Art for the People

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To the Spring of Bandusia Art for the People
written by José Pijoán
A Royal Nursery
From The Canadian Forum, August 1921, p.336



Now that the Devonshires are bidding farewell, we are threatened with a new issue of Canadian bills by the Dominion Government. It has been customary in Canada — and it is a good custom too — to honour the retiring Governor-General by printing an issue of new bills in denominations of one and two dollars commemorating his sojourn in this country. The last Government bills which were issued bearing pictures of the members of the Connaught family were pretty bad, and it is desirable to prevent a recurrence of the same blunder.

The bill for one dollar with the Princess Patricia medallion has some calligraphy, believe me, in the lettering of the word "one"! The poor Princess looks rather weary, too. On the back we have a view of the Houses of Parliament at Ottawa, which is about as bad as it could be. The Connaught bill for two dollars is an atrocity. The crime was perpetrated by the American Bank Note Co., Ottawa, who are, no doubt, very proud of it because the name of the company appears on both sides of the bill. The noble Duke and his wife are drowned in a profusion of scrolls and ornamentation of a taste worthy of a school teacher of fifty years ago, and the words "Dominion of Canada" in Gothic are simply an insult to the eye and to the mind when used in connection with this country, which had no Middle Ages. The back of the bill is worse, if that is possible.

The Government should set an example and show the banks that we in Canada are no longer at the stage of being satisfied with a dirty-looking piece of paper as a dollar bill. The banks themselves should be told not to abuse the public by keeping in circulation notes bearing pictures which were the taste of this country when the banks obtained their charters. The bills of the Bank of Toronto are the most hideous of all. This bank had money and initiative to build themselves a fine modern building in Toronto — not a common sky-scraper — but when [p.337] they are asked to do something for the public they simply continue to reprint five and ten dollar bills of the time when Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort were young. This horrid looking thing is a discredit to the whole of Canada. One can imagine what an impression it must make abroad to see in the corner of that colonial bill a picture of a train, the engine of which has one of those clumsy funnels in vogue in the first days of the railway.

The bills of the Sterling Bank are the next worst offenders. The others are all commonplace except those banks that are persistently depicting the faces of some of their Directors. Very often the banking staff themselves do not remember the names of those fellows whom the Canadian people are compelled to gaze upon again and again, day after day. On the fifty dollar bills of the Imperial Bank there is an old man with a wig who, I am sure, is under the sod long ago, but nobody but the initiated knows for sure the name and the deeds of that Canadian hero. The Molson's Bank has also two nice gentlemen of the eighties on its bills; one with side-whiskers, who appears to be quite a nice old chap, and, no doubt, deserves the honour of being immortalized by having thousands and thousands of his pictures spread throughout the country. The Merchants Bank bills depict a well-dressed gentleman on one side and on the other a tiny picture of an obsolete Indian on horseback. The bills of the Royal Bank show two ancient directors, and are also an abomination. In the centre is the Coat of Arms of Canada with a microscopic Crown, altogether out of proportion.

The banks here have the privilege of circulating paper, and they should be required by the Government to do something for the public in the sense of art and good taste. They should at least give evidence on their bills that wealth is not adverse to good taste. But, of course, the whole system should be changed. The bills that pass from hand to hand of the Canadian people should be approved by some Board of Canadian artists, and then a lot of undesirable things would disappear. For instance, that American style of ornamentation, which, unfortunately, was taken to Europe from America for a short time, and which I will describe as the "calligraphic style," is a thing of the past. Those engravings of circles and spirals intermingled are of the time when our grandfathers tried to make a portrait of Queen Victoria without lifting the pen from the paper or a drawing of St. John and the little lamb with circles and spirals. It has been said that these complicated engravings make forgeries difficult, but that excuse does not count in these days. Of course, time appears not to bring any change to the American Bank Note Company of Ottawa.

The best of it is that the United States bills are, after all, not so bad; at least, they have a certain meaning in giving the history of the country with the portraits of the late Presidents. The dollar bill with the face of Washington is passable, and they took as much advantage as they could of their eagle. There are little touches of history also, such as that view of the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers. All this gives an impression of the self-respect of the country; when a foreigner sees one of those bills he realizes that there is something behind it. On the other hand, when our Canadian bills had a depreciation of 17% in the United States, the Americans made all kinds of jokes about them, saying that they did not even like the look of them, and there is no doubt about it that the Canadian bills were making a very bad show at that time with all their miserable scrolls and the portraits in pairs of those "paying-blokes" as the flower of the nobility of the country.

An attempt at better things was made with the bills of the Canadian Bank of Commerce issued in commemoration of Sir Edmund Walker's services. These are clean, nice-looking bills without any scrolls and calligraphic ornaments. The front of the bill is almost perfect, but on the back there are two allegorical figures holding tightly to a small medallion, otherwise, they would most certainly fall. The other fault of these bills of the Canadian Bank of Commerce is that they do not look at all Canadian with their semi-nude figures and mytnological beings, altogether strange to this land of snows and lakes. We certainly have now in this country a consciousness of the beauty of the Canadian landscape and a few views of real Canada would give distinction to our bills. We would not advocate putting the "great sights" on the bills. We would leave Niagara Falls for advertising a Cereal Food Co., if they want it; the Saginaw to the Steamship Companies and the Rockies to the C.P.R. What should be represented on the back of the Canadian bills is one of the beautiful spots to be found on the Georgian Bay, an Island of Muskoka, or a log cabin in the North beside a half-frozen stream, and on the front some incident of Canadian history — not Mercury or any other allegoric Greek figure that looks ridiculous in this newly-born land.

We are sure that most people will consider it absurd to waste time in discussing if the paper bills are ugly or not; they will say that it does not alter the pleasure that can be obtained with them, and that is all they require of the bills.

But nevertheless all over the world the artists and the educated classes have been insisting for years and years on the great opportunity of teaching the people the pleasures of art through the common things of life. They claim it gradually influences the people to a higher appreciation of the beauties of the world, and prepares for a better mankind.

In Europe a great campaign was made in this direction a few years before the war. England did [p.338] not need to change her money and coins to any extent. The English sovereign has always been reputed to be one of the most beautiful coins in the world and the Bank of England notes simply honour the institution that is backing them, but the French had to change the bills of the Bank of France, which were too ugly, and the French coins representing the Republic seeding the ground or the French cock were the result of long studies and careful selections. The old Russian and Austrian Governments were very proud of possessing the most beautiful bills in the world, and the action of the Governments was not limited to the money, but extended to all the things into which art could be introduced, such as postage stamps, Government bonds, posters, advertisements, etc.

The cloth of the uniforms of the French soldiers, when the war showed the necessity of turning it into khaki or something similar, was made of a kind of blue which was the result of much study. The same applies to the colour of the postage stamps. The International Conventions compelled the countries all over the world to use the same colours on stamps of the same value, but different shades were obtainable that made the stamps distinctive and attractive. The colour of the French postage stamps, although retaining red, blue, etc., were made of the most beautiful tones of those colours, about which great artists were consulted.

Each of these Government products should be strictly controlled and criticized by experts. Millions of people are condemned to see the same figures or drawings continually, and it is a crime to allow ugliness to remain without protest. A change must be made in Canada, but in the right way. We remember for instance, that blunder with the Canadian stamps commemorating the 50 years of the birth of the Confederation. In a space no larger than half an inch square were represented 34 persons amongst other things. The subject, of course, was appropriate to the commemoration, but not for a little postage stamp.

The importance of art cannot be exaggerated, and the Governments realized it when they were making propaganda for the war. Then posters of all kinds were ordered from the best artists of every country. In Russia to-day the Bolsheviks, we are told, are using artistic posters to teach all kinds of things, and amongst them, of course, political ideas, but the Governments of the countries where there is no danger in view do not seem to consider art in the things of every-day life so important. Anyhow, everything has a limit and the ugliness of the Canadian Bank bills surpass toleration — they certainly are not a good advertisement for this country.

J. Pijoan.


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