Canadian art in the 1930s can be broadly defined as a movement between polarities: from nationalism to internationalism, from the Group of Seven to the Contemporary Arts Society, from Toronto to Montreal.
The Group of Seven had believed that the revitalization of Canadian art would come about through the continued exploration and interpretation of the landscape. But in the thirties new directions began to emerge.
Many younger artists were inspired by the American Social Realists, whose art responded to contemporary social and political crises. Montreal artists looked to France for new directions, and in exhibitions, landscapes were supplanted by figure studies, nudes, still-lifes, industrial scenes, social commentary, and abstraction. Though opposed by some, these new directions found support among many Canadian critics.
The exhibition system remained dominated by artists' societies, although private galleries exhibiting contemporary Canadian art slowly emerged. In Montreal, artists had fewer exhibition outlets and the need for a strong organization under local control led to the formation of The Eastern Group and the Contemporary Arts Society.
Private patronage of the visual arts, never great in Canada, was even more limited during the thirties. Public galleries had their budgets slashed, and purchases of contemporary Canadian art came to a near halt. David Milne commented wryly, "Artists stand depressions quite well, depressions look so much like their regular brand of prosperity."
In the face of widespread economic and social dislocation, many artists felt the need to re-evaluate both their art and their relation to society. For some, art was synonymous with religion, the highest expression of a society; its role was to raise the spiritual awareness of the community. Others denied art any non-aesthetic purpose.
By the mid-thirties, the demand for a social role for art was coming from the Left and from younger artists. While many contributed cartoons and articles to socialist and Marxist periodicals, little overt political or social content appeared in Canadian painting at this time. There was a bias against propaganda in art, and it was costly to produce paintings that wouldn't sell. Nonetheless, many artists produced works with reference to current political events or reflected their social sympathies by their choice of subject matter. The less costly medium of watercolour saw a resurgence during the decade.
Geographical isolation hampered contacts between artists in Canada and hindered any effective large-scale organization. In 1941, the Kingston Conference brought together artists from across the country for the first time and lead to the establishment of the Federation of Canadian Artists. Yet the most dramatic development occurred in Montreal, independently of the Federation. The transfer of focus from Toronto to Montreal led to the domination of Canadian art in the forties by artistic developments in Quebec.