Canadian Painting in the Thirties

The Eastern Group and the Contemporary Arts Society

In the 1930s a new voice appeared on the Canadian art scene. This voice belonged to John Lyman, who, within ten years, was to be instrumental in transforming the face of art in Canada.

From 1936 to 1940 Lyman wrote a monthly art column for The Montrealer, commenting on developments in Canadian art and linking these with international trends. Stressing the importance of contemporary French art, he and the critic Maurice Gagnon stimulated an interest in international developments in painting that would determine future trends in Montreal.

Lyman recognized that there were newer artists working in Montreal who found no support from public institutions and who had little chance to exhibit. Lyman brought these artists together and, in the spring of 1938, the Eastern Group of Painters was formed.

The new group included John Lyman, Alexandre Bercovitch, Eric Goldberg, Goodridge Roberts, Jack Humphrey, and Jori Smith. As Lyman stated, what characterized the Eastern artists was their openness to European influence. Philip Surrey replaced Jack Humphrey as the sixth member of the group the following year.

It was soon apparent that a larger society was needed to incorporate progressive artists of divergent trends and to further the cause of modern art. In January 1939 the Contemporary Arts Society was formed. More than just an artist's organization, the Society sought to foster the development of a living, progressive art, alive to contemporary life.  According to Lyman, "It took exactly the position of an anti-academy, putting emphasis on the living quality of art - on imagination, sensitivity, intuition, and spontaneity as opposed to conventional proficiency."

To fulfill its educational role, the first exhibition arranged by the Contemporary Arts Society was entitled Art of Our Day and consisted of non-Canadian modern work borrowed from Montreal collectors. It signalled the beginnings of a united effort for contemporary art.

Apart from Robert Ayre, most of the critics covering  the development of the Contemporary Arts Society were French-language writers, who soon commented on the lack of French-Canadian artists in the group. Of all the members, only four were French-speaking: Paul-Emile Borduas, Stanley Cosgrove, Louise Gadbois, and Jean Palardy. However, political, literary, and artistic developments eventually transformed the Society into one of the leading forces in French-Canadian cultural life.

To find the universal through subjective expression, to link the intellectual life of Quebec to the source of twentieth-century ideas in France, not in colonial servitude but in an alliance of spirit, this was the direction of the forties. With the arrival from France of Father Marie-Alain Couturier in March 1940, and Alfred Pellan in May, the stage was set.

Chapter 7 - The Eastern Group and the Contemporary Arts Society
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