Anglican vicar: winning the first Emily Carr scholarship, studying in San Francisco and New York, teaching in Banff and Winnipeg. The real story starts when Plaskett takes his first trip to Europe in 1949 and discovers Paris.
His first rented apartment on Boulevard St. Germain and his present home at 2 rue Pecquay are the focus of both his book and his art. It is through these Parisian spaces that we are introduced to the characters in Plaskett’s life and the inspiration for many of his works. The entire second half of the book is devoted to an analysis of the themes in his work, such as “Mirrors and Shadows” and “Meaning”, the latter of which is illustrated with two pastel drawings of his father as he lay dying. (Eighty such drawings were made during his father’s last days.)
Aside from the text, which is well written, the book is illustrated with over ninety black and white photographs. These are complemented by twenty-four full-colour, full-page reproductions of his paintings dating from 1946 up to 1998. Most striking are a number of self-portraits showing the artist at various stages of his life.
While very much an expatriate, Plaskett remains an important Canadian artist whose works are found in many private and public collections across the country. His connection with the literary and artistic communities in Canada makes this book a significant addition to the record of Canadian art and artists.