Works from the uLethbridge Art Collection
Curated by David Smith
This exhibition explores the relationship between artist Roloff Beny and the late Dr. Margaret (Marmie) Hess. As a lifelong friend and patron of the artist, the works collected by Dr. Hess illustrate the scope of Beny’s practice and his influence on the international art that she collected.
Roloff Beny was a Canadian artist born in Medicine Hat, Alberta in 1924. He was an internationally known photographer who published 18 travel photography books about the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Asia and Canada, five of which were published posthumously after his premature passing in 1984 at the age of sixty. Although best known for his photography, Beny’s earlier works included painting, drawing and printmaking. Margaret Hess was an art historian, collector and lifelong friend of Beny’s who left a bequest of more than a thousand pieces of Canadian, indigenous and international art the University of Lethbridge in 2017.
Margaret Hess was well acquainted and friendly with many artists, but her relationship with Roloff Beny was particularly significant. Despite being eight years her junior, Hess connected strongly with Beny and she closely followed his career for his entire life. The two met at the Banff School of Fine Arts (now the Banff Centre) when he was fifteen years old. Beny had received a scholarship and was studying with H.G. Glyde; Hess had moved to Banff to begin her teaching career after completing a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Toronto in 1938. Hess continued to teach in Banff and the Provincial Institute of Technology (now SAIT and Alberta University of the Arts) from 1941 – 1945. At the same time, Beny was awarded another scholarship for Trinity College in Toronto where he completed a Bachelor of Arts, Honours and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. The provenance records accompanying the Hess collection indicate that Portrait of Margaret Hess, 1943 and Body and Soul, 1943 (previously titled Portrait of an Art Historian) were the first two pieces she purchased for her collection from Beny when he returned to Alberta for the summer.
Interestingly, both Beny and Hess went on to pursue postgraduate studies at the State University of Iowa. Hess’s studies were cut short after the death of her mother necessitated a return to Calgary in 1946. The following year, Beny completed his Master of Arts and Master of Fine Arts Degree, studying under the influential Argentinian printmaker Mauricio Lasansky who had a profound impact on Beny’s art practice. Here his works moved from figurative and literal to more abstract and expressionist.
After 1947, the physical distance between the two increased, but they kept in touch and remained close friends. In 1954 Beny established a residence in Rome which he referred to as Tiber Terrace, and moved between there, New York and Lethbridge, where he also maintained a studio. By the mid 1960s he was working exclusively in photography; his first book of travel photography, The Thrones of Earth and Heaven, was published in 1958. Over the years, Hess travelled to Rome, New York, Montreal and Lethbridge to see him and his exhibitions and met up with him whenever he was in Calgary. Hess corresponded regularly with Beny’s parents Charles and Roses Beny as well as his Canadian agent. She had them send newspaper clippings, articles, catalogues and news with mentions of Beny, and she kept all of them. Both would go on to receive honourary doctorate degrees from the University of Lethbridge, Beny in 1972 and Hess in 2004.
A letter drafted by Margaret Hess to Roloff Beny, found in the University of Calgary Archives and Special collections, illuminates how deep and meaningful her relationship with him was.
“I am glad we both understand and being ‘good friends’ is the rarest relationship and most enduring beyond earth. What is more adequate than ‘my friend is my need answered.’ Our inadequacy to each other is one of the unusual delights of each to the other – the mutual search for dreams and ideals – that there are things beyond transitory grasp; as we together search for them. For we have created moments of experience as Centaurs (sic) together, the actuality of elysian (sic) heights previously only contemplated. Our ecstatic awareness of planes felt to exist and possible to explore. We will always search into the unknown. ‘All experience is an arch wherethro’ Gleams that untravell’d world.’”
After Beny’s passing in 1984, Hess served on an advisory committee to his estate which unanimously determined that Beny’s collection of more than a thousand artworks should come to the University of Lethbridge. Beny had donated a substantial gift of works by modern masters like Picasso, Matisse, Leger and many others during his lifetime, and uniting his collection made a great deal of sense. Beny and Hess enjoyed collecting art together and the international works included in this exhibition were either purchased on his advice, or were purchased from him.
The collection of Margaret Hess was shaped so much by Roloff Beny, it seems fitting that their two collections should end up alongside one another here at the University of Lethbridge. Margaret Hess passed away in September of 2016, four months after her 100th birthday.
– David Smith, Assistant Curator / Preparator
1. Correspondence from Dr. Margaret (Marmie) Hess to Roloff Beny, Undated, 2017.76, Box 2, Margaret P. Hess Fonds, University of Calgary Archives and Special Collections.