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Blazing Figures

A Life of Robert Markle

J.A. Wainwright

Hardcover 304 pp.

ISBN13: 978-1-55458-182-5

Release Date: March 2010

Online discount: 25%

$45.99  $34.49


Finalist for the ForeWord Magazine 2010 Book of the Year Award in the Biography Category
Shortlisted for the 2011 Evelyn Richardson Memorial Literary Prize for Non-fiction (Atlantic Book Awards)

Robert Markle (1936–1990) was an infamous figure on the Canadian cultural scene for almost three decades. His paintings and drawings celebrating the female nude were deemed obscene by Ontario courts in 1965, and Markle defended them on national television, emphasizing what he considered a crucial distinction between eroticism and pornography. Although Markle was a Mohawk who employed Native symbolism in his later work, he refused to identify himself as a Native painter.

Blazing Figures chronicles Markle’s boyhood in Hamilton, Ontario, his early exposure to the worlds of burlesque and jazz, and, following his expulsion from the Ontario College of Art, his immersion in the Toronto world of painting and music. It recounts his emergence as a controversial expressionist painter of the figure and a beloved teacher of his craft. After his abandonment of urban life for small-town Ontario, Markle, in the last twenty years of his life, produced his greatest works and formed close friendships with his fellow painters and with public figures Patrick Watson and Gordon Lightfoot, both of whom were interviewed at length for this book. The book also takes a frank look at Markle’s complex relationship with his wife and muse that survived his affairs with other women.

The only full-length work written about Robert Markle’s life and career, Blazing Figures is based on Markle’s copious personal notes and numerous interviews with his family, friends, colleagues, and former students. This snapshot of Canadian cultural history will be of interest to scholars of art history, Aboriginal studies, and Canadian studies as well as the general reader.

J.A. Wainwright is a novelist, poet, and McCulloch Emeritus Professor in English at Dalhousie University. He is the author of a biography of writer Charles Bruce and editor of A Very Large Soul: Selected Letters from Margaret Laurence to Canadian Writers and of Every Grain of Sand: Canadian Perspectives on Ecology and Environment (WLU Press, 2004). His most recent novel is The Confluence (2007).


“This book makes an indisputably original contribution to Canadian visual and cultural studies.... In well-crafted prose, J.A. Wainwright explores the range and complexity of Robert Markle, who was, at turns, loyal, thorny, ribald, fierce, passionate—and does due justice in measuring these facets of his personality in relation to his art.”

— Linda Morra, Bishop’s University, editor of Corresponding Influence: Selected letters of Emily Carr and Ira Dilworth (2006) and co-editor (with Deanna Reder) of Troubling Tricksters: Revisioning Critical Conversations (WLU Press, 2010).

“An impressive blend of meticulous research with an astute, often poetic reading of imagery, both informed with an insider’s savvy and the whole just touched with the soft glow of friendship, Andy Wainwright’s biography of Robert Markle is an exceptional contribution to our understanding of this singular figure in Canadian art history. And it is so timely. With what he reveals of Markle and his art it is clear that we will understand a whole period of our cultural history more clearly when we fully comprehend the workings of this brilliant, complex artist.”

— Dennis Reid, Chief Curator, Research, Art Gallery of Ontario

Blazing Figures is meticulously researched, based on personal notes and numerous interviews with family, including Marlene [Markle’s wife], in addition to friends, colleagues, and former students, all of which makes the study authoritative as well as definitive. Eloquently written, it provides a timely reappraisal of an important Canadian artist who courageoulsy straddled the line between native and non-native, urban and rural, monogamy and polygamy, nature and nuture, artist and teacher, figuration and abstraction.... While Blazing Figures, deals specifically with Markle’s life, career, and art, it [also] does an admirable job covering the wider Toronto art scene from the 1960s through the artist’s death in 1990.”

— Robert Reid, Guelph Mercury

“Markle is a fascinating, decidedly elusive, subject.... At the raucous taverns the artist loved, he wrote ‘You see things that knock your socks off, and you get it down.’ Markle’s drawings attest to his extraordinary ability to get it down; the National Gallery first acquired his work in 1964 and today it is held by Canada’s foremost galleries.... Wainwright’s narrative is animated by his interviews with Markle’s friends and family and his judicious use of the artist’s bravura writing (published articles and private notes), sources he uses in the book’s excellent Toronto chapters to recreate the city’s bohemian side.... Wainwright is even-handed in his treatment of Markle, neither shying from nor judging his behaviour, and of his work, capably tackling the conflicted critical response to his visceral depictions of women. His balanced approach suits the book, which is not aimed at a specialized art audience.”

— Sandra Dyck, Carleton University Art Galler, Ottawa, Canadian Journal of Native Studies

Blazing Figures is most successful in discussion with Markle’s individual paintings, and the best of Wainwright’s writing offers attentive readings of the paintings as visual text. The book also notes the evolution of Markle’s technique and a compelling narrative of the burgeoning Toronto art scene of the 1960s and 1970s, complete with energies and antagonisms.... Certainly the beautiful colour reproductions of his works that burst from the pages of Blazing Figures suggest a visionary spirit and a passion for understanding the strength and vulerability of the human body, its intimacy and its fierceness, that make the 1965 pornography charges laid against gallery owner Dorothy Cameron for mounting a show with Markle’s work look like so much old-Ontario fogeyism.... In the end, the images have their say, and the muscular, brilliant toned or deeply charcoaled limbs and curves of the bodies on Markle’s canvas speak loud. The ecstatic attention paid to him by Markle’s eye and Wainwright’s prose overcomes all arguments about the biographical rhetoric in Blazing Figures. Robert Markle emerges as a figure who wrestles with the angel of art and is blessed through his willingness to risk damnation.”

— Tanis MacDonald, Canadian Literature

Blazing Figures

Table of Contents

Related interest


By the same author

Every Grain of Sand: Canadian Perspectives on Ecology and Environment, J.A. Wainwright, editor

Related links

Open Book Toronto Interview with J.A. Wainwright

1966 CBC broadcast of Robert Markle and Patrick Watson discussing obscenity charges against his paintings. (Cops ban ‘lewd’ drawings. CBC Digital Archives Website. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.)