Departing Day 1936 (dated 1935)
This painting of an abstracted evening sky is one of Macdonald’s first “modalities,” or “thought forms in nature.” Although he retrospectively dated it 1935, it was most certainly painted in October 1936 at the end of his nearly eighteen months in Nootka Sound.
In his notes, Macdonald recorded discoveries about the solar system, outlining the physical properties of the planets, their distance from one another, and “tracing space to the utmost limit of human conception.” Reaching beyond representation in this work, he sought to portray the concept of the cosmic. The image, influenced by contemporary scientific photography, is flat and geometric. Volume is obliterated. The composition relies on simply evoked forms of nature and the tension created by the juxtaposition of the elements.
When Macdonald left Vancouver for Nootka Sound in 1935, he wrote of his desire to find success with paintings developed from a “spiritual expression” of nature. Once there, however, the little time he had for art was devoted largely to the creation of images of local subjects that would appeal to buyers in Vancouver. It was only in the last three weeks before he left Nootka that he was able to focus on his original purpose.
On October 5, 1936, Macdonald noted excitedly in his diary that he had discovered “a new expression for painting.” The next day he wrote that his wife, Barbara, and artist John Varley (1912–1969), who was with them at Nootka, thought that Macdonald had found “an expression all [his] own…. Only … abstract forms are used but they are intermixed in a bold mass. Purest colours are used + give a brilliant value.” Describing the preliminary drawing for this work, he wrote: it “show[s] moonlight, stars, milky way + the sun almost hidden behind the world.”
The discoveries of this intensive period of exploration became Macdonald’s preoccupation for the next decade. As he wrote: “My time in Nootka has provided me with a new expression (which is only yet being born) which belongs to no school or already seen expression. To fail to follow through the force which is driving me … would be destruction to my soul.”
It is interesting to compare this oil sketch with Macdonald’s larger version of the same subject, Departing Day, 1939. Despite its small size, this early work evokes both mystery and a sense of grandeur.