Listening to Art

01.07: Barnett Newman, Voice of Fire

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Listening to Art, by William Denton.

Volume one, number seven: Voice of Fire by Barnett Newman.

Hello, and welcome to Listening to Art. I’m William Denton.

Of all of Barnett Newman’s work, Voice of Fire is, I’m sure, the most famous in Canada.

It was first shown in the American pavilion at Expo 67, a World’s Fair held in Montreal during Canada’s centennial in 1967. After showing in a couple of other places, it returned to Newman, and ended up belonging to his wife Annalee after he died in 1970.

In 1988 it was back. When the new National Gallery of Canada opened in Ottawa, Voice of Fire was there on loan. In 1989 the gallery bought the painting for about $1.8 million Canadian ($1.5 million US). The purchase wasn’t announced until the next year, and when the news came out, it set off a storm of controversy and debate across the country.

There were newspaper articles, cartoons, letters to the editor, radio and television reports, even discussion in the House of Commons. This was front page news. I was just finishing my undergraduate degree in Toronto at the time, and I remember the stories. The complaint was that the painting was very simple, that anyone could do it, and paying so much for it was a waste of taxpayer’s money. On the other side, people tried to explain the role of art in society. There was so much discussion there is even a book about it: Voices of Fire: Art, Rage, Power, and the State, edited by Bruce Barber, Serge Guilbaut and John O’Brian.

When all you can see of a painting is a grainy black-and-white reproduction about four inches high on newsprint, it’s impossible to get any sense of what the work is actually like. That’s how things were in 1990.

And that was all I’d seen of the painting until 1998, when I went to the National Gallery for the first time. The upper floor, with the permanent European and American collection, is laid out in chronological order. You move through the centuries, past the Renaissance, Neoclassicism, Impressionism, seeing change speed up as you get closer to now, being abruptly confronted by the Dadaists and Surrealists, and then for the finish you turn a corner in a hallway and go into an vast high-ceilinged room with large twentieth-century pieces, none of which you notice, because straight across from you, alone on an enormous wall, is Voice of Fire.

It is huge. It is staggering. It is a profound piece, and it changed my understanding of what art is and what art can do.

This is a painting, acrylic on canvas, 243.8 cm wide by 543.6 cm high.

Now let’s listen to Voice of Fire by Barnett Newman, recorded at the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa, on 20 October 2016.

That was Voice of Fire by Barnett Newman. I hope you enjoyed listening to it as much as I did.

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Bibliography

All web sites accessed as of 13 August 2017.