Bertram Binning

1909–1976

Bertram Binning, 'Merging Sides' 1967–8
Merging Sides 1967–8
© Estate of Betram Charles Binning
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Biography

Bertram Charles Binning (10 February 1909 in Medicine Hat, Alberta – 16 March 1976 in Vancouver, British Columbia), popularly known as B. C. Binning, was a leading Canadian artist. In 1949, when he was teaching at the Vancouver School of Art (today's Emily Carr University of Art and Design,) he was invited by Fred Lasserre, the first director of the School of Architecture at The University of British Columbia (U.B.C.) to come and teach art to the architecture students. Binning, from a family of architects himself, taught that art, architecture and life are intimately connected.

Binning invited Richard Neutra, one of the leading architects in the Modernism movement in California, to lecture in Vancouver in 1949 and 1953. He and his culturally aware wife Jessie (Wyllie) Binning (1906–2007) provided many opportunities in their home for artist, writers and architects to mingle.

Bert and Jessie Binning fostered close ties with the most recognized figures in art in Vancouver. They were friends with Lawren Harris and his wife, artist Bess Harris. Those in his academic circle of intimates from art school were Gordon A. Smith and his wife Marion Smith, Orville Fisher, Fred Amess, John Koerner, Jack Shadbolt and his wife Doris Shadbolt, Lionel Thomas, and also Bruno Bobak and his wife Molly Lamb Bobak. It was an exciting time in the world art scene too. The oppressive constraints of Victorian attitudes toward art and architecture were being thrown off. In Europe it was the time of Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, and the De Stijl movements.

In Binning's personal artistic practice he revealed his lifestyle. Known as an excellent draughtsman, he recorded his experiences in intricate line drawings: a detailed remembrance of an unusual hotel room, studies of peaceful-looking female figures, or an architectural drawing of a street in Vancouver. The drawings exude humour and love: a friend cutting a dog's hair, a picnic view from a high perch, self-portraits of self-portraits. Innovative and intelligent, his hospitality to students, colleagues and world figures alike made him a well-loved professor.

The paintings, internationally recognised and exhibited regularly, are composed and formal yet saturated with his leisurely weekends sailing the B.C. Coast with Jessie. The nautical themes and the layered, regal, simple, ship forms portray a unique architectural style. The celebratory touches are often primary colours. The expanses of painted shapes are purely those of the coast he knew best.

Binning's monumental accomplishments on the scene of Vancouver's art and architecture placed the city on the cultural map internationally. In 1946 he helped to found the Art in Living Group, which in 1949 had a major show, Design for Living, at the Vancouver Art Gallery. In 1954, works by Binning, along with those of Paul-Émile Borduas, and Jean-Paul Riopelle represented Canada at the Venice Biennale. His visits to Japan and collaborative personality made him an important figure in the negotiations for the Nitobe Garden at U.B.C. He founded and presided over the U.B.C. Festival of the Contemporary Arts, a mold-breaking yearly avant-garde celebration spanning the decade of the 1960s in Vancouver, at the peak of which Marshall McLuhan spoke in 1964.

Eventually he helped found the Department of Fine Art at U.B.C. and headed it. He presented many papers internationally; was on advisory boards; received innumerable grants, awards, fellowships, one-man shows and retrospective exhibitions. He became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1971. He retired in 1974. He died in 1976.

In 1997, the Bauhaus-influenced home Binning designed for himself in 1941 in West Vancouver was declared a National Historic Site of Canada. His widow Jessie, surviving him by 3 decades, had lived and managed his legacy there until then. When Jessie died in 2007 at the age of 101, the ownership and management of the house transferred to TLC The Land Conservancy of British Columbia. The Land Conservancy has made the house available to the public through pre-arranged tours and special events. His work continues to be shown regularly in Metro Vancouver - lately at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Burnaby Art Gallery and West Vancouver Museum; and is part of The Artists4Kids Trust.

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