This painting portrays a succession of empty rooms. Some of the walls are depicted in sweeping brushstrokes, while others are coloured like patterned wallpaper. In the background, beyond an open doorway, a balcony and a tree are visible.

Louis Muhlstock

(Narayiv, Ukraine, 1904 – Montréal 2001)

 

Empty Rooms

1938

Oil on canvas

76.3 x 63.5 cm

Gift of Mr. H. S. Southam, 1945

Art Gallery of Alberta Collection, 45.4

© Estate of Louis Muhlstock


Empty Rooms is part of a series of studies of abandoned apartments in poor Montréal neighbourhoods in which Louis Muhlstock combines social observation and formal exploration. For Muhlstock, the rundown buildings symbolized the ravages of the Great Depression. Instead of celebrating urban development, he painted its dark side. The opening onto the outside in the background creates plays of light and shadow that form strong diagonals from floor to ceiling. The geometric composition and the expressive brushwork prefigure the artist’s transition to increasingly non-figurative work.


Louis Muhlstock and his family settled in Montréal in 1911, arriving in a large wave of Jewish immigrants. Years later, after studying painting in Paris, he returned to a Montréal in the throes of an economic crisis. Muhlstock painted the people and neighbourhoods hardest hit. At a time when the political atmosphere was encouraging anti-Semitic discourse, he identified with the socially excluded. Like many Jewish Montréal painters of his day, Muhlstock explored the experience of urban reality. He was a member of the Contemporary Art Society, founded in 1939 by John Lyman (1886-1967).

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