Philip Surrey R.C.A.

Sans titre (Rue St. Ambroise), 1976

oil on canvas
22x16 in.

Kastel Gallery, Inc., Westmount;
Galerie Valentin, Montreal;
Galerie d’Art Cosner, Montreal;
Private collection, Toronto

Philip Surrey paints moments in time, figures running, groups of people walking against the wind, the action of life in Montreal. Born in Calgary, he settled there in 1937 after a childhood spent travelling the world, living in luxurious hotels at exotic locations. This childhood would not have allowed for significant time in the company of other children, and he was instead surrounded by adults, which no doubt contributes to his keen interest in, and ability to observe the figure. “Like icebergs” he said, “four-fifths of our personalities lie below the surface; of the fifth that shows, only part can be expressed in conversation. The effective outlet for all deeper feelings and thoughts is art.”1 This is perhaps as autobiographical a comment as it is an observation of others. His figures, even when in groups, are always set apart from one another, alone and singular, with four-fifths of their individuality hidden from us.

Surrey’s depictions of Montreal are described as “poetic humanitarianism,” they are expressive of the modern city, with buses and cafés and busy street corners. They teem with life, but this is not the focus of Surrey’s works, instead the individual solitudes of each figure are at the core of his art. Sometimes obscured (when he shows us only partial figures – running legs, hats and hair caught in the wind) sometimes fully depicted – yet the individuality is still conveyed, trapped in its particular and unique reality.

Philip Surrey, a founding member of the Contemporary Arts Society, was a figurative painter with an enduring interest in human subjects within urban nightscapes. For most of his career, Surrey used Montreal as his stage, arranging lighting and figures – most often pedestrians – in compositions that revealed both the…