Canadian Women Artists: Witnesses to Change
The exhibition Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment, organized by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and now on view at the National Gallery of Canada, was born of a sense of occasion. The year 2020 marked the centenary of the first exhibition of the Group of Seven, the famous circle of painters who changed Canadian art forever with their lush post-Impressionist paintings and oil sketches of the Ontario northlands and beyond. The anniversary, however, initiated a discussion of the all-male membership of the Group, instigating a different exhibition – one focusing on their female contemporaries, long obscured in the annals of Canadian art.
There is an irony here. Although several members of the Group of Seven were valued teachers and advocates for women artists (at times inviting them to exhibit their work alongside their own), the Group itself was, as A.Y. Jackson said, “like the Twelve Apostles: no women were included.” The masculinist ideology they espoused of the flinty outdoorsman-artist in the woods set the tone for the Canadian artist-ideal for decades (at least in English-speaking Canada), casting a long shadow of male priority over the narrative of Canadian art. Women just did not fit this mould.
The Group’s popular vision of landscape as “untouched” also unconsciously obscured the reality of Indigenous displacement from ancestral lands, and of rampaging resource extraction (both mining and logging) then taking place in all parts of the country. As society was reeling in the aftermath of the First World War and the Spanish flu, the solace of nature held a deep appeal – both for artists and their clients – as did retreat from some of the more challenging realities of the day.
While male artists were preoccupied with landscape, their female counterparts were looking at everything else: urban scenes, human stories, industrialization, class inequity, immigrant life and Indigenous cultures and communities. The interwar period was a time of profound social change in Canada, as Indigenous peoples faced the devastation of the residential school system and forced displacement from their lands, as immigration rates soared and as Canadian society rapidly transitioned from rural to urban. Women artists were taking note, bearing witness to these dramatic changes – whether one thinks of Russian émigré artist Paraskeva Clark reflecting on her immigrant identity as a new Canadian and her bold commitment to politics in art, or of Yulia Biriukova, another new arrival, whose vivid caricatures of the lumberjack and the miner reveal her grasp of the prevailing Canadian ideology.
While some artists engaged with social and political issues, others delved into the personal sphere. The deeply psychological paintings of Prudence Heward, Pegi Nicol MacLeod and Lilias Torrance Newton all demonstrate an ability to express the inner lives of their subjects in ways that remain unparalleled in Canadian art. The city was another compelling subject for women artists, including Marian Dale Scott in Montreal and Marion Long in Toronto, who lingered over both the pleasures and the alienations of urban life.
Indigenous ways of living and creating also held the attention of many settler women artists – among them Kathleen Daly Pepper, Winnifred Petchey Marsh, Anne Savage and Emily Carr – as they depicted Indigenous peoples and their cultures in a time of transition. The cultural practices of Indigenous women in Canada are central to the narrative of this exhibition, as they continued their ancestral traditions of making for family and community while also stepping into the fray of the settler capitalist economy with their trade goods. Uninvited thus includes a cradleboard and beaded moss-bag by Anishinaabe artist Elizabeth Katt Petrant (from Bear Island, Temagami) and a beaded amauti by Padlirmiut Inuit artist Anne Maria Kiger’lerk – both made for family and personal use – as well as a set of dazzling porcupine quill boxes by Mi’kmaq artist Bridget Anne Sack, made for trade.
In the Halifax region, women from Black and Mi'kmaq communities engaged in the family traditions of basket- and box-making. A local edict continued traditions of exclusion by allowing them to sell their works only outside the entrance to the Halifax Market, and photographs in the exhibition underscore the solidarity of those who had been designated "outsiders." The basketry work by contemporary Black artists from this region, such as Selena Irene Sparks Drummond, reflects the heritage of United Empire Loyalists who came to Canada during the War of 1812.
Many of the artists in Uninvited demonstrate a daring ability to convey distinctly female experiences. Pegi Nicol MacLeod’s radical A Descent of Lilies is an orgasmic, multi-colour exploration of female pleasure, while her electrifying self-portrait The Slough is an exercise in harrowing self-scrutiny. Portraits by Lilias Torrance Newton and Marian Dale Scott reveal the depths of female friendship, while Suzanne Duquet’s Group explores the fraught ties that bind four sisters (with the artist at centre, at her easel). Most likely painted from a sketch made during a 1932 camping trip to the Ottawa Valley, Yvonne McKague Housser’s Marguerite Pilot of Deep River suggests the charged space between a non-Indigenous woman artist and her Indigenous female subject.
While the Group of Seven artists developed their talents for the most part in the milieu of commercial illustration, many of the leading women artists in the interwar period attended the most sophisticated art schools in Montreal, Toronto, New York, London and Paris. Kathleen Munn, one of the earliest adherents of abstraction in North America, carried the pollen of Cubism back to Toronto following her years at New York's famous Art Students League, while Montreal’s Prudence Heward drew upon her European training and travels to upend the traditional genres of the society portrait, theatre scenes, female bathers and the nude in her unnerving and subversive large-scale works.
It is in the art of Emily Carr, however, that radical painterly style and progressive thematic concerns come together most famously. Notwithstanding the occasionally patronizing tone of her writings, which can offend contemporary ears, Carr is deservedly celebrated for her prescient solidarity with Indigenous people at a time of relentless government-sanctioned oppression. She also grasped the implications of capitalism’s view of landscape as commodity, railing against the increasingly widespread practice of forest clearcutting in her home province of British Columbia. In the exhibition, her paintings are coupled with the Salish cedar-root baskets of Matilda Jim, Rose Andrew, Sewinchelwet (Sophie Frank), Amy Cooper and others – all works that embody a balanced interdependency between human beings and their natural surroundings.
In her self-portrait, Carr’s defiant stare puts the viewer on guard. This is not the neighbourhood eccentric of local lore, but rather a defiant and astute observer who identified the most egregious ills of her time and made paintings about them. Carr clearly should be moved from the category of "beloved" to that of "esteemed," where she undisputedly belongs – her fierce gaze demands no less.
All of us at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection would like to express our thanks to the National Gallery of Canada for its generous support of this exhibition, through the staff's collegiality and the many spectacular loans, augmented for this showing by additional works drawn from the Gallery's permanent galleries display. The Gallery’s holdings of works by Canadian women artists are a testament to its visionary leadership over many decades, as it strived to be more inclusive in telling the story of Canadian art.
Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment, organized by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection with the exceptional support of the National Gallery of Canada, is on view until August 20, 2023. For a full listing of lectures and related events, see the Events page. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.