Canadian Painting in the Thirties

The Canadian Group of Painters in British Columbia

Painting in British Columbia during the thirties was dominated by the figures of Emily Carr, Fred Varley, and Jock MacDonald. While some younger artists turned to industrial themes in prints and murals, it was the romantic, landscape tradition defined by the Group of Seven that prevailed.

In the late twenties Emily Carr returned to the native subjects of her earlier paintings in strongly modeled, simplified forms. Around 1930 she turned her attention to the forests in a continuing effort to express the energy and movement she experienced in nature. Painting on paper in oils diluted with gasoline, she moved from dense forest interiors to sunlit clearings, to the seashore and finally, to pure skyscapes, expressing an exultant, pantheistic freedom.

In 1937, Carr suffered her first heart attack, the consequence of years of overwork and financial constraint. She began writing short stories and, in the fall of 1938, she had the first of a series of annual solo exhibitions at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Sales confirmed that she had, at last, achieved acceptance in the West.

For Emily Carr in Victoria the thirties saw the pinnacle of her career. For the Vancouver art scene, however, this decade was less bright. In 1925 the Vancouver School of Decorative & Applied Arts had been established and the following year Fred Varley arrived from Toronto, and Jock Macdonald from Scotland. In 1931 the Vancouver Art Gallery opened its doors, but the Depression soon intervened.

Up to the mid-twenties Varley's reputation had rested primarily on his work as a portrait-painter; yet during his first three years in Vancouver he confined himself almost totally to landscapes in both oil and watercolour. From 1929 he painted a number of sensuous and spiritual studies of his former pupil Vera Weatherbie, both portraits and figures in landscape.

Jock Macdonald came to Vancouver to teach Design and Commercial Advertising. Encouraged by Varley, he started to paint, going on sketching trips in the mountains and the Gulf Islands.

Faced with a sixty percent reduction in their salaries, Varley and Macdonald organized their own school in 1933. The British Columbia College of Arts attempted to unite under one roof painting, theatre, dance and music. However, the College could not compete with the subsidized Vancouver School of Art in the middle of an economic depression, and collapsed after two years.

After the school closure Macdonald and his family lived at Nootka for eighteen months. Working in an environment so determined by the natural elements, he became interested in a spiritual expression beyond mere external representation. The result was a series of semi-abstract paintings he called 'modalities' and defined as "expressions of thought in relation to nature."

Fred Varley, 'forced into the life of a hermit', moved to Lynn Valley in North Vancouver. Desperately poor, he dreamed of returning to England. A portrait commission from the National Gallery enabled him to go east in 1936.

In Ottawa he sold some sketches and taught but when war broke out in 1939, his classes were cancelled and after a year of terrible loneliness and dire poverty, he moved to Montreal.

Chapter 3 - The Canadian Group of Painters in British Columbia
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