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Andrew Bell

An Exhibition of Contemporary Canadian Art

Canadian Art, Vol. VII #4, Summer 1950.
[ 1,542 words ]


What is the state of the arts in Canada today? To seek an answer to this question was one of the reasons why the Royal Commission on the Arts, Letters and Sciences was set up. And if the Commission needed visual evidence, as opposed to formal briefs, the Exhibition of Contemporary Canadian Arts early in March gave the answer.

The exhibition was designed in honour of the Golden Jubilee of the [National] Gallery; in it for the first time nearly all of the important artistic organizations in this country merged in one of their normally quite separate annual exhibitions. Contributing societies included the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, the Canadian Group of Painters, the Ontario Society of Artists, the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour, the Sculptors Society of Canada, the Canadian Society of Graphic Art, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and a craft section with works from the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, the Canadian Guild of Potters, and the Spinners and Weavers of Ontario. Grouped in six separate sections were Oil and Pastel, Water Colour, Sculpture, Graphic Arts, Architecture and Crafts. In practice, anyone in Canada could have submitted an entry: more than two thousand in fact were received of which 816 were selected for showing. Every possible space in the gallery building, including the sculpture court and print room, was used and some work even spilled out into the corridors. It was an arduous assignment in organization handled admirably.

The exhibition, indeed, was so large that talk about individual contributions is impossible: there were far too many. Through the amount and variety of work shown, one, however, obtained a welcome chance to ponder the direction of contemporary Canadian work both in the applied and fine arts.

Canadians are an inhibited people. We find it infernally difficult to say adequately what we think or feel. Nor do we like bringing out into the open unpleasant things. We prefer to be patient or devious and avoid a fight. We are disciples of a gentle compromise which aims to please as many as possible of the people all of the time. It has been so in our politics and our private lives and this exhibition was a startling demonstration that it is equally true in our arts.

Now I do not want to infer that these qualities of restraint are in themselves bad, nor that it would be good if right along the line — we should be free of them. But the arts are in a special position. Artists are creators who must speak the whole truth as they conceive it, no matter whom they hurt. If in this they fail, they mock their calling. To succeed they must, in their creations, reflect whatever interests them, and so, utterly without moralizing, state a point or point a way. In short, their work must be as free as their thoughts or emotions. Pleasing a lot of people may turn out to be one of the results of their work, yet never should any thoughts of obtaining such pleasant rewards interfere with their creative activity, at least in its formative stages.

Let me make myself clear. I am not imputing the integrity of any of the contributions, and a lot of them are completely outside of these generalizations. All I am suggesting is that, if our artists are to do their best work, some of them must struggle to free themselves of these limiting national characteristics.

On balance this exhibition is a depressing expression of our national reserve. The artists who endure are those with a particular bite or passion to their stuff, men who acknowledge the joys and sorrows and problems of their period and depict them according to their own burning lights — straight. Architects must obviously know their past or they will be building on sand. But their work will not be apposite unless it fits now and here and predicts the future. In a more modest way it is so, too, with the crafts, which will be only appropriate and fresh if they smack of a Canadian environment. As it is, our crafts tend too much to be a meaningless reproduction of what used to go on in Europe.

I cannot believe that the spark of artistic genius is less strong here than elsewhere. And if technical capacity and a respect for hard work are the necessary tools of genuine creation, then it was present here, for, in this exhibition, fine technique and diligence sparkled through like sunshine. What our artists appear to lack, rather, is faith in themselves and a vision of what honest thinking and imagination can achieve. The layman is to blame, too. We still think of our artists as luxuries, and deny them scandalously the adrenalin of basic encouragement.

Apply these remarks to the six sections. Weakest is the large oil and pastel one. Regardless of whether a painter's faith lies in the more representational and academic traditions or not, what should count is freshness and conviction. Style in itself is no touchstone. Yet I can think of scarcely a picture among the more traditional work shown which measures up to these tests. Fortunately, in the modern and experimental fields the situation is better, although, even here, much of the subject matter is thin and trivial. The numbers of paintings of logs or of fish, for example, is appalling. No doubt they make pleasant pictures, but in a national review of this kind they should hardly dominate. Either logs or fish or both hung on nearly every wall.

Of all the paintings, the watercolours were the best; many of them had integrity and quiet power. In the same sense the various drawings, engravings and other prints shown in the graphic art section proved to be encouraging. Is this because our artists are more prepared to be adventurous if they work in a minor scale?

At first glance, the room devoted to sculpture resembled exactly a cemetery. Works were ranged about on pedestals like so many ill-placed tombstones. There were a few pleasant works, yes, and it is important to acknowledge how hard it is in Canada to be a sculptor; yet here, too, the work was blemished by tightness and compromise. Architecture was more encouraging. Particularly in the contributions which would be labelled 'modern' you could feel a stirring of that probing question — is this true to Canadian needs and the Canadian scene? Could not this approach be carried farther? Must God, for example, be worshipped eternally in Gothic surroundings. All those slit windows had a practical reason in the past, which doesn't bind us in 1950. It was so, too, on quite another level with the crafts. Technically some of them were very good. But an adequate preoccupation with appropriateness to time and place — and taste — were all lacking.

What has been written here does not cover, even in a broad way, the whole story of what this exhibition set out to do. As this was a jubilee celebration, the Gallery wanted a big attendance, and so the exhibition was given an unusual degree of publicity. Crowds, as a result, were much bigger than normal in the first week, but they dwindled afterwards to approximately the customary daily figures. Does this mean that the public is substantially smarter than some would think? Sales of works, on the other hand, were higher, suggesting perhaps that people liked having representative samples of work from all Canada to choose from. Some of the 'amateur' contributions were better than some 'professional' ones. It may be that our various national art groups should revise the terms of admissibility to their annual exhibitions. Some of our art societies tend to think of themselves as separate 'movements'; they regard the work of their members as being different from that of other groups. But seeing all these contributions hung indiscriminately together, I became conscious that the qualities common to Canadian painting make these professed 'differences' look exceedingly small. One aim was that the exhibition should be as catholic as possible. The idea of promoting an exhibition of such wide appeal was a good one; it is worth trying again, provided some more rigid standards are adhered to by the juries. For example, in this exhibition there were more than a few 'amateurish' as distinct from 'amateur' contributions; such works should never have been selected for display. After all, the public is a layman and as such has a right to be protected from the patently spurious.

While the exhibition may have been depressing, it was, just the same, in the opinion of this reviewer, the most valuable of its kind in our history. For the first time two important things happened. The art societies for this year abandoned their own shows and collaborated; as a result, a wider understanding of their mutual aims emerged. Despite a few limitations, such as the relatively small amount of French-Canadian work submitted, we were given an omnibus statement on the contemporary arts. We know now exactly where we stand, what is strong and what is weak about the state of our arts. This mid-century date, 1950, is a good time for self-examination.


Canadian Art, Vol. VII #4, Summer 1950.


Text: © Andrew Bell. All rights reserved.

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