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Greg Curnoe Life & Work by Judith Rodger
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The Camouflaged Piano or French Roundels 1965–66

The Camouflaged Piano or French Roundels

Greg Curnoe, The Camouflaged Piano or French Roundels, 196566
Oil on plywood with hotel sign with incandescent lights, 259.7 x 372.1 x 29 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa


Greg Curnoe collected comic books, and he modelled the figure of Robert Murray on the figures featured on the cover of Dick Tracy and the Man with No Face by Chester Gould, which was published in 1938.

The first of many works by Greg Curnoe acquired by the National Gallery of Canada, The Camouflaged Piano or French Roundels overwhelms the viewer with its dazzling, pulsating colours and very large scale. This mixed-media piece has many of the elements that would become Curnoe’s hallmarks: a found object (the hotel sign); comic-book style (the Dick Tracy character on the right-hand side); flat, brilliant, non-local colours (for example, the green hands and hair of the piano player); and unrelated texts and visual references (what is an airship doing in the hotel bar?).

          Curnoe described this work as a “juxtaposition—of things and events that interest me—without any logical order.”1  The musicians are two of Curnoe’s friends, and the figure on the right is sculptor Robert Murray (b. 1936). Why Murray appears as a Dick Tracy character, or even why he was included since he had not yet met Curnoe, is unclear. The salvaged hotel sign complete with pigeon droppings and six light bulbs suggests the York Hotel in London, Ontario, where Curnoe and his friends in the Nihilist Spasm Band played on Monday nights for years. The British R 34, the first airship to cross the Atlantic non-stop, is floating over the piano. The tail of the Hindenburg, a German airship, disappears nose-first out of the bottom of the frame, perhaps alluding to its disastrous last flight in 1937.

          The text around all four edges references jazz, flying aces, and revolutionaries, yet does not explain the title. Although there is a camouflaged piano, there are British but no French roundels (the national insignia used on military aircraft). Curnoe never explained this paradox, but it is typical of his humour.