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Christopher Pratt: Six Decades

by Tom Smart

Christopher Pratt is widely acknowledged as an important Canadian painter, but he has long been viewed in the shadow of his better-known East Coast compatriot, Alex Colville. This gorgeously designed book seeks to redress the imbalance with a thoughtful journey examining almost the entirety of Pratt’s artistic practice.

Author Tom Smart, the former executive director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, traces an elegant arc from Pratt’s impressive early watercolours through his years as a student at Mount Allison University and the Glasgow School of Art, his admiration for American painter Edward Hopper, and the later refinement of his minimalist, “magic realist” technique. Smart’s clear, simple prose weaves between Pratt’s images, helpfully referring to specific paintings to illustrate his points. 

Pratt has maintained a studio in the rural Newfoundland village of St. Catherines for most of his life. His style developed slowly and rarely wavered from his keen interest in Atlantic Canadian history and images: the simple clapboard houses so typical of Newfoundland, yachts out of water, winding roads, windows, seascapes.

Pratt’s distinctive themes are loss and longing, and most of his paintings and prints depict emptiness. We learn of his love of light, exemplified by several paintings of the same scene in radically different illumination. His more recent works have increased in complexity and implication – windows are more often open and figures appear.

Perhaps out of respect for his subject, Smart never delves into the reasons behind Pratt’s choice of subject matter or his wonderfully precise, austere style. While we learn of Colville’s experience as a Canadian soldier freeing prisoners from German concentration camps, we gain little understanding of the meaning or intention behind Pratt’s work. Two intriguing self-portraits are included, but Smart does not mention them in his text.

Nonetheless, this book brings together the vast scope of Pratt’s output, much of which had never been published, making it an important resource for one of our country’s greatest (and thus far underappreciated) painters.