Combining etching, aquatint and sometimes drypoint, David Blackwood’s etchings of Newfoundland life in the early 20th century are dreamlike memories of a half-forgotten place. A place where sailboats are dwarfed by towering walls of flaming ice, where shadowy figures stumble through the icy mist and veiled mummies gather around the body of a friend. Annie Proulx called it Atlantis, a world lost under the waves.
It’s hard to talk about these romantic images without, like Proulx, emphasizing the mythical. Blackwood, who died July 2 in Port Hope, Ont. at the age of 80, has often been turned into something of a legend too.
An artistic prodigy who grew up in the remote outpost of Wesleyville, Newfoundland, he sold his first piece to the National Gallery aged 23 after moving to Toronto to study on a scholarship at Ontario College. of Art. The 1976 National Film Board documentary black wood opens by comparing him to Rembrandt. But the dark-haired man the camera follows as he shoots ink at a copper plate doesn’t seem mythical at all. He’s as ordinary as the people he carved into metal.
Drawn from the stories he heard growing up in Newfoundland and his childhood memories, Blackwood’s work was as much about the everyday as it was about the fantastic.
It was just that, in a small port town, the ordinary included whales and icebergs and death in the snow. “It can be seen as romantic, it can be seen as nostalgic,” says Mireille Eagan, contemporary art curator at The Rooms in St. John’s. “But for many who grew up here, it rings true.”
It was, according to longtime gallerist and close friend of Blackwood, Emma Butler, a truth that made her work difficult for older generations of Newfoundlanders to watch. “Many people were hesitant to hang the Blackwood pictures in their homes, as it reminded them of hard times, disasters and the loss of people on ice or ocean.” Tragedy seemed too close.
The experiences that Blackwood’s images depict are the kind of memories that come back to you when you sleep or hold back, afterwards, lest if you tell people you won’t be believed. At Blackwood Brian and Martin Winsor (1979) an empty dory is stuck in the ice. Where are Brian and Martin? They are only there in their absence. In The Great Peace by Brian and Martin Winsor (1982) we finally see them sleeping next to their guns at the bottom of the ocean under the tail of a great whale.
If we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the objects in Blackwood’s work as shorthand for a picturesque version of Newfoundland, it’s because that’s what they’ve become – icebergs and dories and ribs. rocky in tourist advertisements for the island, oversaturated and glorious. The happiest sublime you can imagine. But in his commitment to the past, Blackwood clung to the grief and terror that made these symbols more complicated for people who saw their meanings changed.
This, Eagan says, was how he managed to make art that was so fundamentally on a place. “The experience of being around something like a whale or an iceberg, the feelings of loss that many feel when looking at the changing cultural landscape of Newfoundland and Labrador in terms of resettlement, in terms of moratorium about cod, those deep stories that are embedded in how this province sees itself. He captured the complexity of these feelings. In doing so, he turned the survival of ordinary people living ordinary lives into an epic tale. “He made us see each other,” Butler says. “The gift he gives us is the body of work he left behind, the visual history of who we are.”
This gift was a way to fight change and find a way forward that kept the memory close. Change continues, in Newfoundland and elsewhere. The municipality of Gaultois, its aging and shrinking population, has just voted for resettlement. The icebergs and whales that Blackwood presented as constants superior to any human endeavour, have proven so fragile, so vulnerable to the human world. It rushes towards us, and it can make us crave stories that we know the ending to.
That feeling, Blackwood knew, could be as overwhelming as an iceberg when you’re far out at sea. the present, icebergs being only small shapes on the horizon. He was, Butler says simply, “a really nice man, so supportive of young artists, and he loved teaching, of course, and he was always helping other young people come up.”
“We are collectively in mourning here,” Eagan told me. “And it’s a beautiful thing to witness that.”