Trained in Spain and naturally a traditionalist, Jack Chambers is an acknowledged master of what he termed “perceptual realism” and one of the most critically and financially successful artists of his generation. In addition, his experimental films are regarded as among the most important films of their genre.
Jack Chambers, painter, filmmaker (born 25 March 1931 in London, ON; died there 13 April 1978). Recipient of major retrospective exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Vancouver Art Gallery during his relatively short lifetime, Jack Chambers is an acknowledged master of what he termed “perceptual realism” and one of the most critically and financially successful artists of his generation.
Education and Early Career
After studying at the Sir Adam Beck Collegiate Institute in London, Ontario, where he was a student of Selwyn Dewdney (father of the renowned Canadian poet Christopher Dewdney, a lifelong friend of Chambers), and then at the H.B. Beal Technical School, Chambers studied literature at the University of Western Ontario and then moved to Europe in 1953. While in France, he visited Picasso (since the gate of Picasso’s estate was locked, he climbed the fence), and Picasso advised him to study in Barcelona. Chambers ended up studying at the Escuela Central de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid beginning in the fall of 1954. After graduating in 1959, he remained in Spain and developed a close friendship with the realist painter Antonio Lopez Garcia. Chambers had his first exhibition at the Lorca Gallery in Madrid in 1961. As a result of his mother’s poor health, he returned to Canada in in 1961. Chambers’s paintings through the 1960s contained dreamlike images, combining his immediate personal experience and memory, evoking the moody and emotionally dramatic style of the masters of the Spanish Baroque.
Illness and Mature Work
In 1969, the year he was diagnosed with leukemia, Chambers published an essay entitled "Perceptual Realism," developed on a range of philosophical and theological sources, which developed out of years of reading the French existential phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. From this date a striking change took place in his work. The visionary character of his paintings through the 1960s gave way to a clear and precise representation of reality. Throughout Chambers's artistic life, his work was developed around subjects of great importance to him: his family, his home, the city of London and the surrounding landscape. He expressed a notion of regionalism not based on a nostalgic and sentimental restrictiveness but on a celebration of the reality of living and working in a particular place. It was during this phase of his career that Chambers created some of his most important paintings, including the iconic 401 Towards London No. 1 (1968–1969), Sunday Morning No. 2 (1968–1970), and Victoria Hospital (1969–70).
Chambers also worked as a filmmaker, producing five films between 1964 and 1970. While Chambers downplayed his role as a filmmaker during his lifetime, his longest film, The Hart of London (1968–1970), an extended meditation on the conflict between nature and the city of London and including footage shot years earlier in Spain, has developed a significant posthumous reputation. Legendary American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage called The Hart of London one of the greatest films ever made.
In 1967, following a dispute with the National Gallery of Canada over reproduction rights, along with fellow London artists Tony Urquhart, Kim Ondaatje, Greg Curnoe, and Ron Martin, Chambers founded Canadian Artists Representation (CAR) to try to establish fee scales for reproduction rights and rental fees for works in public exhibitions. Under his presidency (1967–75) CAR became a national organization with local bodies across the country.
Jack Chambers' artworks are represented in many Canadian public collections, including those of the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal and the Vancouver Art Gallery. In 1970, the exhibition Jack Chambers Retrospective was mounted by the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Vancouver Art Gallery. In 2011, Jack Chambers: the Light from the darkness, silver paintings and film work was presented by Museum London and traveled to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. In 2012, a survey of his work, Jack Chambers: Light, Spirit, Time, Place and Life was mounted at the Art Gallery of Ontario.