National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 22, 1973

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Foreign Art at the Canadian National Exhibition 1905-1938

by Sybille Pantazzi

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8  |  9  |  10  |  11 

Last and best in the period we are dealing with was the international exhibition of Theatre Art held in 1938. It was organized by Mrs. Ala von Reyszenau - Story and had been shown first at the National Gallery in Ottawa. It consisted of a dazzling array of some 300 designs for sets and costumes by Cecil Beaton, claude Lovat-Fraser, Oliver Messel, Paul Nash, André Héllé, Marcel Vertès, Goncharova, Larionov, and other designers from Great Britain, France, Russia, Poland, Austria, Hungary, and Latvia. To sum up, a fairly high standard was maintained by the Graphic Art Department. By attending the C. N. E. regularly between the two wars, a discerning collector could have formed at little cost a distinguished and representative collection of prints and illustrations by British and American print-makers of the first half of the century, and he would have been given the golden opportunity of purchasing some brilliant and original theatre designs.

The Committee of the Applied Art Section listed in the catalogue of 1912 included G. A. Reid and J. E. H. MacDonald; but the first exhibit of applied art borrowed from abroad was part of E. R. Dibdin's selection of German art shown in that year. Consisting of a display of china from the Royal Porcelain Factory in Berlin, it included a remarkable example of kitsch: "a set of 20 pieces for Table Decoration, illustrating a prehistoric wedding procession."

In 1917, the official Royal Persian exhibition of fabrics, rugs. pottery, etc. from the Panama Pacific International Exposition was shown in the Applied Art Building. Further exhibits from exotic lands were provided in 1928 when Mexican pottery (from Guadalajara, Talavera, and elsewhere) and glass were exhibited, and in 1935 when Aztec and Mayan relics from the J. W. Flannagan collection were shown.

During the 1920s and 1930s a number of repetitive selections of mainly British contemporary metalwork. ceramics, illuminated books, and leatherwork were held. These occasionally included an unexpected contributor such as Graily Hewitt, the notable modern calligrapher and pupil of the great Edward Johnston, who showed two works in 1926.

A stimulating change was provided in 1929 by a large and representative display of Danish applied art, which was considered by the president of the O. S. A. as an example of collaboration between industry and artists which might well be followed locally. Among the firms represented were Bing and Grondahls, whose ceramics were designed by Jean Gauguin (see fig. 22), the son of Paul Gauguin, Knud Kyhn, Kai Nielsen, and others, as well as silver by Georg Jensen. Book-bindings by August Sandgren and furniture were also included.

In 1935, the British applied art comprised works from an exhibition held earlier that year at the Royal Academy, British Art in Industry, as well as a group of works sent by the Contemporary Art Society in which Bernard Leach, the well-known potter, was represented. From 1936 to 1939 such firms as Wedge wood, Boulton, Worcester, and Spode showed samples of their current manufacture; the 1937 display contained specimens of the Queen's Doll's House ware. That same year glass by René Lalique and book-bindings by René Kieffer were part of the French display.

On the whole the choice of the exhibitions of foreign applied art shown at the C. N. E. does not seem, retrospectively, to have been particularly imaginative although we have mentioned some of the interesting exceptions. The necessity to cater to the taste of the public was especially evident in this sector.

An unexpected finale to this chronicle is provided by an exhibition of Surrealist art held at the C. N. E. in 1938. The moving spirit of this exhibition, first held in London at the New Burlington Galleries, was Roland Penrose. He was assisted by Herbert Read, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, and others. The foreword for the C. N. E. catalogue was by Read.

However, the startling appearance of avant-garde artists at Exhibition Park had been preceded by an exhibition held in 1927 at the Art Gallery of Toronto: the International Exhibition of Modern Art, a collection assembled by the Société Anonyme (founded by Katherine Dreier and Marcel Duchamp in 1920). Toronto owed its "Armory Show" to the forcible persuasion of Lawren Harris, and it is to his credit that works by Arp, De Chirico, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Mirô, Picasso, and Man Ray (to name only the most famous) were first seen in Toronto.

The C. N. E. Surrealist exhibition of 1938 added to this list works by Dali, Paul Delvaux, Giacometti, S. W. Hayter, Magritte, André Masson, and Yves Tanguy, none of whom had been represented in the Société Anonyme show and who were thus making their Toronto début. There were sixty-five Surrealist works in all by these artists and others.

In both cases the exhibitions in Toronto followed closely after their first showing elsewhere: the Société Anonyme collection was shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926-1927 and the International Surrealist Exhibition was shown in London in 1936.

The only echo we have found of the first impact of Surrealist art on the Toronto press is in reviews by H.G. Kettle in the weekly Saturday Night. (31) (The Toronto Daily Star and The Globe and Mail seem to have refrained from making any comment on this aspect of the C. N. E.) Like the editorial comment in the Canadian Forum (32) which greeted the Société Anonyme exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto, Kettle's reaction was surprisingly sympathetic; but although he had seen the Surrealist show in London in 1936, it was not very perceptive. However, Kettle was obviously a "modernist" since he reserved his venom for Lord Leighton's Bath of Psyche and Sir Edwin Abbey's O Mistress Mine (both shown at the C. N. E. in that year) which he qualified as "nauseating works." He also expressed his relief that at least Alma Tadema was not included in the show. Kettle's article illustrated only one Surrealist painting, a curious choice: Blue Mouth of Paradise by P. Norman Dawson, an undistinguished work by a forgotten artist.

In the same year (1938), and as little noticed in the press, the 
C. N. E. included a magnificent display of Theatre Art, discussed above in connection with the Graphic Arts. Both the Surrealist and Theatre Art were only two sections (respectively 65 and 297 entries out of a total of 2,267) of a larger exhibition which included, as usual, Canadian art, graphic art, British porcelain and pottery, as well as paintings by such old stalwarts of the British artistic establishment as S. J. Lamorna Birch, Sir George Clausen, Sir S. J. Arnesby Brown, Sir John Lavery, Sir William Nicholson, A. J. Munnings, and Sir William Orpen. The works by Lord Leighton and Sir Edwin Abbey (already referred to by Kettle) were accompanied by The Coat of Many Colours by Ford Madox Brown, The Railway Station by W. P. Frith, and Millais's The North West Passage, making up an olla podrida calculated to appeal to all tastes. In fact this last exhibition held before the Second World War was the culmination of a policy which, although conservative, was also eclectic and enabled visitors to the C. N. E. to see, in a span of three decades, an international selection of works representing Academism, Impressionism, Pre-Raphaelitism, Symbolism, and even Surrealism.

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