Don’t expect John Schweitzer to get teary at the thought of yesterday.
“I detest nostalgia. I never look back,” he said with a laugh from his Montreal home this week. “You will not see me ruminating through photo albums, saying, ‘Oh look at me, I had lots of hair.’’
Last week, however, the past caught up with the Western alumnus as an exhibition of works commemorating the 40th anniversary of his graduation from Western opened. Entitled John A. Schweitzer’s Benjamin’s Alphabet: Diary of a Series, the show runs through March 20 in the John A. Schweitzer Gallery, in the Archives and Research Collections Centre of The D.B. Weldon Library.
Far from nostalgic, the show can be seen as a celebration of a long-time connection between the alumnus and his alma mater.
“Western has always represented to me the notion of what was possible,” Schweitzer said. “It opened those doors to a bigger world. At the time, London was in its prime; there was a shining moment in the 1970s when one only spoke of the ‘London School.’ For me, Western will always represent knowing this is ‘a moment,’ and having some sense of doing something about it.
“I do speak of my ‘Western family’ – they are truly an extension of my own family. There is a marvelous relationship that has continued to this day.”
Schweitzer, HBA’74, LLD’11, was born in Simcoe, Ont., in 1952, the middle child of three, and the only son. “I maintained a very solitary childhood which allowed me to amble into wheat fields and explore. It was truly the halcyon days. Having all of that time alone,” he said. “I aspired big for coming from a small town.”
Although drawn to visual arts early in life, he arrived at Western for its Department of English, and the possibility of working with “literary lights” of the time like Michael Ondaatje and Alice Munro. “I was very much intending to be a writer when I arrived,” he said. However, a summer course on Art History changed everything.
There, the 18-year-old Schweitzer fell in love with “the synoptic nature of the course. By studying art history, I was also studying politics, history, advances in science and sociology, as well as architecture. I have always maintained an interest in those layers of cultural archeology.”
His undergraduate studies with legendary Canadian painter, and Western professor Paterson Ewen, led to an MFA in painting under multidisciplinary artists Vera Frenkel and Tim Whiten at York University.
Today, the collagist’s work is represented in private, corporate and public collections around the world, and acquired, in depth, by Western, as well as the Université de Montréal, University of Toronto and Government of Ontario Art Collection. He was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 2003, followed by the Ontario Society of Artists.
His current exhibition traces his creative process in the realization of a series. McGill University professor Ricardo L. Castro, guest curator, opens a window into Schweitzer’s studio to reveal his working methodology, textual research and literary influences. Selected works from Benjamin’s Alphabet are juxtaposed with material culture and artefacts from the artist’s extensive personal library and archive.
Schweitzer’s Alphabet utilizes the German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s 1939 book, Das Passagen-Werk, as a literary montage — a point of departure, with which to articulate his thematic interest in the French tradition of the flâneur, or stroller, and the promenade, in his investigation of nineteenth-century French art and the genesis of modernism.
“Western Archives is pleased to host this exhibit celebrating the 40th anniversary of John’s graduation from Western in 1974, as well as the 10th anniversary of the 2004 official opening of the John A. Schweitzer Gallery,” said Robin Keirstead, University Archivist. “We are particularly appreciative of the opportunity to exhibit several originals from the Benjamin’s Alphabet series, which are on loan from the artist and from private collectors in Montreal and Toronto.”
For viewers, Schweitzer hopes for several takeaways.
“I would like to instill, or arouse, in fact, an intellectual curiosity or motivation to perhaps research the artist, or maybe the writings of Walter Benjamin, the case of the current exhibition, as well as sharpen and heighten visual literacy,” Schweitzer said. “One speaks of verbal literacy, but I would say one of the lacuna in today’s world is visual literacy.”