A Time and Place: Identity and Canadian Women Artists across Two Centuries

 

Kristina Huneault’s ambitious work of art history, I’m Not Myself at All: Women, Art, and Subjectivity in Canada, is a heady, scholarly tour-de-force that recasts our understanding of the work of female artists by considering the extent to which they themselves are both absent and present in the products of their creative labours. Jam-packed with social history, well-articulated philosophical concepts and attentiveness to the forms and effects of individual artworks, this is a riveting read (even with its requisite academic terminology). I would recommend this book to anyone with a keen interest in Canadian art from the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially that by women, and likewise to readers curious to revisit, by a penetrating, sidelong view, our country’s social and colonial history. In defiance of this volume’s beauty, I read it with pencil-in-hand, compulsively starring and underlining Huneault’s lucid and thought-provoking observations.

Rather than an exhaustive survey of female artists in Canada, I’m Not Myself at All threads together six thematic essays, each delving into a period, practice or facet of women’s art history. Huneault interweaves a close study of artists’ works and careers with focused investigations into relevant aspects of colonial history, the economics of empire, feminist thinking past and present, philosophy, science, psychology, ever-evolving perspectives on motherhood and Indigenous world views. These investigations aren’t superficial. Huneault comes at them through the lives and works of the artists she discusses, raising questions about how these artists’ situations as women in a certain time and place affected their work: in part by how the artists accepted, resisted or otherwise engaged with their circumstances. Much like the curators of the 2015 touring exhibition The Artist Herself: Self-Portraits by Canadian Historical Women Artists (an exhibition revisited here), Huneault weighs subjectivity over identity, striving to approach the artist “from the inside rather than from without”. Huneault writes, “the mantle of identity sits heavy on the shoulders of women, attended as it has been by a retinue of expectations, assumptions and restrictions of being.” Discussions about the self, on the other hand, “incline toward nuance, leaving room for complexities...” .

Henrietta Martha Hamilton, Demasduit, 1819 . Watercolour on ivory. Library and Archives Canada, Library and Archives Canada / acc. no. 1977-14-1/ c087698k

Huneault brings those complexities forth with a vigorous, open-minded intellect, methodically guiding her reader through her evolving thought processes. In the first chapter, she considers the “blankness” in Henrietta Hamilton’s 1819 miniature depicting a Beothuk woman named Demasduit, a work now in the collection of Library and Archives Canada and currently on view at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. Hamilton was married to the Governor of Newfoundland; Demasduit was captured by colonial settlers. Is the portrait’s blankness due to the artist’s lack of skill or does it capture the psychological state of a woman who had been violently wrenched from her community? To answer this, in part, Huneault calls on rich, archival resources to provide a vivid account of the relations between the colonial inhabitants of Newfoundland and the Beothuk communities they had displaced. She considers the “blankness” inherent in both colonial ideology and in the limited role permitted the wife of a high-ranking official in a colonial outpost and proposes that Demasduit’s expression might also relate to her well-documented adeptness at mimicry: “a captive Demasduit politely mimicking back to the governor’s wife a portrait of gentility and blankness.”

Each essay in this book offers a similarly careful, widely cast, illuminating study. Thus, a chapter on turn-of-the-century Impressionist Helen McNicoll builds a convincing case for her paintings, long seen as simple romantic idylls, to be read instead as nuanced treatments of silence, absorption and even detachment among their female subjects. McNicoll was deaf, and part of Huneault’s analysis draws on a thorough study of contemporary deaf culture, including McNicoll’s position within that reality.

Frances Anne Hopkins, Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall, 1869. Oil on canvas, 152.4 x 73.7 cm. Library and Archives Canada / Acc. No. 1989-401-1 / e011153912

In other chapters, Huneault re-examines Frances Anne Hopkins’ veiled representations of herself in the Voyageur journeys she portrayed, Canadian women’s impressive contribution to the field of botanical art and the contrasts and correspondences between maternal portraits and reveries. In the latter, Huneault – again, through methodic study of artworks, artists and wide contexts – recasts these maternal portraits from reductive readings highlighting the “oneness” of mother-and-child by noting instead a togetherness that allows each to remain separate, a state the author describes as “being-with” rather than “being-for”.

Her final chapter is devoted to a bold and thoughtful consideration of Emily Carr’s later forest paintings – those vivid, swirling works seemingly in perpetual motion – alongside the work of Coast Salish basketry artist Sewinchelwet (Sophie Frank) and the cultural and spiritual ideas that continue to thrive among contemporary basketmakers, opening up new ways of understanding each.

In her effort to release women in art from a purely identity-driven analysis, Huneault amply demonstrates how broader societal concerns influenced the work of these artists – and their senses of selfhood – but likewise how a close study of women’s art and its making can reveal hitherto unconsidered narrative threads in our cultural and historical development.

 

I’m Not Myself at All: Women, Art, and Subjectivity in Canada by Kristina Huneault is a publication of McGill-Queen’s University Press (2018). Henrietta Hamilton's miniature is included in Ladylikeness: Historical Portraits of Women by Women at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary until March 31, 2020. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery news, exhibitions and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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