That title was supposed to go with a long excerpt from a Thomas Mann essay on Goethe, to help you fight the creeping endarkenment, but it doesn’t seem to be anywhere on line – an excellent reason to head over to the library. All the best stuff is there, for free, if you ever need any of it.
Karl Michael von Fohrness had been brought to Manitoba as a young boy of four years and little experience living in the ‘wild’ conditions of the turn-of-the-century Canadian frontier. His father, Reichmarshall Hans Richter von Fohrness, had been a general in the Prussian Army under Bismarck and later the Kaiser and had emigrated from Germany to the youngish city of Toronto in 1890 with his new wife. Flush with his borderless pension and young bride, the elder Fohrness indulged his lifelong love of big game hunting in the easily accessible outback of central Canada, and slowly intrigued himself with primitive safaris into more remote reaches of the territories. Remarkably, in between these excursions he found time to father a son in whom he delighted in the visions and vast possibilities of sharing his fascination with sport and the outdoors. He continued to venture into the wilds with regular occasion and growing extravagance, until being struck with the frontier beauty of the primitive frontier town of Winnipeg. On a strict schedule which included the building of one of the new town’s grandest houses, von Fohrness moved his wife and young son out to the town, which by most accounts would have been generously regarded as an outpost. To be sure, the younger, perhaps more feminine Fohrness wanted nothing at all to do with safaris or the wilds of the Canadian frontier and rather preferred to at least remain in the ‘city’ at the side of his mother. Not to be denied, Fohrness the elder insisted on bringing his son out into the interior with him for weeks at a time, sure that time and experience would polish the boy in the ways of the Great Woods.
To the extent that the plan worked, the boy eventually did learn to trap and kill a great variety of animals; to the depth that it did not, he learned to hate his father and loathe his thirst for blood contrasted against the lush drama of the landscape. But it was the landscape and it’s drama that would override even a boy’s hatred of his father, as Fohrness intermingled his forced safaris with art lessons from the leading drawing teachers in the province. His access to the hinterlands unmatched by any similarly talented painters of the day, he slowly weaned himself from the rifle while continuing on as a member of his father’s hunting parties. The elder Fohrness’ reluctant acceptance of this bone had to have been peppered by what he had at least partially passed on of himself in the boy. It was a greater love of the outdoors that would produce Canada’s single greatest landscape painter, one in whom no rivals would exist, though his contemporaries would dismiss his style and subject matter as hopelessly nostalgic and antiquated.
Karl Michael von Fohrness’ success as a painter carried him and his work to the exhibition halls of Toronto and Montreal on a yearly basis, where a nascent flame of national pride would be fanned by the young man’s renderings of the unspoiled Canadian wilderness. But he continued to return to Winnipeg to live near his mother and sew his wild oats until the autumn he returned from an exhibition in Quebec City with a fiancée. In the years that followed, the married Karl Michael would become more and more of what his father treasured as an outdoorsman while continuing to accumulate one of the country’s most overlooked fortunes as a landscape portraitist. Nearing mid-life after believing themselves to be barren after many years of marriage, he and his French-Canadian wife, Marthe, quickly had two children, Martin and Celeste, just before the Depression began to reach the outer reaches of North America.
Karl Michael’s fortunes selling expensive pictures seemed to dry up with the financial crisis, so he moved his family to where he believed rich people were socked away in abundance: Long Island, New York. The transplants settled in East Hampton for a while, but moved to two or three other temporary locations before buying a modest beach house near Southampton that looked out onto the expansive might of the Atlantic. Karl Michael believed the ocean had begun to speak to him and, transferring his sense of drama from the deep woods to the deeper sea, began a series of seascapes that would take him on into the last years of his painting life. The supposed cachet of buyers never materialized and Karl Michael sold hardly any new paintings over the next ten years, though he enjoyed his life in the Hamptons and exhibited his seascapes in a small Massapequa gallery.
Not to say that his success ended with the move or the Great Depression. It could be true that it would have mattered little what he had painted after those events, because coincidentally or not the reach of the landscape painter was shortened considerably and dramatically by other, terribly unforeseen developments in the art world. With the onset of serial ‘isms’ creating the subtext for the abstractions to come, the world of painting no longer hinged on, much less swooned over, an artist’s ability to corroborate and transpose the beauty of natural scenes from nature. These painters, and perhaps many were their number, were unceremoniously relegated to third tier importance as mannerists at best, and dinosaurs at worst.
Yet as was possibly the case for many of the others who happened to be at that improper moment in history reduced by events beyond their control, things were not so bad for Karl Michael. By the 1950’s he was deeply revered in his native country and especially the province of Manitoba, where the devotion bordered on celebrity – actual celebrity, as denoted by the status of a Hollywood actress or American curer of disease in that era. His paintings of the great Canadian wilds hung in every provincial and regional capital west of Lake Champlain. Truthfully, there were not many other artists, Canadian or otherwise, who could speak of such a great body of native landscape work as Karl Michael von Fohrness and it spoke to the heritage and glory of Canada’s frontier past. Thus Karl Michael was feted on an annual basis by the Canadian government and its aristocratic class of nation-guilty art patrons. His landscapes became rare; newly ‘discovered’ ones were immediately but with great pomp, carted off to museums in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and his hometown of Winnipeg. Even his seascapes of the American coastline enjoyed the occasional run as somewhat of a sensation among collectors and galleries in Montreal and Ottawa. While it was true that von Fohrness himself no longer enjoyed the tidy sums he once commanded as a so-called naturalist in between-wars Canada, this was padded by something even a bit more astonishingly rare. He was able to vaguely live a part of the ripening of his own legacy. And while this is usually one of the few things denied the truly famous and actually celebrated, von Fohrness padded his fall into old age and from artistic grace, both of which he surely noticed, with the knowledge that in the places he himself had celebrated with a patch of eternity here and there, he would live on as well. And surely as his business acumen had failed him once, the older version of the man no doubt took stock in the glow of his own foresight and examined from time to time thirty of his own landscapes that had traveled over the years with him without ever leaving his possession. They would be among what he left his two children, prizes to sell or not, to live with or without, but his gift to them of what he had once been and seen, and a spyglass even to the dreams of his own father.
So it was with considerable insistence that Celeste von Fohrness demanded a meeting with Sandy Eliot to clear up the matter of her “lunatic” brother setting fire to fifteen of her father’s masterpieces. “It’s not a matter I can discuss with you… I’m not in charge of the investigation,” Eliot politely explained as a smile of just desserts crept across his face.