Written by Michael LeBlanc
At the height of the cold war “Red Scare,” in 1954, Eric went with a small Canadian arts group to tour the USSR, sponsored by the Canadian Soviet Friendship Society. The Society announced that they would fund a tour of the USSR for 14 Canadian painters, architects, musicians, actors and dancers. Despite the wide promotion for the trip, only 6 Canadians boarded the plane for the USSR: artist Eric and Group of Seven artist Frederick Varley with four francophones: Michelain LeGendre, puppeteer and marionettist; Charles Lemoine, poet and radio critic; and Mr. and Mrs. Pierre St. Germain, a newspaper writer (his wife was a social worker). The entourage included no musicians, architects, or ballet dancers as was previously advertised. “It was enough to make me uneasy, but because Mr. Varley persisted, I persisted, and so we found ourselves with this mixed group who did not know each other,” wrote Eric later.
…We visit the Academy Institute at 10:30. Late as usual. This is another aspect in which as a group we haven’t been very considerate. We meet the heads of the Institute around a large, long purple clothed table.
They all look severe. Probably angry because we are late. The chief launches into a brief history of the school. We look sour. Mr. Varley is glaring at the board meeting table he dislikes so much, but gradually after a brief conversation and a few shattering remarks from Mr. Varley who asked, “is art to go down to the level of the people? Should it not lift up people to the level of art?” the party warms, and smiles begin to break. Chairs move up closer to hear more.
Discussing the question of their Soviet realism, and their disdain for the abstract, I intended to use as a moderate example the work of the British painter Augustus John as a preliminary to a particular question. They had never heard of Augustus John, or seen his work.
Lemoyne brings up Kandinsky, and there is then heated argument over the abstract paintings. (Kandinsky was a Russian) We defend the use of abstracts. They defend the use of story telling. We finally agree on the same principles and conclude better friends than when we arrived…i
They returned to the Hermitage the following day, and after attending the ballet in the evening, they boarded a train to return to Moscow. The poor food, combined with copious amounts of vodka, and nights of traveling, finally exacted its revenge. By Friday, Varley was ill, and Eric acted as nurse. The Canadian consul visited Varley, who collapsed unconscious into his bed. Eric too, was totally worn out.