When Voice of Fire drew flames of criticism from (some) Canadians

The acquisition of a three-striped painting known as Voice of Fire provided the spark for a controversy in Ottawa three decades ago.
In 1990, the National Gallery of Canada finds not everyone is thrilled with the acquisition of Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire. 1:16

The acquisition of a three-striped painting known as Voice of Fire provided the spark for a public debate over the value of art in Ottawa three decades ago.

The National Gallery of Canada announced in March 1990 that it had purchased the abstract 1967 artwork by the late American painter Barnett Newman.

"Voice of Fire — for all the furor — has turned into a great drawing card," the CBC's Dan Bjarnason reported on The National in March of 1990.

However, as Bjarnason told viewers, some found fault with the painting's reported $1.8-million price tag and its American ancestry.

The National Gallery of Canada announced in 1990 that it had purchased Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire. The painting is shown in the background of the image above. (The National/CBC Archives)

"I think Canadians do not see $1.8 million worth of painting," said Felix Holtmann, a Progressive Conservative MP who was critical of the purchase of a work he said he could create himself.

Shirley Thomson, the gallery's director, however, defended the painting as "a great piece of art."

According to the National Gallery of Canada's website, "Newman painted Voice of Fire for the U.S. pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal."

Would a van Gogh be better?

Canadian painter Charles Pachter is seen discussing the National Gallery's controversial purchase of Voice of Fire -- a painting by American artist Barnett Newman. (The National/CBC Archives)

Charles Pachter, a well-known Canadian painter, believed the work's American origins were likely responsible for some of the pushback from the public.

"Probably had we bought a [Vincent] van Gogh, we wouldn't have heard a peep out of anyone," Pachter told The National.

"But I think also it's elicited a whole bunch of the traditional Canadian anxiety about anything American. I mean, our country was founded by saying no to things American, right?"

The National hears reaction from a well-known artist and an amateur artist on the Voice of Fire purchase. 1:05

But there were definitely those who simply took issue with the composition itself.

John Czupryniak of Nepean, Ont., created a homemade version of Voice of Fire, which he said took about seven hours to complete.

He said if he had started making such art as a child he'd be "a multi-millionaire by now."

Three years after the Voice of Fire purchase, the National Gallery would again finding itself under criticism for the acquisition of another abstract work by an American artist Mark Rothko.

But gallery officials knew what to expect and they argued both the artistic intrinsic value of the Newman work and its ongoing value as an investment.


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