Walter Klinkhoff’s Contribution Will Live On
BY HENRY LEHMANN – Special to The Gazette
THE GAZETTE, MONTREAL November 11, 1997
Walter Klinkhoff, who died last Friday at the age of 78, left his indelible mark on the city he loved, Montreal. The gallery that bears its founder’s name lives on, one of Montreal’s oldest, having outlived numerous other art spaces and countless trends. The Klinkhoff, which focuses largely on Canadian figurative art, has a distinct personality. It stands for dignity, even with a touch of ceremony, but without pretense. Ragged art students are as welcome as pin-striped collectors.
Mr. Klinkhoff was born and raised in post-World War I Vienna and, in that splendid city of high culture, came early to his love of literature, music and art. Yet, following the path of his father, the owner of a number of precision-instrument factories, he went into engineering. When it became impossible to continue living in Austria, Mr. Klinkhoff ultimately made his way to Canada. According to his son, Eric – who, with his brother Alan, continues to run the gallery, Walter Klinkhoff had just five dollars when he got here. Almost the next day, he landed an engineering job to support himself and his wife, Gertrude, whom he met on a brief return trip to war-torn Europe. However, Mr. Klinkhoff was a subversive in his own way; he became the Montreal agent for a cousin and uncle, both painters, living in hardship in the Russian sector of Vienna. He took their work to Montreal department stores, where it found a ready audience. Soon, he went back to Europe and met more artists. Mr. Klinkhoff’s boss at Canadian Liquid Air gave the young man lots of time off in which to pursue his interest in art; but he kept his day job until 1951, when he moved his base of operations from his modest home to the gallery, which opened on Union St. between Sherbrooke and de Maisonneuve.
In 1960, the Klinkhoff Gallery moved to its present Sherbrooke St. W. address, not far from another Montreal institution, the Dominion Gallery. It was in the early 1950s that Mr. Klinkhoff became increasingly involved with Canadian artists. He especially liked A.Y. Jackson, both the man and the art. Soon, however, Mr. Klinkhoff had become the Montreal representative of a whole crew of first-rate painters, including Lorne Bouchard, Edwin Holgate and Robert Pilot. And the gallery has been instrumental in introducing the Beaver Hall Group of women artists, to the public. Of course, Mr. Klinkhoff also had a penchant for older works by artists such as, Maurice Cullen and Cornelius Krieghoff. Indeed, over the years, the Klinkhoffs, experts in verification, have had to bring sad tidings, informing people that their "Krieghoff" is a fake.
But selling art in Montreal has never been easy. Eric Klinkhoff recalls his father having spoken of days spent sitting around the gallery waiting for people to drop in. But much of the time Mr. Klinkhoff was busy, traveling about Canada looking for art and meeting with collectors. In the 1970s, the gallery temporarily turned once again toward Europe. Mr. Klinkhoff had become interested in Utrillo and Dufy, new-old masters whose work soon became way too expensive for most local collectors. Eric Klinkhoff, who studied art history at McGill, remembered working at his father’s side: "I learned more from him than from the slides I saw in my course." Alan Klinkhoff recalls his father as a doer: "He would show me an art catalogue without the prices and ask me which pictures I thought were good. And we would clean pictures together – you stuck your nose right in the art." Walter Klinkhoff had no degrees in art, but then, being an expert and having only one’s own name, without any academic suffixes, has its own kind of ineffable elegance. And Mr. Klinkhoff’s motto had its own kind of wisdom: "What you buy is your business; what I sell is mine."
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