Born in Danzig, he was taken from school and placed in the German army in 1915 and was sent to the Western Front where, during an action, he was taken prisoner (1916) and spent the rest of the war in a French prisoner-of-war camp. After the war he returned to Germany where he became an assistant and student (intermittently) of August Pfuhle at the University of Danzig (1920-28). Also during this period he survived hard economic times by selling merchandise, doing window dressing and designing commercial work. He travelled back to France, then Poland and Russia and returned to his home city to teach life classes for the Architectural Dept. of the University of Danzig (1924-26).
In the Danzig Civic Gallery he studied old masters and the canvases of the modernists, Hofer, Beckmann, Modigliani, Picasso, Grosz, Feininger and others and was influenced by the German Expressionists. He did experimental painting and gained a wide experience in fine and commercial art. He arrived in Canada in 1928 an accomplished artist, and spent six years in Winnipeg. At first he painted walls of houses due to the scarcity of work. Later he was employed by Brigden’s as a commercial artist, designer and letterer, while he also did murals and stage sets for local firms and societies. He met and became a close friend of Lemoine Fitzgerald who was principal of the Winnipeg School of Art. Brandtner brought new ideas to Fitzgerald from his own influences of German Expressionism and modernism. Fitzgerald was one of the few people on the Winnipeg art scene with an open mind to the art of Brandtner. As their friendship grew Fitzgerald helped Brandtner to bring his fiancée from Europe to Canada through the sponsorship system. Later he advised Brandtner that he would be better off working and showing his art in the more cosmopolitan atmosphere of Montreal. Winnipeg was still mainly traditional and Toronto’s focus was on the Group of Seven.
Before Brandtner’s departure from Winnipeg he held a solo show of 150 of his works at the Wpg. School of Art. Then with his wife headed east in 1934 and settled in Montreal. He found work doing window display for the T. Eaton Company. Fitzgerald had given him an introduction to Robert Ayre who in turn introduced him to many of the new Montreal artists. In 1936 the Canadian League Against War and Fascism sponsored an exhibition of Brandtner’s art which made statements against the pain of poverty, fascism and war. Amongst the viewers attending the show were Dr. Norman Bethune and Marian Scott. Bethune on seeing Brandtner’s work was attracted to his social concerns and was the first Montrealer to purchase his work. The meeting of Bethune, Scott and Brandtner resulted in their founding of the Children’s Art Centre. Dr. Bethune had been concerned with making medical services available to the poor as well as to others. He tried to change the system which was geared to help those who could already pay for medical services.
After his disillusionment with the medical system of that time, he joined the Communist Party and devoted his life to fighting Fascism. Brandtner and Scott continued with the Children’s Art Centre and Brandtner also brought art to the Children’s Memorial Hospital and gave crippled children brighter lives and greater self reliance through recreational therapy. He also developed the following art classes: the Iverley Community Centre, the Griffintown Club, the Neighbourhood House and the Negro Community Centre. In his own art he painted in oils, water colours, graphic mediums and linoleum upon which he carved his subjects then painted them. His colours were predominately pure black, red-yellows and blues. He was particularly anxious to promote the use of linoleum as a medium for mural decoration and produced both large and small panels and explained, “. . . . linoleum calls up ideas that lead us away from pure representation and towards the abstract . . . abstract qualities of design will give the greatest satisfaction, will bring an intense life of their own into linoleum carvings . . . .”
He did decorations for Bishop’s College, Lennoxville, P.Q.; Bell Telephone Co. of Can.; Berkely Hotel, Mtl.; C.N.R. Hotel in Vancouver; C.N.R. Station, Mtl. (carved stone plaques); St. John’s Hotel, Nfld.; Queen Elizabeth Hotel, Mtl. (five linoleum panels representing locomotives in the history of the C.N.R.). The panels vary from 4 ft. to 12 ft. and were noted by Robert Ayre to be done with great precision. He did murals for: the Province of Saskatchewan for the World’s Grain Exhibition in 1933 (mural 300 ft. by 18 ft.); Roxbury Boys’ Club, Boston; Place Ville Marie Development, Mtl., 100 ft. x 7 ft. (1962); map of Jasper National Park, Alta. for the Jasper Park Lodge, carved in linoleum and then painted, to help guests orientate themselves with the park features.
During the 2nd World War, Brandtner produced a number of war industry drawings on location at the Canadian Vickers plant (1943), twenty of which were exhibited with another twenty by Louis Muhlstock on the same theme. Walter Abell on viewing his work noted, “. . . Concerned with the industrial scene as a whole, rather than individual details, this artist shows us groups of workmen surrounded by the planes and ships they are constructing. Vigorous contrasts of black and white, in some cases bright colour, provide an impact appropriate to an industrial theme . . . But the key to Brandtner’s success in the best examples is the underlying structure of their semi-abstract design.” His awards include: Jessie Dow Award for water colours (1946); his painting Breaking Away (two hockey players in motion) won 1 st Hon. Mention in the Painting and Graphic Art Section, 14th Olympiad, Lond., Eng., (1948); 2nd prize in the competition to design 5 cent pieces in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the isolation of nickel. The NGC has a fine selection of his work including linocuts, graphite drawings, pen and inks, oil paintings and mixed media (roller, pen & ink, gouache) including his painting, City from a Night Train noted by D.W. Buchanan as follows “. . . . Along with the intense degree of abstraction which this composition possesses, Brandtner has managed to convey at the same time a hint of that fleeting mystery which always cloaks even the most common-place quarters of a great city when viewed at night from the window of a passing express.” A colour reproduction of this painting can be seen in Malcolm Ross’s The Arts in Canada (1958), P.22. In 1985 Galerie Kastel Inc., held an exhibition of his work and noted, “He continually challenged his own artistic achievements and was truly a champion of modern art in Canada.” His affiliations were as follows: MSA (1931); CSPWC (1935-57); CAS (1939-40); FCA (1941); CGP (1942); FIAL (1960). He held office in most of the societies. He died in Montreal at the age of 73. He is represented in the following major collections: NGC, Ott.; AGO, Tor.; VAG, B.C.; AEAC, Kingst.; HH U. of T., Tor.; Musée de Québec, Q. City; Mus. Beaux-Arts, Mtl.; Mus. d’art contemporain, Mtl.; Dept. External Affairs, Ott. and others.
Colin S. MacDonald
A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, volumes 1-8 by Colin S. MacDonald, and volume 9 (online only), by Anne Newlands and Judith Parker
National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada
1946 Jessie Dow Award
Fritz Brandtner was a painter, draughtsman, muralist and teacher. He brought to Winnipeg, and later to Montreal, his understanding of European developments in art, and especially German Expressionism. His profound social concerns were visible not only in many of his artworks, but also in the very successful art programs he created for underprivileged children.
Largely self-taught in art, Brandtner assisted the post-impressionist August Pfuhle in his studio and taught life classes at the University of Danzig. At the same time, he worked as a graphic designer, and participated in at least one group exhibition in Danzig. In 1928, he moved to Canada, settling in Winnipeg, where he mounted a solo exhibition within months of arriving. He found work as a commercial artist, muralist and set designer, and met Bertram Brooker, LeMoine FitzGerald, Caven Atkins and Philip Surrey. FitzGerald advised him to move to Montreal for its more experimental art scene, and put him in contact with Robert Ayre, the Montreal art critic and Winnipeg native.
Brandtner heeded his friend's advice in 1934, and was soon introduced by Ayre to the Montreal art community, including Louis Muhlstock, André Biéler, Jori Smith, John Lyman and Anne Savage. Dr. Norman Bethune and Marian Scott also counted among Brandtner's first contacts in Montreal; the three shared a concern for social issues. In 1936, Bethune arranged an exhibition of Brandtner's work at Henry Morgan and Co. to benefit the Canadian League Against War and Fascism. The same year, Brandtner and Bethune founded the Children's Art Centre, with Scott soon joining the teaching staff.
Over the next 20 years, Brandtner taught art in numerous community organizations and schools, and directed the University of New Brunswick's summer art school for several years. Along with Pegi Nicol Macleod and Louis Muhlstock, he contributed illustrations to periodicals such as The Canadian Forum and New Frontier. He made numerous sketching and painting trips to the Gaspé, Laurentians and Nova Scotia.
A prolific artist, Brandtner worked in oils, watercolours, graphite, charcoal, mixed media, carved linoleum and encaustic. In both figurative and abstract work, his subjects were varied and included landscapes, cityscapes, portraits and anti-war images, as well as still lifes. Men of 1939 (1939) shows the influence of German Expressionist George Grosz. He experimented early on in abstraction, and his painting trips inspired numerous abstract landscapes, including South Shore, St. Lawrence (c.1957).
Courtesy the National Gallery of Canada
Brandtner was the subject of some 15 solo exhibitions across Canada