Two Views of Canadian Art
- The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 26 Feb 1925, p. 97-113
- Grier, Wyly; Jackson, A.Y., Speaker
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- Mr. Wyly Grier:
The object of the day's addresses that of uniting, or re-uniting the forces of art in Canada, the strengthening of whatever unity exists, and the preventing of anything that looks like cleavage. The cleavage that took place a year ago in connection with the Wembley Exhibition. The situation arising out of the Wembley Exhibition. Harking back to the remote past to tell something of the beginning of art in Canada, back to 1750 or 1760. A brief review of the work of many Canadian artists, beginning with Paul Kane and including the Group of Seven. Comments on the work of other artists. A constructive admonition to the Group of Seven with regard to their remote settings. The speaker's opinion that Canada's weakness in its artistic make-up is its lack of figure-painting.
Mr. A.Y. Jackson:
The great many people interested in Canadian art today, more than ever before. Art today becoming rather a fashionable and well-organized commerce parading itself as culture, when art should be to us an expression of emotion. Academicians looking backwards, not forwards; Canadians looking forwards. The modern painter in Canada and with what he is concerned; interpreting his background. The chief thing that has been accomplished. The modern movement which has given Canada art direction where direction was lacking before, and creating a widespread interest. The certain amount of confusion in regard to the modern movement in art. The modern movement in Canada. The speaker's review of art in Canada, and Canadian art, and the influence or factor of European art. The 1910 exhibition sent to England by the Royal Canadian Academy, and reaction to it. The speaker's response to that reaction. Breaking with the European tradition. Remembering how little faith there was in any kind of Canada art when the speaker was a student in Montreal. The pioneering spirit in Canada as related to art. Some comments on what and where Canadian artists paint. Some experiences of the Group of Seven. The legacy of Thomson. The lack of appreciation of the work of the Group of Seven; how the artists have had to live. Recent invitations of modern Canadian art for exhibitions in the United States, and comments on them. Appreciation of Canadian art in London. Art as what makes a nation articulate, not painting alone but literature, drama, music, sculpture, architecture. Art as the voice of a nation speaking through time. The Canadian spirit in art that is the Group of Seven. A last word on modern Canadian art.
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- 26 Feb 1925
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TWO VIEWS OF CANADIAN ART
ADDRESSES BY MR. WYLY GRIER, R.C.A., O.S.A.,
AND A. Y. JACKSON, R.C.A., O.S.A.
Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto,
February 26, 1925.
PRESIDENT BURNS introduced the speaker and referred to the increasing recognition of Canadian art in the older countries, and the desirability of knowing just what is being done in Canada.
MR. WYLY GRIER.
Mr. Grier, after stating the object of the day's addresses to be that of uniting, or re-uniting the forces of art in Canada, the strengthening of whatever unity exists, and the preventing of anything that looks like a cleavage, remarked that something like a cleavage took place a year ago in connection with the Wembley Exhibition, and on that occasion Mr. Jackson and himself took the same side of the cleft. He described the situation arising out of the Wembley Exhibition, at which, owing to the refusal of the Royal Canadian Academy to participate, a preponderance of the more modern element appeared among the pictures selected. The Canadian exhibit at Wembley was particularly noted amongst those of the various Dominions in the Empire, and in the main it was commented on very
There are perhaps two main schools of painting and each has its peculiar viewpoint more or less directly opposed to the other. Mr. Grier and Mr. Jackson presented these opposing views. Both these gentlemen are Royal Canadian Academicians and members of the Ontario Society of Artists and their work, widely different in character and appeal, has been before the public for many years. Both Mr. Grier and Mr. Jackson are regarded as artists of considerable distinction and inatrnational fame.
favourably. The newspapers in Canada made a somewhat lurid picture of the exhibition, which, he supposed was a part of the function of newspapers. (Laughter) There was a kind of ruddiness or glow in some of the papers, and this largely created public interest in the controversy that was going on between the heroic body that handled the Wembley Exhibition and the exclusive hierarchic body which withdrew itself into its shell.
Out of the tumult emerged a seven-headed hydra, the modernists will perhaps forgive a classical illustration by a confessed academician. This amphibious monster, coming from the rocky fastness and abysmal depths of the Georgian Bay., settled in Toronto and put up its shingle with the harmless legend--"Group of Seven." It had had several annual exhibitions which had charmed, bewildered, or offended the public.
Now, having brought you up to this exciting point of the narrative, I shall adopt the tactics of a certain class of novelists, hark back to the remote past, and tell something of the beginning of art in Canada in order to make my story plain.
The producing of pictures in Canada began about 1750 or 1760, and they were the work of military or naval men. Besides these people there were certain surveyors, architects, military topographers and at least one gifted clergyman. The military men busied themselves over towns of strategic importance, the naval men did something of the same kind, while the gifted clergyman went further afield and sought out beautiful rivers, etc. Confirmation of these statements may be found by examining the John Ross Robertson collection in the Toronto Publis Library.
In 1810 there was born in Muddy York Paul Vane, who early showed great interest in Indian Life, lived chiefly amongst the Indians and painted a large collection of pictures with great fidelity to fact. They are extremely interesting, and historically valuable, documents, but not of a high character artistically.
Daniel Fowler, who was born in England in 1810, came to Canada in his youth and settled in Amherst Island. He was a real artist, and true to his name to employ a pun-he was especially gifted in painting wild fowl. He also painted farmyard scenes, and themes of a gentle, domestic character; and did them all extremely well. His work was tinctured somewhat by European artistic habits. He even employed the old convention of outlining his objects with a quill pen, in brown ink, which was the practice of Prout, who was famous in England.
Kreighof, a German, after joining in a little scrap in the South between the Americans and Spaniards, came to Canada and settled in Quebec. Here he painted very interesting pictures illustrating the life of the habitant. He painted figure sketches, and pictured the quaint customs of the habitants, their sleighs and cottages, etc., away back in the forties, and did them well.
Other names which are familiar are those of Harlow White, who painted a gentle and innocuous water colour that was not strikingly Canadian, but was influenced by European art. There were also Allan Edson and Creswell, whose work mainly bears the mark of the English school. Then John Fraser, a Scotsman, had the virility credited to his nation, and painted extremely able pictures, but he still carried in mind a great many traditions of Europe. He painted very wonderful water colours, and in New York he was condidered a master of merit. Then came old Jacobi, the Austrian, who was a quite accomplished artist when he came to Canada. He had painted wonderful Austrian, and Tyrolean landscapes; but when he came to Canada he threw himself with zest into painting thoroughly Canadian scenes. He developed a technique which was personal to himself, yet curiously anologous to the French impressionists who arose in 1860. Jacobi developed a little spotted kind of technique, but his pictures had largeness and breadth in spite of the minute way in which he applied his brush. He was a most virile old man, and we of the Academy look back on his memory with great affection.
Then came Lucius O'Brien, a very able artist. (Hear, hear) He was somewhat conventional in his style-a good deal like the water colorists of England. He and a group of Canadian artists did something for Canada which I think is often forgotten. They made a bid for the acceptance of Canada as a beautiful country, by the world untouched, when they initiated and published a wonderful magazine called "Picturesque Canada." (Applause) In it there was a tendency to prettiness which was prevalent in those days, but which has since almost vanished. Today we want something more hard and tough; but I would like to impress upon you that this was a great work, that the accomplishment in point of design and draughtsmanship was very fine and that the processes of reproduction were very wonderful for those comparatively early days.
Coming now to a recent tendency which is to be placed to the credit of the Group of Seven, with all that is characteristic, or whatever is essentially Canadian in Canada, I should like to say that that is not the assumption of the Group themselves. I am so familiar with the men of that Group of Seven that I am able to tell you that they do not consider themselves the only really Canadian painters. That is not at all their attitude, though it is occasionally the attitude of their panegyrists; but we all suffer at tunes from the energetic enthusiasm of our own advocates. The Group of Seven are doing perfectly honest work according to their own convictions, which may or may not be the convictions of the rest of us; but they do not hold that they are the exclusively Canadian painters of today. But just to give a sketch of some operations of others, and they admit there are others--I shall recall a few names of men whose work seems to me to be so strictly Canadian that you will see scarcely a tincture of the conventionalities or dogma of the Old Country.
Cullen, of Montreal, has for many years painted very able landscapes, based upon study in Europe, I have no doubt, although I know little of his personal history. He does skies and rocks and pines, etc., like the Group of Seven; but there is a frank endeavor to find and impress upon his canvas elements of what he conceives to be beauty--I think beauty is his preoccupation.
Then there is J. W. Maurice, who came to Canada and painted many scenes in Quebec province that were very characteristic, somewhat the same subjects as were portrayed by Kreighoff--primitive little sleighs, slow-going horses, the primitive customs of that part of the world, snow-covered landscapes, houses almost buried in snow; Maurice painted all these admirably. However, he went back to Europe and achieved great fame in Paris, and was well known throughout the world.
There is still painting with us today Gagnon, who is very much a Canadian. He has been painting in Quebec for many years. I know not his past history, though I am fairly intimate with him; but he has painted beautiful mountains, wonderful effects of sunlight on snow, some villages, etc., that I have elsewhere described as being quite up to the standard of foreign artists. But he paints by his own particular method and with his own conception of what is the right thing for him to paint; and what is the time at which he should paint it. Like Cullen, he seems to be preoccupied, in the main, by the question of beauty. He is not a doctrinaire; he has no particular theories about art; he is a very silent man. He is a somewhat deaf man, but perhaps his artistic deafness has helped him occasionally. (Laughter) But he is doing wonderful work.
Then there is our own C. W. Jefferys (applause)--one of the most gifted pen draughtsmen on the continent of America (hear, hear) and a man who is exceptional among Canadian artists because he is a very great figure draftsman. He has made wonderful water colours and pen-and-ink drawings of the people of Quebec, their churches, their old customs, and their flocking together at meetings at church and so on, and all the primitive and lovely things that exist in that old world. Charlie Jefferys, a Toronto student, does these well. And then he hied him to the far regions of the West, and painted the prairies inimitably. He has dwelt upon and loved those wonderful spaces, and has painted them in a very spacious way. There is an amazing largeness in his work; and he has also given us pictures of those delightful horsemen that amble about, and horses they have to break, sitting in a particular kind of saddle from which it is very difficult to be thrown--if you know how.
Now, it is not for me to say that no artists should form themselves into groups. I think groups should be permitted to be formed as often as artists please. Groups have their dangers, and I have seen many groups wax, wane and die. One of the main reasons for their death is that they all subscribed to some kind of central doctrine which resulted in their painting like one another, and when they recognized that, themselves, they broke up. Some of those groups might be mentioned--the Glasgow Group of 1890, known as the "Glasgow School," who were considered wild revolutionaries in their day. I knew pretty intimately, also, the Newlyn Group. There are instances of the advisability of forming groups because they stimulate art considerably when they are successful. We had a Canadian group, called the Canadian Club, which selected from among the artists of Canada those who were most affected by the traditions of Europe. I thought that was something that didn't help them. They also included in membership a number of laymen who were collectors and connossseurs of a sort, but contact with that particular kind of individual was not helpful to artists, and I think that was one reason for their early decease. I leave it to Mr. Jackson to set forth the aims and point of view of the Group of Seven, but I take it upon myself to console their hostile critics with this thought-that the modernist manifestations of art in Europe have been very much more terrible than anything the Group of Seven have given us. (Laughter) May I be forgiven if I tell you an excellent story. Professor Coleman the other day described a portrait of Cezanne, by Matisse, in which the illuminated portions of the face were green and the shadows magenta. He said he thought this portrait made him even with Cezanne. I own a slide depicting Cezanne's portrait of his wife. It is absolutely point blank or full face-and the lady has only one ear. It is pretty obvious that neither of these gentlemen made their living by painting portraits.
I have still more modernist slides as to which, after a couple of years' experiment, I have never decided which was right side up. They are the despair of the lantern operator. I have seen an expression steal over the face of a bulbous-nosed operator of the ancient regime, which indicated that he thought "he had 'em again." (Laughter)
Some Americans have been greatly influenced by the European modernists. But signs of decadence are not much in evidence amongst the pictures of this continent. The country is too healthy. The Group of Seven are out-of-doors men. Most of our artists are out-of-door men. This works for freshness, not decadence. The broad healthy brine of the Atlantic keeps us pretty deaf as to what is going on, in Europe, and it is a very good thing for us.
Before I sit down I am going to give a word of admonition to our friends of the Group of Seven. They continually go further north. They have deserted the Georgian Bay, and I dare say they will emerge at the North Pole some day and give us a more simple type of landscape. They may even reproduce that solitary tree which seems to be their obsession today, but I hope that the public schools will have extended such a degree of education amongst the public in general that they will not mistake that solitary tree for the North Pole itself. (Laughter)
But to be more constructive in my admonition, I invite the Group of Seven to ponder upon this thought, that it is not the only way to be intensely Canadian in our painting to go to remote parts of the earth. There are some people of Canada who have never been far away from the rural districts of Ontario, and Heaven knows we have made Ontario domesticated and rural at the expense of considerable labour and a great deal of sweat; so then when the Group went first to Algonquin Park and then to Georgian Bay and are now verging towards Abitibi and the North Pole, they are able to tell us that Canada is only a God-forsaken country which is almost featureless. I would say that that man should be Canadian in his painting who paints the old paintless barns of Ontario (Hear, hear), who paints the rural things of the farmyard, the things we are accustomed to, and who makes that beautiful difference which should exist between the barnyard of Canada and the barnyard of Holland or England. When we get that we will class the painter as being truly Canadian. (Applause)
Then I am going to admit that Canada in my opinion in its artistic make-up has a serious weakness, and that is its lack of figure-painting. It is just as necessary for the artist as it is for the surgeon to have a scientific and accurate knowledge of the human form, and until that knowledge is more widespread and better founded than it is at present we shall never have the finest really complete Canadian art. It will be lopsided, and "lopsided" begins with the same letter as landscape. I am going to say that until this knowledge of the human figure is widespread throughout the country some of the most characteristic and vital and some of the most beautiful things of the country will go unrecorded. (Applause)
MR. A. Y. JACKSON.
Mr. President,--After Mr. Grier's polished periods I feel as if I had been given a pair of crutches and told to overtake Nurmi. There are a great many people interested in Canadian art today,--more than ever before. That interest is sometimes like that of the old lady who was hurrying rapidly out of one of our Group exhibitions, and when asked why she was in such a hurry she explained, "I hate these pictures, but I am afraid if I stay around here longer I am going to like them." (Laughter)
Today art is becoming rather a fashionable and wellorganized commerce which is parading itself as culture, when art should be to us an expression of emotion. So the academic bodies, instead of looking forward, look backwards; and as Mr. Grier and I are both Academicians I can say that without hurting his feelings at all. But the academic bodies rush forward with their heads turned backwards to get direction. (Laughter) Now, Canadians are not much good at looking backwards; it hurts their necks; so we are going forward, and we are not going to sell our souls to dealers, either. There has been nothing in Canadian art at all on the material side, so--as there was no way for us to go forward with the academic element, and we could not work with the dealers, we took inspiration from Marshal Foch when he said, "My right wing is pressed back, and my left wing is pressed back; I am attacking in the centre." (Laughter)
The modern painter in Canada is not much concerned with abstract problems in art. His immediate work is to interpret his background and he is too interested in doing this to ape every movement that rises abroad. The chief thing that has been accomplished is that the modern movement has given Canada art direction where direction was lacking before, and it is creating an interest which is very widespread. Last summer 320 Ontario teachers gave five weeks of their time, and at their own expense, came to Toronto to take an art course. There are more students in the Canadian art schools today than ever before-I think over 1,000; not that the schools are making an effort to get them, but we can't keep them out. The interest is mainly in the modern phase of art rather than the academic.
There seems to be a certain amount of confusion in regard to the modern movement in art. We are told that we are copyists and futurists, and theories or forms of modern art in Europe are attached to us; but really the modern movement in Canada has been mostly a matter of interpreting our background. That is a fairly big proposition, as Mr. Grier has said, and we are perhaps going a little too far north. Well, after we have combed the country once we are going to start over again. (Laughter) Mr. Grier regrets our leaving the barnyard. Well there are about eighty painters in Canada, and there are only six in the Group of Seven. (Laughter)
Even fifteen years ago Canadian art was a vague term that brought to mind paintings which bore a strange resemblance to French, English and Dutch works. I do not wish to diminish its virtues; Paul Peel, Blair Bruce, Barnsley and many others won distinction abroad but they were not creating a native art. They lived abroad and made their contributions to European art in the fashion of the day. We have no record that they showed any peculiar colonial qualities of daring or originality. Nor do we see much mention of them in the history of European art today.
To go to Europe to paint was the artist's ambition. European art dominated our market and Canadian art was praised or damned according to its likeness or unlikeness to European painting. The artist unconsciously sought for subjects which bore a resemblance to the old world.
In 1910 the Royal Canadian Academy sent an exhibition to England and I remember the disappointment expressed in the English papers in expecting to find something breezy and virile from a young country and finding only a tame acceptance of their own convictions. I have a clipping from the Morning Post which reads: "Relatively it is a good show, that is to say, good for Canada. But I do not suppose it is the beginning of a new era in art." In writing of one of our distinguished painters it said: "He remains true to the traditions of Constable." You don't hear much of that kind of thing today.
And there were many of our artists, whose work, while painted in Canada made one think of Europe, so absorbed were they in tradition. It was a phase we had to pass through. I do not say it in disparagement. It was natural enough that the break could not come suddenly; it was a gradual break from the main stream; but those men had to contend with a great deal, and somehow they did not get the Canadian characteristics into their landscape to any extent.
As a student in Montreal, I remember how little faith there was in any kind of Canadian art, one authority making the statement that, "Not only was there no Canadian art but there never would be any," and such remarks were too common to cause any comment.
Before the expensive importations, the native artists had to hold his breath and feign wonder. It was boasted in Montreal that more Dutch art was sold there than any other city on this continent. Dutch pictures became a symbol of social position and wealth. It was also whispered that they were a sound investment. They collected them like cigarette cards. You had to complete your set. (Laughter) One would say to another, "Oh I see you have not a De Bock yet.". "No, have you your Blommers?" The houses bulged with cows, old women pealing potatoes, and windmills. (Laughter) If you were a millionaire, you bought the Maris Brothers and Israels. If you were poor, and had only half a million, there were Dutchmen to cater to your humbler circumstances. Art in Canada meant a cow or a windmill. They were grey, mild, inoffensive things compared with the work of the "Group of Seven" (laughter) and when surrounded by heavy gold frames covered with plate glass and a spotlight placed over them, they looked expensive. (Laughter)
When one considers that Degas, Whistler, Monet and many other famous artists' works could have been procured at that time for next to nothing, our connoiseurs with a few exceptions were a rather blind outfit with a kind of herd instinct in collecting.
But the pioneer spirit in this country is second nature. We have had to find our own way of doing almost everything and, while we may admire the way they do things in Europe, we realize our way is the way for us (hear, hear) and it was obvious that Canadian artists were not going to stand around forever in humble admiration while our bankers turned the spotlights on their cows. (Laughter)
Our atmosphere was clear and sharp, our colours were bright,--crude if you will. The villages were scattered and the landscape untidy and ragged as you went north-swampy, rocky, wolf-ridden, burnt and scuttled country with rivers and lakes scattered all through it, and on top of this variety there were four changes of scenery such as they never know in Europe. In summer it was green, raw greens all in a tangle; in autumn it flamed with red and gold; in winter it was wrapped in a blanket of dazzling snow, and in the springtime it roared with running waters and surged with new life, and our artists were advised to go to Europe and paint smelly canals. (Laughter) We argued that if a cow could stay in the drawing room, then why couldn't a bull moose?
Anyway, the artist goes where the spirit moves him, and artists canoed and camped all over Northern Ontario. If we chose Georgian Bay and Northern Ontario, it was not that we did not realize the beauty of other parts of Canada. It was the most accessible country.* Why did we not do pastorals? One reason is that the supply was already greater than the demand; the other, that the farmer is cluttering up his whole place with barbed wire,
Any great part of Canada can be painted; it is full of character everywhere. (Hear, hear) We found beauty in it -at least we think so, though a lot of other people think we didn't. (Laughter) concrete silos, milking machines, and other modern farm machinery, so that the aritst is crowded out. (Laughter)
I got in touch with the modern group up here--Macdonald and Harris, Beatty, Hemming and Thomson, and decided to leave Montreal. We started what was first called the "Hot Mush School." Thomson was only beginning at that time, but in four years he had become a great painter. He is the heroic figure in Canadian art, (applause) a strange fusion of gentleness and strength. He ranged the north country like an Indian, alone most of the time, and found beauty in it that haunts one.
Of business he knew nothing. His first cheque was on the Bank of Commerce so he went to the Bloor and Yonge branch to have it cashed. "You will have to be identified," they told him. He got sore and went to the College and Yonge branch. "You'll have to be identified," they told him again. And Thomson said "Go to hell," and tore it up.
Another time up north he was out of money and wired down to a bank where he had a small savings account to send him some. He got a wire back, "We can't send money on an open telegram," and Thomson, bewildered, wired back, "Send it on a closed one." (Laughter) Thomson has gone, but he left us conscious of the sombre beauty of the north land that few people have realized. (Applause)
Our efforts did not meet with much appreciation. It was research work and to the conventional mind was atrocious. Canada had been brought up on art that was often made specially mild for Canadian consumption and this new work seemed much more modern than it really was. It caused both joy and anger, and has led to a great deal more intelligent interest being taken in art in Canada.
The artists have had to live mainly by teaching and doing commercial designing, and this has been an advantage because, there being no market, art was left as a free field for experiment and the importance of their contributions is now being recognized outside of Canada.
Two exhibitions of modern Canadian art have on invitation been given in the States from Boston and Brooklyn as far west as Minneapolis. Invitations have been received to exhibit in California and many other places. Boston has asked for another and larger show. The comments have been generally favourable. They find something of a Canadian spirit in our art. I read a clipping a few minutes ago from the Morning Post of 1910. Here is another from the Morning Post of May 28th, 1924, speaking of the pictures at Wembley: "These paintings by Thomson, Maurice, Macdonald, Casson, Lismer and others are the foundation of what may become one of the greatest schools of landscape painting. In these pictures are signs of new vision and feeling for the physical and spiritual significance of Nature." (Applause) If this were mere patronage, as has been inferred in the Canadian press, why was not the same patronage extended to the other colonies?
The Saturday Review in writing of Colonial art says: "We shall be disappointed everywhere but in Canada," and that seems to have been the general expression of opinion.
I received a letter from the Director of the National Gallery of British Art telling me how very much they appreciated Canadian art in London, and that only lack of funds prevented them from making more purchases for the National Gallery.
Another thing,--the pictures which our critics and would-be experts have been most scornful about were the pictures they took most seriously over there. The modern painter is supposed to have no respect for tradition because he does not humbly ape it, remembering as he does that earlier schools only rose and survived because they departed from the tradition of their day. Millet was scorned in his day because he painted country clods in his pictures, stupid, boorish, unpaintable, unfit for the drawing room; and today the class who scorned them would pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to possess them.
Then there is the efficiency expert who would like to see our show at Wembley consist of portraits of contented farmers, fine industrial sites, and unmortgaged farms. He would tie the poet up in the barnyard and have him write odes on pure-bred stock. I would rather suggest that every prospective emigrant be confronted with a Group of Seven show as a means of weeding out the weaklings. (Laughter)
Now, art is what makes a nation articulate, not painting alone but literature, drama, music, sculpture and architecture, and every great nation must create these things for itself. Egypt, China, Greece, Rome, have expressed their greatness through their art. Art is the voice of a nation speaking through time. A nation does not speak through its bluebooks.
There are lots of people who can give an impetus to creating things Canadian in jewelry, textiles, wall-papers and innumerable things, but they say it wont pay. Well a few artists, with no capital and a few friends started a movement which the British press says breathes the spirit of Canada, and not one of them asked if it would pay. (Hear, hear) I have been asked how do I know ours to be the Canadian spirit in art. I may say it is spiritual because it's been clubbed ever since it started, and it's Canadian because it can't be killed.
Now, a last word on modern Canadian art, because tomorrow we shall all be academic. When the last cow is taken from the drawing room and the walls are alive with red maple, yellow birch, blue lakes and sparkling snow-scapes, I can hear the young modern painter up north say to his pal, "There's the trail that those old academic Johnnies, the Group of Seven, blazed." (Laughter and applause)
HON. MR. JUSTICE MIDDLETON expressed the thanks of the Club to the speakers for their interesting and unique addresses.