When Walter Anton Moos opened his first art gallery on the first Saturday of May, 1959 – this was at the southeast corner of Avenue and Davenport roads in midtown Toronto – he didn’t call it the Moos Gallery or the Walter Moos Gallery. It was Gallery Moos – a deliberate echo or palimpsest of Galerie Moos, the name his father, Friedrich, had affixed to the art showcase he had opened 60 years earlier in Karlsruhe, a medium-sized German city barely 15 kilometres to the northeast of the French-German border. Later, other family members would own and operate important galleries in Geneva and Zurich, Switzerland.
Toronto had never seen a commercial gallery quite like the “crisp white rectangle” that was Gallery Moos. Of course, the city had galleries. Not many, mind you, but none that so fervently embraced the modern, especially its European iteration, or was so determined to raise the city’s visual literacy. In that first show alone, the 32-year-old Mr. Moos, who hadn’t even been in the city a year, presented works by Picasso and Braque, Chagall and Derain as well as (in an intimation of things to come) paintings by the Paris-based but Quebec-born abstractionist Paul-Émile Borduas.
Amazingly, he kept the art – great, good, fair and dubious – coming for the next 54 years. When he died last month at 86 of causes related to melanoma, leaving behind his wife Martha, two children and two grandchildren, he could claim to have exhibited an estimated 600 artists at the four locations he occupied successively in Toronto, as well as the outposts he established, temporarily, in Calgary and New York in 1979 and 1986. No mere picture seller, Mr. Moos was a galvanizing figure – “loyal,” “passionate,” “generous” – in the careers of such significant Canadian artists as Ken Danby, Gershon Iskowitz, Sorel Etrog, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Alex Janvier and Ron Moppett, as well as a welcoming host to European masters like the Netherlands’ Karel Appel and Antoni Tapies of Spain.
His life was a sort of miracle, although being a gentlemanly, quiet-spoken, understated sort who, in the words of a friend, “knew when to step aside and let things unfold,” he likely wouldn’t have put it that way. But being born a Jew in Germany in the fall of 1926, as he was, meant that he could not avoid being witness, victim and, luckily, survivor of the Nazi scourge. Mr. Moos was never voluble about this yet neither did he try to dodge the discussion. “It wasn’t that it wasn’t unimportant … but it wasn’t a wound that always had to be picked at,” said friend and colleague Ihor Holubizky, currently senior curator at McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton. “For him, it seemed to be: You take what happened. You don’t erase memory. Then you move forward.”
It’s known that Galerie Moos in Karlsruhe was shuttered by the Nazis, its assets confiscated, and that Mr. Moos’s father and mother, Klara, fled to France only to be rounded up after its defeat in 1940 and sent to their doom at Auschwitz. It’s known, too, that Mr. Moos, around his 16th birthday, facing surefire deportation (and eventual death), fled the Jewish orphanage/school in which he’d been placed in southern France to make his way to neutral Switzerland, where his uncle, Max Moos, and cousin Georges lived.
This is to understate the drama. As Mr. Moos’s youngest, Toronto-based son, David, puts it: “The terms of Walter’s escape to Switzerland from France are epic, existential and destiny defining.” Not only was cousin Georges a gallerist in Geneva but a high-ranking member of the French resistance, and as such “was able to sort of reach into France” and shepherd Walter to safety.
“It was a little like a movie,” David Moos’s older brother, Michel, said recently by phone from Atlanta, where he heads a communications company. “There’s the scene on the train when the Gestapo is checking papers and Walter has to evade that, the scene with the guy on a bicycle and hiding in this barn. So there is a little bit of The Great Escape in Walter’s story.”