A Quiet Revolution: Canadian Painting from 1925 to 1955

 

For some, the period from 1925 to 1955 is an interregnum in Canadian art, a dull time punctuated only by the Automatistes and Refus global in 1948. Not so, argues Lora Senechal Carney in her new book, Canadian Painters in a Modern World, 1925–1955: Writings and Reconsiderations. In eight chapters she explores the social and artistic movements that forced Canadian art out of the complacency of its Group of Seven nationalism and into the relative anarchy of Les Plasticiens — by way of the mysticism and worldviews of artists such as Lawren S. Harris, Emily Carr, Paraskeva Clark, and Paul-Émile Borduas.

“Most of us agree,” Alex Colville is quoted in the book, “that the art of the past changes or influences the art of today, just as today’s art changes the art of the past.” Carney takes this one step further, weaving in the profound influences of the wider world.

Paul-Emile Borduas, Seagull, 1956, oil on canvas, 146.2 x 113.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Estate of Paul-Émile Borduas / SODRAC (2018). Photo: NGC

 

By any measure, the period from the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s was a socially turbulent time. The Jazz Age gave way to the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, and the advent of the Cold War. One of the true joys of this book is Carney’s careful assessment of how Canadian artists responded to sociopolitical undercurrents, from burying their heads in the sand, to railing against art’s unwillingness to tackle difficult topics, to thoughtful reflections that presage 1960s dialogue on the dematerialization of the art object.

Supporting the themes and theses of each chapter, Carney has also included a generous sampling of original speeches, reviews, letters and other material. The chapter on Emily Carr, for example, cites excerpts from her diaries and personal letters. The chapter on the Automatistes includes lengthy excerpts from Refus global and a student poem by Thérèse Renaud, while the chapter on the Cold War includes writings by Miller Brittain and James A. Houston. Original documentation of this calibre is a boon to reader and researcher alike. The book is also nicely illustrated with images drawn from a wide range of sources. Iconic portraits such as Dr. Salem Bland (1925) by Lawren S. Harris and Lilias Torrance Newton’s portrait of Louis Muhlstock (ca. 1937) are coupled with ballpoint drawings in cheap notebooks, along with photographs and ephemera that include posters, exhibition invitations and student newspapers.

Lilias Torrance Newton, Louis Muhlstock, c. 1937, oil on canvas, 63.8 x 61.2 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Royal Canadian Academy of Arts diploma work, deposited by the artist, Montreal, 1940. Photo: NGC

 

As Carney suggests in her preface, the choice of artists and subject matter in the book is somewhat personal and idiosyncratic. This may explain the omission, for example, of the Beaver Hall Group, which included artists such as Lilias Torrance Newton, Prudence Heward, and Edwin Holgate. There is also an assumption that readers will already know who comprised the Canadian Group of Painters and Painters Eleven, which may not be the case for everyone. Despite these omissions, the broad strokes of the period are covered admirably, including several mentions of the work of Indigenous artists, and how they were viewed by non-Indigenous artists and the art establishment of the day.

According to Carney, the leap to pure abstraction was incremental. In her carefully constructed chapters, she demonstrates how Lawren S. Harris (a member of the Group of Seven) and his theosophical beliefs led him away from pure representation to something more spiritual. Harris also influenced Emily Carr who, although eschewing theosophy, found something compelling in Harris’ beliefs that affected her own art practice. Her work, in turn, was noted by artists such as Carl Schaefer as being interestingly apolitical in a highly political time. And so it continued.

Emily Carr, Landscape, c.1935,  oil on wove paper, mounted on cardboard, 27 x 37 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Bequest of Arthur Stanley Bourinot, Ottawa, 1969. Photo: NGC

 

It may be simplistic to suggest that Canadian art from 1925 to 1955 follows a conventional succession of events — and this is not Carney’s thesis. But she does make a good argument for various throughlines in Canadian art. She also makes it clear that the art of the period was, in its various movements and through its various personalities, not only innovative, but often explosive, aimed at overturning the status quo to fashion the world anew.

Canadian Painters in a Modern World, 1925–1955: Writings and Reconsiderations by Lora Senechal Carney was published in 2017 by McGill University Press, and is available from the NGC Boutique. Iconic works by many of the artists of this period are currently on view in the Gallery’s Canadian and Indigenous Galleries. To share this article, please click on the arrow in the menu bar at the top right of the page.

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