AN ARTIST who suffered a lifelong sense of confinement deserves to be celebrated in a book that opens the doors on her inner life. But no such disclosure occurs in Somewhere Waiting, the biography of the Toronto painter Christiane Pflug, whose short career ended in 1972 with her suicide.
The scholar and curator Arm Davis has faithfully recorded the mink minutiae of Hugs daily existence and carefully charted the technical development of her art, but she rarely engages with the emotional and imaginative forces that shaped the small body of work Pflug left behind.
It's not as if there were no hints of psychological turmoil. Born in 1936 in Berlin, Pflug was the illegitimate daughter of a knitwear designer who later married and emigrated to Canada. She spent much of her childhood and adolescence, especially during the war years, separated from her mother. For eight years the ward of a strict Roman Catholic widow in the former Austrian province of Tyrol, Christiane grew tip lonely, isolated, and imbued with a sense of her own wrongdoing.
She made the perfect match for Michael Pflug, an ambitious artist and medical student whom she met in Paris in 1953. The neurotic bond that developed between them allowed his ambitions to be realized in her art. She had the talent; he had control. Following a marriage precipitated by Christiane's pregnancy, they spent several years in Tunisia, where Michael completed his internship. Despite austere living conditions and the birth of two daughters within a year, Christiane turned out several still life's that showed promise, though they contained none of the haunting elements that mark her later works.
In 1959 the family moved to Toronto, where her mother had settled. The paintings she painstakingly produced over the next 13 years speak eloquently of the entrapment Christiane Pflug suffered at the hands of her Svengali-like husband. He controlled every aspect of her career and their domestic life, down to dictating what clothes she should wear and what details to add or delete from her works. Her dealer, Av Isaacs, who is never quoted in this book, recalls that during the period when she was painting Isaacs's portrait, Michael, who was out of town, requested Polaroid photos so that he could supervise its progress.
Pflug's most powerful, and telling, paintings all contain a doll as their central image. Davis doesn't make much of this obvious symbol, but clearly Pflug was painting herself, inert but sentient, looking out at a world she could not participate in. Davis, relying in scholarly fashion on written documents - Christiane's letters and Michael's unpublished but revealing autobiography - omits the living memories of her that would have enlivened this biography. They are present in a film, Waiting for You, directed by Fiona McHugh and aired last fall on the CBC. McHugh's interviews with the artist's friends and family give her a more human dimension and rekindle the emotions that she evoked in others.
Christiane Pflug, who according to the film was capable of joking about her own suicide attempts, died of an overdose of Seconal. Her body was found on the Toronto Islands after a chilly Easter weekend. Her husband tells his interviewer that the only time Christiane ever said no to him was when he suggested, early on in their relationship, that she give LIP painting because her work wasn't good enough. In the same forthright fashion, and without any attempt to deny his part in her unhappiness, Michael Pflug offers an explanation for her suicide: "It was her freedom from me."