John Der (1926-1996)
John Der left us too soon, we hasten to add. An engaging man and an artist of great sensitivity. John Der often painted characters rather like himself. They are friendly giants with ham hock hands, all seemingly sketched live by a raconteur of sorts whose great talent we are only beginning to appreciate.
The artist is gone, but his work remains. John Der left us incredible number of paintings, of which many already belong to collectors attracted by his unique way of translating daily life to the canvas.
John Der created his own country fairs. He painted a kind of rural life that mixed youngsters, parishioner, animals, an habitants, in other words, a veritable fresco of types, customs and activities representative of the likeable yet gritty world that is Quebec. The bulk of his work is somewhat reminiscent of a certain Ruben’s masterpiece exhibited at the Louvre in which the notions of movement and liberty are fully exploited.
John Der had a quality rarely found in artist here- a sense of humour! In a genre that verges on debauchery, he remains smiling and friendly. His paintings deal with daily task, occupations and pastimes which are the fruit of his observations and knowledge of the rural way of life, which may be real but remains strange to the many urbanites among us.
Der’s art stands our from the conventional, mawkish art which many Quebec painters produce, e.g. dull landscapes, insignificant still life’s, pompous characters and, in the case of abstract art, anaemic schemas. Generally speaking, our artistic milieu is too stiff, too timid, too uniform. Our society suffers from a certain moroseness which makes the Juliens, La Palmes, Hudons, Chapleaus look revolutionary. They actually laugh, criticize and enjoy themselves!
At first glance, Der’s compositions show common, larger than life figures in compact, glutinous groups. His characters are embraced, attached, grabbed. They have real « mugs » rather than faces. Their hands are bloated; their feet, shod in clogs. These people bend their elbows, stuff their face, chew the fat… Their heads sport a shock of hair or a wig, as well as skull caps, berets, cloches, bonnets, helmets, caps and tuques. Their bodies are imposing and their gestures work with the force of gravity. Whatever the circumstances. Der’s characters appear in pastel tones that make the viewer forget the medium is oil on Masonite.
Der’s painting remind the viewer of sculptures. The influence of the sculpture likely comes from the artist’s studies with John Byers. However, Der remained a marvellous drawer for whom line structured each scene. His is a supple, sensitive, omnipresent line.
Born in Canora, Saskatchewan, John Der hung his hat on many a hook across North America and rubbed shoulders with many characters. After living for a while in Toronto, he enrolled in the merchant marine and sailed the Great Lakes and beyond. He got married in Montreal, where he worked in caricature and comics before studying at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. There John met Arthur Lismer, Marian Scott and Jacques de Tonnancour. Colourful, like La Palme and Hudon, Der was often invited to take part in television programs.
Der lived in Rosemere, north of Montreal, where he supported his family by working as a agent and broker. During a trip to Florida in 1982, he decided to devote himself full-time to painting.
The value of an artist is often judged according to the memories and names that he/she evokes. In this case, the artist lead us not to the impressionists or European landscape artist, but rather to Bruegel l’Aine, Bosch, Callot, Daumier, Rowlandson (British) Kokusai (Japanese) Benton and Cadmus (American) end even Picasso. If the analogy were continued, Rabelais’ name might crop up!
In other words, Ser was not the artist painting old houses, barns, fences, churches or ruin. His art has always been current and realist. John Der saw Quebec as it is : alive, tender, passionate and always true. He also managed to season his work with finesse and lucidity.
Magazin’Art Fall 1996