Old friendships and close collaborations between author and subject can be either a blessing or a curse in biography – a tightrope between discretionary tact and open fire. Both call for intimate but balanced subjectivity, especially where virile egos are concerned. The Boy from Brunswick, a massive tome with sixty chapters and 540 pages, offers a bit of everything.
Jan Senbergs, who knew and admired Leonard French from the 1950s, gives a frank account of his fellow artist in the foreword, which makes for valuable commentary. We are informed by the author, Reg MacDonald, that the biography is based substantially on extensive interviews with the artist over a three-year period. Hence, French’s raconteur-like voice resonates throughout the text, in excellent quotations from correspondence between the artist and his family that reveal a perceptive, articulate man and confirm the importance of primary material. MacDonald, who knew French for more than forty years, wisely relies on this valuable resource, but he is also remarkably attuned to the artist’s punchy vernacular. Herein lies one of the more disquieting aspects of this biography, a persistent recourse to blokey banter, reflecting French’s ‘long[ing] for male company’ to record and ruminate over his life. The artist’s quest for ‘enduring monumentality’ in his art is one thing, but MacDonald’s homage is tarred by macho slang and unnecessary repetitions. Further, his pressuring for curatorial ‘critical reassessment’ of this late artist’s work also tends to pushiness.