Blind Contour Homage: “Masques et Portrait” Ghitta Caiserman-Roth
For Montreal artist Ghitta Caiserman-Roth, art and activism were always interlaced. Born to a Romanian-Jewish family, Ghitta was raised by parents whose socialist causes became central to family life. Ghitta’s father established a salon in the family’s living room, inviting artists and writers to speak about the important philosophical and political issues of the time. Meanwhile, Ghitta’s mother brought home materials used for the children’s clothing she designed; Ghitta would sit surrounded by the fabric, enamoured by the prints and colours.
After studying at New York City’s Parsons School of Design, the American Artists School, and the Art Students League from 1939-43, Ghitta returned to Montreal and opened the Montreal Artists School with her first husband. She acted as principal of the school until it was sold in 1952. During that time, a trip to Mexico introduced her to the socialist mural movement, and she began to deepen her engagement with social activism in her paintings.
Ghitta drew from her own experience to enrich her social critiques. Her parents had adopted a child, Nella, whose family was killed during the Holocaust. Ghitta’s understanding of Nella’s loss had a major impact on her work, which incorporated images of dolls to signify the mass murder committed at concentration camps. The horror of Hitler’s Final Solution sometimes pervaded Ghitta’s perception; she recalls the way an “idyllic” fall day on a Montreal street could suddenly shift into a “kind of shock. I see what looks like a terrible accident and the mood of the day is destroyed. I fearfully walk toward it and it turns out to be a whole lot of dolls scattered along the street.”
Yet Ghitta’s work is not only dominated by responses to death and injustice. From selling her first painting to A.Y. Jackson to working as an art critic for CBC and teaching at multiple institutions, Ghitta worked hard to convey the beauty of the ordinary world. By looking through her window into her neighbourhood, or by regarding the furnishings of her home, she was interested in exploring “the symbolic and sensual qualities of everyday things,” finding in her own body a connection with art that transcended technical approaches. In both her painting and her teaching, she developed a concept of “think-feel,” where she tried to push past intellectual preconceptions or misgivings, and to connect with her intuition as a means of self-articulation. As a result, much of her painting is highly figurative—not abstract, but “concerned with composition, light, colour and texture, often using the repetition of patterns to highlight the relationships between figurative subjects.”
For her painting Cityscape, Ghitta won the O’Keefe award—just one of many distinctions, including the Governor General’s award for Visual Media and Art—she was the first painter to receive the honour.
1923 – Montreal, QB
2005 – Montreal, QB
Caiserman-Roth, Ghitta and Rhoda Cohen. Insights, Discoveries, Surprises: Drawing from the Model. McGill-Queens UP, 1993.
“Ghitta Caiserman-Roth.” Canadian Artists of Eastern European Origin. http://art-history.concordia.ca/eea/artists/caiserman-roth.html
“Ghitta Caiserman-Roth.” Les Femmes Artistes du Canada / Women Artists in Canada. https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/eppp-archive/100/205/301/ic/cdc/waic/ghcais/ghcais_s.htm