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Life, Still: The Unbuttoning of Christiane Pflug

Christiane Pflug — German immigrant to Canada, young mother, accomplished painter — committed suicide in 1972. Now, more than four decades after her death, there is a resurgence of interest in her art.

An Alisa Siegel documentary

Christiane Pflug, Kitchen Door with Ursula (detail), 1966, oil on canvas. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, acquired with the assistance of the Women's Committee and The Winnipeg Foundation, G-66-89 (Photographer: Ernest Mayer)

Christiane Pflug's last drawing is of a white bird with large, dark eyes, the rooftops of a city skyline behind it. In the upper right-hand corner, a tiny plane flies away into the distance.

Not long after she completed that drawing, Christiane Pflug went to Hanlan's Point, one of her favourite spots on the Toronto Islands. On summer days she liked to sketch there, often with her two daughters, Esther and Ursula.

But on April 4, 1972, she went alone. And there she died, of an overdose of the sedative Secanol. She was just shy of 36 years old. 

Christiane Pflug, in a photo thought to have been taken by Peter Faust, her stepfather, in his garden in Downsview, in 1969 or 1970.
Born in Berlin in 1936, Christiane moved to Toronto with her young children in 1959, and picked up her pencils and paintbrushes again. Largely a self-taught artist, it was her husband who instructed her in technique and theory. He both controlled and promoted her. 

In Toronto, Christiane soon achieved considerable success. By the early 1960s, she was represented by the prestigious Avrom Isaacs Gallery. Joyce Wieland showed there. So did Michael Snow. And William Kurelek. Christiane's works flew off the walls.

As an artist, Christiane Pflug stared out her window and painted what she saw. There is an eerie, almost ominous beauty to her work. An echo of the complicated, shaky life she lived within the walls of her home and her painting room in midtown Toronto. An echo heard in 2015.

AGO Curator Georgiana Uhlyarik with Esther and Ursula Pflug (left to right)

On May 8, a paper about her art will be delivered at a conference entitled "The Artist Herself," at Queen's University in Kingston. And the Art Gallery of Ontario, which owns many of her works, plans to mount a retrospective.

For her daughters, Esther and Ursula, the renewed interest in their mother's art and life brings with it both celebration and struggle. Our documentary is called, Life, Still: The Unbuttoning of Christiane Pflug. It is produced by Alisa Siegel.

If you would like to hear more about the life and work of Christiane Pflug, please listen here:

Christiane Pflug in the world of Canadian art (Georgiana Uhlyarik, Associate Curator, Canadian Art, Art Gallery of Ontario) 1:05

Christiane Pflug and the flag debates in Canada (Georgiana Uhlyarik, Associate Curator, Canadian Art, Art Gallery of Ontario) 1:42

Christiane Pflug: Magical Realism in Kitchen Door with Ursula (Ursula Pflug) 1:13

Christiane Pflug and women artists in Canada (Georgiana Uhlyarik, Esther Pflug, Ursula Pflug, Alisa Siegel) 2:00

Special thanks to Dr. Amy Marshall Furness, Rosamond Ivey Special Collections Archivist, Art Gallery of Ontario.

After Alisa's documentary aired, we received this note from Scott MacMillan, a composer from Halifax. Scott writes: "A  few years ago I was involved with CBC Ottawa's 'Gallery Project' with Julie Nesrallah.  The artist I was given to compose my piece of music to was Christiane Phlug.  Here's my composition,  "A Plug for Phlug". I thought you might be interested."


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