Urquhart, Jane: The Underpainter

Urquhart, Jane
The Underpainter
McClelland & Stewart, 1998

First published in Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Summer 1999

Review by: Kerry Riley

With the publication of The Underpainter and a subsequent Governor General’s award, it seems that Jane Urquhart has completed her ascent to the top of the Canadian literary heap. First published in 1997 and re-issued as a trade paperback in 1998, The Underpainter has received much critical praise as Ms. Urquhart’s most accomplished work to date.

This book strikes a strange, deeply keening note–there’s definitely a touch of fall, if not downright winter in the writing. The tale is narrated by Austin Fraser, an eighty-three-year-old painter, of some repute, as he reminisces about his life, his art, and the people who have been important to him–most notably Sara, a girl from the north shore of Lake Superior, whose life and love he has used to inspire his art, George, a sensitive artist trapped in a limited existence in small town Ontario, and Augusta, who lived a life of service.

The story spans the early parts of this century, extending into the thirties. Far from a nostalgic stroll down his memory’s lane, Austin recounts episodes with analytical, nearly emotionless detachment. From the style, one isn’t surprised to learn he’s a minimalist painter. He’s much concerned with the relationship of art to the real world, and to human emotion. Two of his life’s teachers, artists Rockwell Kent and Robert Henri, contribute a lively counterpoint on the subject. The story further explores just what sort of behaviour can be justified in the name of art. Was it permissible, for example, for Austin to use Sara’s love as a source of artistic inspiration, and nothing more, when this cost her so much? Was this his right as an artist–-to take what his art needed?

It’s taken Austin a long time to learn some of life’s more important lessons–-one being the cost of emotional distance. Approaching his own demise, he’s come to cherish mementos of people he has known (as evidence of at least potential intimacy) more than he ever managed, at the time, to cherish the individuals themselves.

Austin plans one last, great picture, a self-portrait, filled to brimming with all the elements of life he has excluded from previous works and from his own life, including “all the love I could not accept coming towards me….despite miles and miles of ice.” In this way, he hopes to make it real–to be able to experience it.

Not altogether likeable, Austin Fraser is, however, an indisputably powerful literary character–-it’s worth your while to make his acquaintance.

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