The making of sculpture across Canada


Early last fall, three Inukshuk sculptures stationed outside Toronto’s Pearson International Airport drew international scrutiny when it was revealed that, according to Inuit culture, the positioning of the arms signified “a dangerous place to be avoided”. These Inukshuks were initially one giant sculpture built by Nunavut artist Kiakshuk and purchased by the federal government in 1963. But sometime in the intervening fifty years, they had been disassembled and reassembled and now, as three Inukshuks, they delivered an ominous warning message.

The story illustrates the sometimes dramatic and always significant evolution of sculpture. In Sculpture in Canada: A History, author Maria Tippett addresses the full spectrum of sculpture and delivers a deeply educational book perfect for sculpture buffs as well as those only peripherally interested in the subject. As critic Rosalind Krauss put it, “sculpture can be everything”. Tippett tackles a large purview, beginning with indigenous bone carvings circa 1500 BCE through to ecclesiastical sculpture in nineteenth-century Quebec, to war memorials and to Jana Sterbak’s incendiary Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, which Lady Gaga later duplicated as the “meat dress” she wore to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. A number of the subjects covered in the book — particularly how European contact affected Indigenous sculpture — are so rich they deserve their own book.

Pierre-Noël Levasseur, Saint Joseph, c. 1750, wood with gilt, 92 x 49 x 27.4 cm. Purchased 1963. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC


One particularly fascinating section, “At Home and Abroad,” covers the story of Katharine E. Wallis (1861–1957), a powerful woman who managed to challenge the establishment by becoming a successful sculptor at a time when restrictive gender norms prevented most women from entering the field. The reigning attitude at the time was that sculpture required “physical strength and stamina — attributes art critics rarely assigned to women,” Tippett writes. Wallis’ work gave “distinction and suppleness to the human figure”. Wallis’ work focused primarily on domestic subjects; His Best Toy (pre–1910) features a chubby-cheeked infant atop a small pedestal.

Katherine E. Wallis, His Best Toy, before 1910, bronze, 38.8 x 30 x 23.4 cm. Purchased 19120. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Photo: NGC


In 1914, John Edgecumbe Staley claimed that sculpture in Canada was at a “rather crude and material stage” of its development. Tippett’s book details how homegrown sculptors were seen as “less qualified and less able” and therefore tended to lose out on commissions to foreign sculptors post-Confederation. She demonstrates how Canadian sculpture has suffered from the same crippling self-abnegation that so many others forms of art are subject to.

Elizabeth Wyn Wood, Passing Rain, 1928, carved 1929, Orsera marble, 81.3 x 107.3 x 20.1 cm. Purchased 1930. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC


Another anecdote details Canadian devotion to “the cult of New York,” when on a visit to Vancouver in the early 1960s, the esteemed art critic Clement Greenberg attracted an audience who sat literally at his feet while he pontificated on the value of modern art. The crowd may have been suspicious of his unchecked intellectual authority, but no one challenged his remarks because, as Myra Hardman, wife of sculptor Jack Hardman says, “We were all Canadians. We were too polite.”

Tippet has written a deliberate and thoroughly well-researched tome that is wholly authoritative, yet at times hints at untapped depths. So much is covered in the book that, understandably, not every subject receives the appropriate treatment, or else the book would stretch to War and Peace-like lengths. At times, though, one wishes it had.

Sculpture in Canada: A History by Maria Tipett was published by Douglas & McIntyre in 2017. It is available from ShopNGC. To share this article, please click on the arrow in the menu bar at the top right of the page.

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