Changing Canada’s Art Identity
The Glenbow’s latest exhibit focuses on Montreal Modernism
By Andi Endruhn, Staff Writer
Both diversity and history of art are important to see, and the recent exhibit at the Glenbow has shown that perfectly.
In Montreal, 1920s modernism focused on Montreal’s Beaver Hall Group. Beaver Hall was a group who met in the late 1910’s and formally founded the group in 1920, naming it after the member’s shared studio space.
Unlike other artistic groups of the time, (most notably, its better known Toronto counterpart, the Group of Seven) the members of Beaver Hall were made up of both men and women. Beaver Hall marked the first time that women were recognized as artists in the Canadian art world, and not just women who “dabbled” in painting as a hobby.
The group was originally comprised of eight women and eleven men. It lasted only two years and hosted four exhibitions. The maxim of the group was best summed up by their president, A.Y. Jackson, who opened their first exhibition by saying that the artists would paint “with utter disregard for what has hitherto been considered requisite to the acceptance of the work at the recognized art exhibitions in Canadian centres.”
Refusing to be beholden to any type of school or style of art, and with a cast of artists diverse for its time, the members of Beaver Hall created art through their own lens. This brought a new dimension to the Canadian identity of the time, and continues to influence what Canadian art is today.
The selections shown in the exhibit were done by members of Beaver Hall, as well as other artists associated with the group through friendship and solidarity. Stretching through multiple rooms of the Glenbow’s exhibition halls, the exhibit included primarily paintings, with the occasional bronze sculpture and sketches by the artists from the early days of the group, into their disbandment and the artist’s later pursuits. Glass cases, stretched through the middle of the halls, displaying souvenirs of the four original exhibitions, as well as their later ones done with the Group of Seven throughout large city centres in North America and Europe.
Wandering around the halls of the Glenbow, with soft Jazz Era music playing over a speaker, the art of Beaver Hall lends itself to a fresh perspective on our history. It’s much too easy to look at our past and only see the rolling wilderness that has been painted time and time again, or the stiff realistic portraits of well-to-do Victorian parliamentarians in stiff frock coats and moustaches, and believe that that’s all there is. The artists of Beaver Hall capture people and city life of the 20th century.The style is familiar to us as a Canadian staple, but entirely different in subject, technique, and perspective.
The colours of Montreal’s winter streets are muted and paled with time, but their richness lifts off the canvas. Depth is collapsed as the roads, lined with overbearing architectural monuments and dotted with black cloaked pedestrians, are captured through the upper windows of artist’s apartments. The portraits are vibrant through simplicity; usually a single figure is looking out wistfully against a plain backdrop or a pastoral scene.
The brushstrokes change from artist to artist, from year to year. Technique shifts and morphs in the works from the rough patchy stokes of the earlier impressionistic period to the smooth and structurally airbrushed lines that harken to the techniques used by the big names in 20’s art, like J.C. Leyendecker, and Tamara de Lempicka.
The artists that brought these scenes to the canvas are not our typically celebrated artists. They are mothers, daughters and wives who were thought to be hobbyists, and rarely considered serious artists.
The inclusion of these perspectives and ideas into the Canadian art canon are important, as they broaden our understanding of our own history. Beaver Hall’s content and artists, extend our view of what we see as ourselves in the art world. We are more than a country of landscape artists. Our bustling cityscapes and residents have provided as much inspiration to our artists as the vast wilderness that surrounds them.