From Debate to Delight: Canadians’ Perception of Voice of Fire by Barnett Newman
Cheyanne Welch and Dr. Austin Mardon
The painting Voice of Fire by Barnett Newman has sparked controversy over the last few decades.1 It was originally created in 1967 for the Montreal Expo to showcase the abstract expressionist movement that had been gaining support in American cities like New York. After years of renting it, it was finally bought in 1989 by the federally funded National Gallery of Canada (NGC) for $1.8 million. As one might expect of such a minimalist piece, significant public backlash ensued.2
The purchase of the piece was finalized during a period of economic struggles, with Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government implementing an extremely unpopular 7% government sales tax (GST).3 When the media became aware of the NGC’s purchase of an expensive, abstract, American painting, it quickly became a national argument. Many people criticized the painting for being too simplistic and not truly ‘art’; some individuals claimed the piece was worthless since they could paint it themselves. In 1990, Progressive Conservative MP Felix Holtmann noted on a talk radio show that “It looks like two cans of paint and two rollers and about 10 minutes would do the trick”.4 Although using two simple colours, arranged in their most primal state without form highlights the basic nature of art, it gives the sense that the artist is unskilled and didn’t put any effort into the work. This angered the public as they had come to see art through the eyes of traditional artists and abstract art had not yet gained mainstream popularity. Ideals of art such as Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, portraying the profession as one of passion and skill in representing a concrete image, were still popular. Others were furious that the government was funding purchase of art in general while the national budget was in shambles. Some argued that if the NGC wished to do an exhibit on ‘pointless’ abstract art, the budget should have been used to fund Canadian artists, rather than spending nearly two-thirds of their yearly acquisition budget on an American work.5
The NGC responded to this massive public backlash relatively poorly by repetitively declaring that the painting had intrinsic value and that it was unique. Additionally, many passionate abstract art lovers jumped to defend the purchase, saying the media blew it out of proportion – which they likely did to cover headlines. Many expressed how the dark colour contrast of the background blue with the bright red centre created a surge of emotions that was unique to the painting. It was compared to Jackson Pollock’s ability to present the primal state of art, and that itself was beautiful. As Roger Fry argued in defense of the post-Impressionist artists such as Cézanne, abstract art is merely different, not inferior or superior to traditional art styles.6 Other supporters suggested that the gallery already had a huge collection of paintings done by Canadian artists, and that the NGC wanted to add diversity with an American piece. To even have a hope of contending with galleries such as The Museum of Modern Art in New York or the Louvre in Paris, Canada must add diverse international abstract works.2
In 1989, the NGC’s budget was doubled from $1.5 million to $3 million but even with the new budget, they could not compete for classical Picasso or Pontormo paintings. The gallery purchased art on a three-year cycle, so to complete their five-piece collection of Newman’s works they saved $4.5 million for purchasing Voice of Fire.5 Much to the public’s dismay, this was the centerpiece of the abstract art exhibit. Newman was part of the abstract expressionism movement, which revolted against traditional styles. Abstract art lovers argued that the purpose of abstract art in general was to open your sensory experience to interpretation – and that was what made it amazing. They emphasized that art is ultimately subjective, not simply representing something existing on a canvas.
Due to the political events in the early 1990s, the intrinsic value and function of art was generally overlooked by most people in favour of stabilizing the economy. The fact that the gallery purchased something that many considered worthless with public money created conflict. Similar modern cases include the controversial Talus Dome metal ball sculpture in Edmonton, Alberta or the Travelling Light ring sculpture in Calgary, Alberta. It’s also possible many Canadians dislike Voice of Fire because it’s associated with one of the least enjoyed art movements in history: the New York school of abstract expressionism. The movement is considered one of the haughtiest, most elite art movements in world history.2 Likely, it was a poor decision by the National Gallery of Canada to use this item as a showcase for modern art, especially in 1989.
Recently, public sentiment towards Voice of Fire appears to have evolved to one of respect; former NGC director Shirley Thomson was commemorated in 2021 for her work with the gallery and the purchase of the piece.7 It is noted that Voice of Fire is arguably the NGC’s most popular piece of art7 and could be valued higher than $84 million USD.8 The painting has increased in price over thirty-fold, and would be quickly snapped up if placed on the market.9
Ultimately, Voice of Fire is a piece of art that truly represents the clique “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. The piece was brought to the forefront of Canadian art history due to its sheer simplicity and controversial purchase in a time of economic struggle; however, its value extends beyond its magnificent size and vibrant colours. It has intrinsic value as a historic piece of abstract expressionist art that now represents a momentous shift in the art world. Voice of Fire also signifies one of the NGC’s first moves towards an international art collection that would put Canada on the map for art connoisseurs. Due to this impact, Voice of Fire is now regarded as the gallery’s most popular piece and will be enjoyed by viewers for the foreseeable future, while continuing to spark discussion on what ‘art’ truly is.
1. Richard Henschel (AUART 100, Augustana Campus), interview by author. Edmonton, AB, March 28, 2022.
2. Bruce Barber, Serge Guilbaut and John O'Brian, Voices of Fire: Art, Rage, Power, and the State (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996).
3. David M. Sherman, Policy Forum: Tax-Included Pricing for HST - Are We There Yet? (Toronto: Canadian Tax Journal, 2009, Vol 57, No. 4), 840.
4. Sarah Swan, “Abstract art: which camp are you in?,” Winnipeg Free Press, June 29, 2015, accessed April 2, 2022, https://www.winnipegfreepress.com/arts-and-life/entertainment/arts/abstract-art-which-camp-are-you-in-310590051.html.
5. “When Voice of Fire drew flames of criticism from (some) Canadians,” Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), March 21, 2019 (last updated March 20, 2020), accessed April 1, 2022, https://www.cbc.ca/archives/when-voice-of-fire-drew-flames-of-criticism-from-some-canadians-1.5043572.
6. Roger Fry. “The French Post-Impressionists.” In Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology, edited by Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison, 84-88. New York: Routledge, 1982.
7. Lynn Saxberg, “Former National Gallery of Canada director Shirley Thomson to be commemorated,” Ottawa Citizen, May 22, 2021, accessed April 2, 2022, https://ottawacitizen.com/entertainment/former-national-gallery-of-canada-director-shirley-thomson-to-be-commemorated.
8. Randy Boswell, “Pricing 10 of the priceless: Here are some of the National Gallery of Canada's most expensive artworks (we think),” Ottawa Citizen, November 3, 2018, accessed April 2, 2022, https://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/pricing-10-of-the-priceless-here-are-some-of-the-national-gallery-of-canadas-most-expensive-artworks-we-think.
9. Peter Simpson, “Newman’s revenge: The value of Voice of Fire is scorching hot,” Ottawa Citizen, July 31, 2014, accessed April 2, 2022, https://ottawacitizen.com/entertainment/local-arts/newmans-revenge-the-value-of-voice-of-fire-is-scorching-hot.