Backyards and Brownstones: The Art of John Kasyn and Albert Franck
While of different generations, painters Albert Franck (1899–1973) and John Kasyn (1926–2008) both found their way towards the same subject: the back streets and laneways of Toronto. Neither men were native to the city, with Franck originating from the Netherlands and emigrating to Canada in 1927, and Kasyn having been born in Poland, moving to Winnipeg with his family in 1938. Perhaps it was the newness of their experience in the city, or perhaps the newness of the city itself that captivated both painters and inspired similar scenes. Waddington’s is pleased to offer three paintings by Franck and five paintings by Kasyn in our upcoming Canadian Art Select auction, offered online from June 13 – 18.
Both men’s paintings are a paean to the soul of Toronto, an ode to a scrappy aesthetic that is less and less visible in this city today. Despite the rational and precise layout of Toronto’s grid, the downtown aesthetic is one of bric-a-brac, a mashed-together tumble of wildly incongruent dwellings, especially when viewed from the back. In places, the city can look like a child’s drawing, all lilting angles and windows in odd places, trees thrown in as afterthoughts, houses crammed together as if doodled with crayon. The aesthetic of the core is a tentative nod to European architecture, but done practically, economically, valuing sturdiness over style, with a dash of DIY. Despite a boom in renovations, townhouses and condos, it is still an aesthetic that endures. Even today, for every beautifully renovated contemporary cube is its poky neighbour, with garbage bins akimbo and the fascia desperately in need of repair. It is these faded and fading souvenirs of an older Toronto that these two painters took for their subjects, depicting the houses of the working class with warmth and reverence.
In 2000, Kasyn explained to The Toronto Star that he much preferred to paint winter scenes. “Winter is my time,” he says. “It’s a moody time of the year; the sky changes fast. Very rarely do I paint a house on a sunny day. It doesn’t do anything for you. The leaves are down so there is nothing to hide the peaks of the houses. It always works best for me when you can see the house without having to dodge the leaves. The white snow brings everything out – it provides contrast with the red brick and the black roof.” Similarly, the artist Harold Town wrote that “Franck tried to paint all the seasons of the year, but winter became his subject…his love of old brick, dirty snow and lane fences spread into the larger texture of Canadian life.”
It seems that both men independently came to the conclusion that winter allowed for a deeper look into the heart and bones of their adopted hometown. Kasyn and Franck’s paintings are modest, sincere and resolutely of a time and place. There may be a time when these portraits seem entirely from a different era as the inexorable creep of steel and glass replaces humble bricks and plywood. Lot 42, Kasyn’s “On Montague Ave, 1978” depicts Victorian row houses on a street that no longer exists: Montague Ave is now a parkette nestled between tall apartment buildings.
Kasyn felt this loss keenly, and explained “One morning I was on Bleeker St. and the crane with the wrecking ball was right there. I pointed my camera and took shots of everything as fast as I could while the houses were still standing.” In an interesting piece of symmetry, our upcoming auction includes Franck’s interpretation, “Backyard on Bleeker Street, 1969” rather than Kasyn’s.
It is a wonderful image to consider these two painters roving the streets in search of the overlooked, the understated, dedicated to capturing their immediate surroundings without pretense. We invite you to look at Kasyn and Franck’s paintings on our website—perhaps you may even recognize some of the locations—though keen-eyed observers will note that one of these paintings is not like the others: lot 40 strays from the Toronto theme, instead depicting Montreal’s Dominion Square.
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