Skip navigation

Monday September 21, 2009

Artist focused on spiritual themes

He mastered tempera on gesso and worked in the tradition of abstract mysticism as well as portraiture

Special to The Globe and Mail

Philip Aziz, whose work gained international recognition and the following of prominent patrons, thought the creation of artwork was a religious act. By the age of eight, after he won his first art prize, he said his calling as an artist was divinely ordained and dedicated his life to his canvasses.

"Nobody could tell him what to do," said his sister Julie Bourisk, 87. "He was a born artist." His parents, Lebanese immigrants of the Greek Orthodox faith who worked as fruit wholesalers, asked him to consider a professional career - medicine, law, a university professorship. But Mr. Aziz said he needed to create beautiful things, and they eventually consented.

He was born in St. Thomas, Ont., in 1923 and grew up in London. After serving in the Canadian Army in the Second World War, he attended the School of Art at Yale University with the help of government funds, and earned a bachelor of fine arts in 1947 and master of fine arts two years later.

At Yale, a professor introduced him to an archaic painting technique associated with the Renaissance master Cennino Cennini: egg tempera on gesso. Largely abandoned since the development of oil painting, this became Mr. Aziz's medium of choice. Nearly every morning, he would prepare animal glue from rabbit skins to prime his canvasses for the gesso and egg tempera. Some of his projects used about 2,500 eggs, and his studio was filled with dozens of small jars of pigment: ochre, magenta, cadmium yellow.

He loved the intensity of the colours and the painstaking craftsmanship of this process, which set him apart from his contemporaries. Barry Callow, his friend and caregiver, recalls Mr. Aziz saying, "Anybody can paint with acrylic."

John Winston, head of Tourism London, said Mr. Aziz was full of intensity, and had no patience for mediocrity. When Mr. Winston suggested the painter depict Pope John Paul II, "The next day, he called me, and said that at 3 a.m. he had had an epiphany, and he drew this portrait of the Pope."

Mr. Aziz had a small frame, jet-black hair, and piercing dark eyes. "When you looked at his hands, and watched him draw, watched him paint," recalls Mr. Winston, "there was a fluidity, a rhythm that conveyed talent."

Mr. Aziz travelled broadly - to Australia, Italy, France, Switzerland, and the Middle East - taking in museum art and architecture. "He loved the Vatican, and the religious icons," Mr. Callow said.

After Yale, he spent some time in New York with an aunt who owned a Manhattan jewellery shop. She introduced her nephew to opera and theatre, and encouraged him to design jewellery, awakening another lifelong artistic pursuit, which later branched into sculpture and metalwork.

But it was Mr. Aziz's paintings that garnered international attention. He often told the story of a meeting in New York with the great surrealist Salvador Dali, who came to see a showing of the Canadian's work. Mr. Dali said to Mr. Aziz, "You're a very good artist. I cannot paint with egg tempera."

Through connections he made at Yale, and while in New York, Mr. Aziz began to receive commissions for portraits. Eventually, his list of sitters included the former governor-general Georges Vanier, the American mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens, the former Ontario premier John Robarts, photographer Yousuf Karsh, and Cardinal Eugène Tisserant, who sat for the artist at his villa in Rome.

Prominent North Americans - such as the Vanderbilts, Fords, Eatons, Thomsons, and Blackburns - purchased his art for their private collections. His canvasses also decorated walls at the Vatican Museum in Rome, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, the Detroit Institute of Art, and the National Gallery in Ottawa.

By the 1950s, Mr. Aziz had settled in London, Ont., where he lectured on art at the University of Western Ontario before the founding of the art department. He became an advocate for the preservation of local heritage sites.

At his bustling, art-filled residence, his sister recalls entertaining visitors of international renown. She would cook Lebanese dishes for Mr. Karsh and Lady Flora Eaton.

In addition to excelling at portraiture, Mr. Aziz dwelled on religious themes. Though he started in realism - there were early depictions of St. Paul, Mary, and Christ - he moved into abstract symbolism involving Christian subjects, often laid with gold or silver leaf.

He also had liturgical commissions, designing chalices and the decoration for chapels at St. Peter's Basilica in London, Ont. Architectural design commissions included the private country residence of Susan Blackburn.

William Dale, a former director of the National Gallery in Ottawa and founder of the visual arts department at the University of Western Ontario, said, "The unifying theme [of Mr. Aziz's work] has always been the spiritual message that he wanted to convey: an awareness of eternal values."

Mr. Aziz belongs to the tradition of abstract mysticism, which links him with Matisse, Mondrian, and Rothko. But he has a unique place in Canadian art: "Not too many artists of his generation or even today concentrate on Christian themes," Dr. Dale said.

Dr. Dale added: "He was a very proud man, very conscious of his standing as an artist, and the fact that he had works commissioned by prominent people in Canada. He thought quite highly of himself, and for good reason: He was an unusual artist."

In the last years of his life, he became concerned with preserving his own residence and art works. His home - a timber frame farmhouse from the late 1800s with studio and gallery additions - was designated a London Heritage Site. He hoped to build an extension on his gallery for other artists.

"He saw art as a way to bring people together," said Mr. Callow. "He was very adamant that we have a show of Jewish art here in the new gallery. Islamic art, any religious art."

Mr. Aziz continued drawing up until his death, which occurred after a 10-year battle with cancer.

Philip Aziz

Philip Aziz was born in St. Thomas, Ont., on April 15, 1923. He died on Sept. 13, 2009, of cancer in London, Ont. He was 86. He leaves brother Taft Aziz, sister Julie Bourisk and several nieces and nephews.

Back to top