Register Monday | August 8 | 2022

Paintings with a Pulse

John Hartman's cities throb with life

I’d seen images of John Hartman’s work before. Great bird’s eye views of landscapes and cities in autumnal reds and blues. But it wasn’t until I stood before one of the canvasses from his new Cities series of paintings, that I fully experienced it. I was reminded of the hours I had spent, as a kid, pouring over every detail in aerial photos of cities from around the world. Hartman’s paintings are like those old images, only better: sensual and exhilarating, they bring the city to life in a way that is impossible to achieve by photograph.

Hartman, a native of lake country Ontario, has been painting natural scenes for decades, but in the early 1980s, he started to experiment. By combining a variety of perspectives, he created complex works that brimmed with nuance, detail, information and historical narrative—all of them presented in the form of an aerial image. “When I was a teenager, I used to have dreams I was flying over landscapes,” he tells me from his studio in Lafontaine, Ontario. “They would roll underneath me just like I was a movie camera.”

His move from painting natural scenes to cityscapes was gradual but, in a way, inevitable. “I had always been painting communities in the landscape in my earlier work. I sort of went from little outport communities to towns to cities, so it was a fairly natural kind of progression.” In 2006, Scotiabank, looking for a way to mark its 175th anniversary, commissioned Hartman to paint Halifax, the city where the bank was founded in 1832. The end result was a triptych that weaved narrative and historical threads into the city’s fabric; a dense, captivating work in which Halifax appears visceral and alive.

Halifax from Dartmouth led to paintings of more cities: Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, London, Glasgow, New York. Jane Nokes, Scotiabank’s chief archivist, was responsible for introducing Hartman to the bank. In 1999, she worked with him to produce Big North, a series of landscape paintings. Now, she is accompanying his latest work as it travels from city to city across the country. “John’s work has excited me from the start,” she said, gesturing to the paintings around us at Hartman’s Montreal exhibition. “They just about throb. The bridges and the arteries are real, they just look like living, palpitating beings rather than the flattened-out cityscape we’re used to.”

The most interesting thing about Hartman’s cities is that they are at once incredibly detailed yet also quite abstract. In the foreground of Montreal Highway 20 and Lachine Canal, we see the octopus tentacles of the Turcot Interchange elevated high above the Lachine Canal and a jumble of roads and railways. The canal is an icy, ethereal blue; the roads blood red. In the distance, the St. Lawrence River appears dark and foreboding. Mount Royal looms over downtown skyscrapers; beyond that, the city’s veins and arteries bleed into the horizon’s graceful curve.

In all of his Montreal paintings, Hartman emphasizes the port, the grain silos, the bridges and the waterways—the broad sweep of the industrial city. “I generally make the roads, railroads and bridges bigger and wider than they actually are,” he says. “If you compare from a photograph taken at the same viewpoint, they’ve been exaggerated.” This fascination with infrastructure reflects, in part, the variety of sources from which Hartman draws. In preparing for each painting, he not only views the city from above, in an airplane or from the top of buildings, but he also wanders through its streets, collects old photos and postcards and tries to gain a sense of its past.

Before the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in the 1950s, the Lachine Canal was the main route around the Lachine Rapids. Montreal’s port has particular significance to Hartman. All of the port facilities interest him, in particular the docks and grain elevators, and spots that remind him of the harbour near his childhood home in Midland, Ontario.

“Grain would move down to Thunder Bay, be warehoused in grain elevators, be put on ships to Midland, put on railroad to Montreal and then put on ocean-going ships. I grew up with that history.”

That history has found its way into his paintings. In The New Port, the eye is drawn to the docks, cranes and grain elevators that loom over Montreal’s east end, its massive scale a rebuke to the miniaturized old port visible in the background.

But historical narratives are just one element of Hartman’s work, which also draws from the natural landscape and the distortions of his own memories. Perhaps the clearest expression of the various themes at play in his paintings is Halifax from Dartmouth, the triptych commissioned by Scotiabank. Centered on the port facilities of Halifax’s North End, bracketed by the spans of the Macdonald and Mackay bridges, the impression is that of a city seething with energy. A World War II convoy—dozens of grey ships—waits in Bedford Basin; smoke from the 1919 Halifax Explosion drifts up over the city. The undulating landscape looks restless, as if it is about to heave the tumultuous city off its back. Hartman explains that research for this work did not involve any photographic sources. “I had to really totally imagine the city from the point of view that I picked,” he says.

Ironically, Hartman’s aerial perspective, rather than distancing you from the city, pulls you right into it. You can easily lose yourself in the bridges, smokestacks, skyscrapers and hills of his urban landscapes. And so, just as I did with those photos I loved as a child, I dove into Hartman’s cities and devoured every detail.