Art in Canada
Author, editor, and artist, ALAN JARVISwas educated at the University of Toronto,at Oxford, and at the Graduate School of Fine Arts at New York University. He was director of the National Gallery of Canada from 1955 to 1959 and since that time has been chairman of the Society of Art Publications in Ottawa.
CONTEMPORARY Canadian art is as complex and controversial as the country itself: multicultural, bilingual, and perhaps subject to more diverse pressures than any other nation.
Mercifully, however, the emergence of a “Canadian school” can be fairly simply documented. Prior to World War I two great traditions inherited from European ancestors dominated Canada’s arts: the English painted in the best imitations of Constable, and the French in the best fashion of the Academy. In architecture, English Canada built builders-book Georgian indistinguishable from that to be found in any of the Eastern United States, while the French built handsome farmhouses, seminaries, churches, and châteaus which would appear to be entirely at home in Normandy. The Royal Canadian Academy was founded in 1885 by a governor-general, the Marquis of Lorne, as was also the National Gallery. Her Excellency Princess Louise, a daughter of Queen Victoria, painted a tasteful filigree of roses on the door of the morning room at Government House which is still respectfully preserved.
There were, of course, native artists, both French and English, whose work is not without merit, and a few European immigrants such as Cornelius Krieghoff who documented the young country with both ability and fascination. Krieghoff has, inevitably, become Canada’s most expensive as well as popular old master. Also, by the turn of the century there were young artists who were studying at the academies of London and Paris and bringing home some of the ferment of impressionism and even of fauvism. A few others were in touch with New York, studying at the Art Students League, and at least one, David Milne, was shown in the Armory exhibition of 1913.
Then, one young painter single-handedly turned the course of Canadian painting. Tom Thomson (1887—1917), a commercial artist working in Toronto, discovered the “North,” or perhaps more correctly, revealed it. The coincidence of Thomson’s art with Canadian history was extraordinary. The Prime Minister, Sir Wilfred Laurier, had said, arrogantly but not entirely inaccurately, that the twentieth century belonged to Canada, because he knew well the vast unexplored and unexploited potential which lay in Canada’s Northland. Virtually simultaneously with Laurier’s verbal expressions, Thomson began to sketch the vast preCambrian shield and expressed on canvas an entirely new concept of the beauty of Canadian landscape. In stark contrast to traditional landscapists who depicted the quiet, lush, and very English pastoral quality of southern Ontario (works which are not unlike the Hudson River school), Thomson painted wracked pine trees, bare rock, log booms, canoes, all of the paraphernalia of what had hitherto been known as the barren North, a country to be endured but not to be enjoyed.
In 1917 Thomson drowned in mysterious circumstances and soon became a legendary figure: Canada’s first truly “Canadian” painter. Through him, modern art came to be acceptable to the Canadian people.
Thomson’s greatest contribution to Canadian painting was, in fact, indirect. A number of his colleagues in the graphic arts trade had followed him north and shared his excitement with this new terrain. Also, they all shared some European background, either from birth and training or from student visits, and felt keenly the winds of the newer art movements. They were a loose-knit fraternity of young enthusiasts just prior to World War I, when the war dispersed them.
Then in 1920 they joined to form the Group of Seven, a name as familiar now as is the term Ashcan school in the United States. The original seven were J. E. H. MacDonald, Lawren Harris, Arthur Lismer, A. Y. Jackson, Fred Varley, Franklin Carmichael, and Frank (later “Franz”) Johnston. Of the Group four survive, all in their late seventies or early eighties, basking in a glory and reverence which they did not universally enjoy in the early twenties. Although the first director of the National Gallery of Canada, the late Eric Brown, supported the Group and bought their work for the national collection, press and Parliament and much of the public branded them as madmen, and for some years they bore the title, the “Hot Mush School.”
Nevertheless, in spite of his premature death, Thomson’s discovery of the beauty of the North worked its influence, and as countless ordinary Canadians began to explore this country for themselves, the Group of Seven came not only to be accepted but adored, and they were to dominate art until the end of World War II.
From an art-historical point of view, the most interesting thing about the story of the Group, and of Thomson, is the way in which art and nature so happily coalesced. As young artists working in the commercial studios during the early 1900s, obviously they were deeply influenced by art nouveau.
The sinuosities of the art nouveau style perfectly fitted the depiction of twisted pine trees and the rolling, graceful contours of pre-Cambrian rock.
Furthermore, the almost incredible vividness and richness of the color of autumn foliage of northern Ontario was its own justification for the Group’s use of a fauve palette.
Thus Canada founded, and found, its national school, and, as always happens when strongly based national schools become institutionalized, the influence of the Group of Seven became academic and almost a dead hand. From the middle twenties to the disruption of World War II little of into.est developed in Canadian art. The Group carried on (although it dispersed as the Seven to be succeeded by a much larger organization, the Canadian Group of Painters, in 1933), towing in its wake a vast following of lesser artists all dedicated to painting pine trees and rocks. It is surprising to find there was so little art of social protest, for Canada was hard hit by the Great Depression, and so little painting of the human face or figure. Varley alone among the Seven became a superb portraitist. And, it must be noted, the dominance of the Group gave Canadian painting primarily an Ontario and Toronto orientation.
Two offbeat painters stand out in these middle years: Emily Carr, a painter-writer from British Columbia who pursued a poverty-stricken and almost totally unrewarded exploration of the world of the West Coast Indians, and David Milne. Milne was a Scottish-Canadian schoolteacher who suddenly departed rural Ontario for the Art Students League, exhibited at the Armory Show, painted a magnificent series of watercolors for the Canadian War Records in 1918-1919, then disappeared into the Adirondacks to paint and etch work of a completely personal style. Returning to Canada in 1928, Milne continued his impersonal, quiet, and impoverished life in a variety of Ontario environments until his “discovery” by the editor of Canadian Art, D. W. Buchanan, in 1935. Since that time an ever widening circle of collectors and critics have claimed him to be Canada’s most original and truly creative painter. Happily, in his later years he found two great patrons, the Right Honorable Vincent Massey, sometime governor-general of Canada, and Douglas Duncan, a Toronto patron, collector, and gallery director, who did more than any other single person to sustain the arts in Canada during the Depression and the war. It has been my own experience to find that, almost without exception, non-Canadians surveying Canadian painting for the first time isolate Milne as our most original and creative painter of this period.
THUS far, the story of Canadian art would seem to be entirely an English one, which is by no means the case. Not only has French Canada a much older and perhaps more cultured tradition than English Canada, but it has produced a just proportion of our notable artists and has added a leaven to the lump of English Protestantism without which this country would have become not only an artistic backwater but a swamp. For example, during the years when the Group of Seven dominated the national scene, at least two painters were absorbing French influence and bringing some of it back to the Canadian art world: James Wilson Morrice, a friend of Matisse’s, and Morrice’s pupil, John Lyman. Both of these artists spent most of their working life outside Canada and founded no schools. Meanwhile, a few French-Canadian painters were quietly developing personal statements. The most notable is Jean-Paul Lemieux, who, after a prolonged spell of painting rather folksy genre subjects much influenced by French-Canadian peasant art, found an entirely personal expression of his feeling for the austere Quebec landscape and for the simple habitants, in paintings which could emanate only from a Canadian background.
Another French-Canadian painter, working outside the mainstream of Canadian landscape, is Alfred Pellan, who commuted between Montreal and Paris during the thirties and forties. On his visits, especially while teaching at the École des Beaux Arts in Montreal in 1940, he brought the full impact of the school of Paris into the Canadian art world, at that time with explosive effect. Pellan’s witty, and frequently naughty, surrealisms have influenced many younger French-Canadian painters and draftsmen, especially Jean Dallaire and Léon Bellefleur. He has, however, had little influence or appreciation outside his own province, although the French honored him with a one-man exhibition at the Musée de l’Art Moderne in Paris in 1952.
The great revolution, and liberation, of FrenchCanadian art came from Paul-Émile Borduas with the founding of the group of Automatistes. Borduas issued a famous anarchistic manifesto, Refus global, which resulted in his being fired from a teaching job in the provincial schools but which also galvanized the art world in Montreal and Quebec, and the “automatic” influence has been almost universal in French Canada ever since. Borduas had achieved worldwide recognition by the time of his death in 1960, but he died an unhappy man in Paris, painting the ultimate in “modern” art—white on white.
Borduas’s young pupil and colleague, Jean-Paul Riopelle, has achieved the final accolade: the French claim him as their own. His work has been reproduced countless times in books and magazines, but only rarely is it mentioned that he is Canadian. Riopelle lives in Paris and has not often returned to his native land. Nevertheless, he confesses to a mind and imagination saturated with Canadian images, and his Paris studio is filled with Indian artifacts. Although his tachisme is, by definition, nonobjective, familiarity with Riopelle’s work leads one to accept his claim to a fundamental Canadian inspiration.
The balance of power in Canadian art constantly shifts between the two great centers of Toronto and Montreal, and which is the dominant city is a question that will certainly never be settled. Each city absorbs different influences—from Paris, London, New York — and the competitive sense has done wonders to enliven the world of Canadian art in the past decade.
Art in Canada is not, however, limited to the two great cities. Since the end of World War II, the arts in Canada have flourished to an astonishing degree, and there can be seen fresh developments in most of the country’s ten provinces. One of the most interesting is the British Columbia group, which is much influenced by American West Coast painters such as Morris Graves and Mark Tobey. Jack Shadbolt and John Korner both show affinities with their American counterparts. B. C. Binning remains detached in his cool semiabstractions, slightly influenced by Japanese art but essentially personal in style. So overwhelming are the beauty and grandeur of nature in British Columbia that most of the younger artists are beginning to discard the clichés of abstract expressionism in favor of a more direct portrayal of landscape.
The Prairies have suddenly and quite recently produced a group of brilliant young artists, centered in Regina. Although born Easterners, Ronald Bloore and Kenneth Lochhead (to name only two of a considerably larger group) have found the West stimulating, and they in turn have influenced Western painting through the organization of the Emma Lake School.
Naturally, the proximity of Toronto to Buffalo, Detroit, and New York has meant that a very strong American influence has worked on Canadian painting, and one of the most powerful influences was Hans Hofmann. Two Canadian artists most clearly influenced by New York are Harold Town and William Ronald (indeed, Ronald now lives and paints in New York).
Many younger artists are resolutely going their own way. One of the most successful is Alex Colville, who lives quietly and paints slowly in New Brunswick. His work is often compared with that of Andrew Wyeth, but I am certain his development has been a purely independent one. Another is Tony Urquhart, still in his early twenties. Joe Plaskett, like many artists, seems to be more at home in Europe than in Canada, but he returns regularly and exhibits here regularly.
Until a short time ago sculpture in Canada was a poor relation. Apart from the occasional commissions to produce heroic effigies for Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the sculptors found little sponsorship and a small market. Added to this was the fact that Canada had no bronze foundry of its own until just one year ago. Therefore, the high cost of producing important work reduced the output almost to extinction. However, the federal government has recently given a tremendous stimulus to sculptors by commissioning major works for public buildings; private collectors are beginning to show some interest; and the artists can now have their work cast locally. It is not surprising, in view of the absence of a foundry, that most of the best work by contemporary sculptors should be fabricated. Two of the younger sculptors whose work has begun to achieve international recognition are Louis Archambault of Montreal, primarily a ceramist, whose Iron Bird was shown in Battersea Park in 1951; and Gerald Gladstone, whose welded steel confections gathered considerable critical notice in New York during the past year.
Visitors to Canada who view Canadian painting and graphic art for the first time constantly remark two things: stylistic generalizations are quite impossible to make, but one thing emerges quite clearly — an immense vitality.