The Canadian Art Database


Lorna Farrell-Ward

Tradition / Transition: The Keys to Change
From Vancouver Art and Artists: 1931-1983

An inaugural exhibition in celebration of the opening of the new Vancouver Art Gallery
at Robson Square, October 15-December 31 1983

[ 8,109 words ]

When the new Vancouver Art Gallery opened in 1931, Vancouver was at the beginning of a time of transition that was fateful for art in British Columbia. For it was during the thirties and early forties, despite social and financial upheavals, that a great deal of the groundwork was laid and precedents were set for postwar development.

Attitudes prevalent in the art community at the time did not lend themselves to the creation of a dynamic situation. Behind an enthusiasm for nature lay a moral British conservative tradition. For most artists, European avant-garde movements or trends held little interest. The outlook was that of a colonial community without an efficacious centre, but with standards that were imported or artificial.

In such a situation, a few artists held the keys to change.


At the first meeting of the British Columbia Art League on Feb. 3, 1921, the League's goals were read out by the acting chairman, Bernard McEvoy, veteran critic of the Vancouver Daily Province:

To promote and encourage education in arts and crafts, to cause to be founded and maintained a central and branch schools of fine arts and industrial arts and crafts, and permanent art galleries and museums, to hold arts and crafts exhibitions, to improve civic art, town and home planning, architecture and landscape gardening.(1)

Supported by business and labour,(2) the BCAL made use of rooms supplied by the B.C. Manufacturers Association to establish a gallery at 309 West Cordova Street. The opening exhibition, of graphics from the Toronto Graphic Arts Club, hung alongside twenty paintings selected by the director of the National Gallery of Canada, Eric Brown, set a precedent of showing 'the best' art from Eastern Canada. The gallery was to move to several locations, including Spencer's Department Store and the Hudson's Bay Company, while the BCAL continued in its aim to improve the community by establishing a permanent civic art gallery. In 1929, the executive council, citing the League's earlier success in founding a school of arts and crafts, continued to stress the need 'to aim not only at action towards Art interests,' but to 'work for the general cultural development of the community life of the city and province.'

As a result of continued efforts over nearly five years, a Vancouver art school had come into being in 1925 with the distinctive, if cumbersome, name of Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts. The objectives of the School were to give a thorough and practical three-year course in industrial design, drawing, and painting; however, it was clear from the start that training also needed to be provided for students intending to follow the various trades or seek employment in manufacturing. Whether these goals were an extension of the interests of the BCAL or a requirement imposed by the Vancouver School Board, there was a stated desire to keep in close touch with the established industries and professions in the province which 'are dependent on art for their success.' Nevertheless, this did not lead to a Bauhaus-like union of applied and fine arts. Students were encouraged to use the surrounding natural resources and relate design to environment. West coast Indian legends provided themes for decorative panels and textiles, and local industry was a topic for poster projects. The idea was to lift the subject of design out of the abstract and into everyday application. Group projects in interior decoration used 'natural' resources that allowed design to progress from an exercise on paper to an operation in creative living.

The impact of the School on the art community came the following year when Charles H. Scott became director and with unusual foresight hired Fred H. Varley from Toronto and Jock Macdonald from England. Scott, a Glasgow School of Art graduate and former art supervisor in the school system, had initially hired Grace Melvin, a member of the Glasgow School, to set up the design department. Melvin, who was interested in the Art Nouveau style of the Charles Macintosh School, had a thorough grounding in design, illumination, and the decorative arts. Composition, colour harmony, and structure were the aesthetic criteria for 'a thorough good grounding' in which 'discipline did not discourage orginality.' With the arrival of Varley and a fresh perception of the British Columbian landscape, a new generation of painters began a domination of Vancouver painting that was to last the next two decades.


Although the Group of Seven exhibitions in Vancouver in 1920 and 1922 had passed without much discussion, a 1928 exhibition caused a barrage of newspaper editorials under such headings as 'Art(?) Attacked' and 'Vancouver Hardly Grown-up Enough to Judge New Art.' Hostility to modernism was augmented by western resentment at eastern presumption; no group of eastern artists was going to tell British Columbians that these distortions subordinating natural representation to formal design captured the spirit of the Canadian landscape. Complaints were lodged against the Group, citing their undue influence, the exclusiveness of their vision of Canadian art, their continual selection as being representative of all Canadian art.(3)

An excerpt from the Toronto Telegram was reprinted to make an editorial point: 'This so-called stagnated Group painting was not even Canadian but followed in the rut of the so-called "modernists" who had afflicted the whole world and were particularly virulent in Germany.' The accent was on Canadian; nationalist sentiment was more prevalent than artistic values. A few members of the art community, on the other hand, used the opportunity of the exhibition to explain the value of modern art. The views of photographers Harold Mortimer-Lamb and John Vanderpant on capturing the mood of nature became part of the Group's defence. The exhibition and resulting discussion had a far-reaching effect on young art students. Although they were familiar with the work of the Group of Seven (a former member, Varley, and a Group admirer, Macdonald, were teaching at the art school) this was for some the first opportunity to view images from a different realm of influence. Artist Irene Hoffar Reid, a former student, describes the experience:

It was a long narrow room and I didn't know what to expect. I came in and there at the end was a Lawren Harris great triangular mountain. Oh, I felt just carried away. I'd lived here all my life and seen mountains all around me and I felt I'd never seen a mountain before. It was just an overwhelming experience. I think we understood Varley better too, and what he was tryingto tell us.(4)

Varley made an immediate impression on his students and fellow artists. During the ten years he was in Vancouver he was considered the most influential person on the local art scene. His controversial character and his effect upon the Vancouver School of Art are best described by one of his students, Fred Amess, who, in 1955, as principal of the School, delivered a speech on Varley and the heady wine of new freedoms:

We first imagined Varley to be a self-primed fount of knowledge, but we soon discovered that he was rather a spout through which flowed all the new excitements of the world, spiced rather than tamed by sound academic training. It was a violent stream that has hosed upon us, but those with roots were nourished, even if some were washed away; and it was a directed, steady stream. We soon learnt that the reservoir of this enormous power lay in books. For drawing, it was Vernon Blake's Art and Craft of Drawing, for colour it was [Wilhelm] Oswald, (5)and for history, Elie Faure, with overtones of Freud in all cases.

We were deluged by prints, trips to Chinatown... Chinese food... Chinese horses, Persian manuscripts, Matisse and Japanese prints. Puvis de Chavannes was dragged in to defend the Occidental title to the decorative arts with Whistler — Aubrey Beardsley... following up behind.

We all struggled with enthusiasms far beyond our knowledge, led by a painting maniac

Varley's first reaction to British Columbia had been passionate and revealing of his strongly spiritual nature:

British Columbia is heaven, he wrote. It trembles within me and pains with its wonder as when a child I first awakened to the song of the earth — what will you do if you become a constant worshipper of moving waters and mists, jack-pines and rocky promontories, rushing torrents, glaciers and snow peaks, silver rain and an atmosphere so changing with forms playing hide and seek and again stark and hard seen through an air so translucent that colours appear as if seen through still waters or crystallised [sic]in ice — Japanese fish, Chinese have vegetable gardens, Hindoos [sic] haul wood, and I often feel that only the Chinese of the eleventh and twelfth centuries ever interpreted the spirit of such a country.

He renewed his interest in Buddhism and occultism, using colours such as blue and green to suggest the highest state of spirituality. In an important painting from 1932, Dharana (a Buddhist term meaning 'at one with nature'), the subject (Vera Weatherbie, a student and friend), in metaphysical communion with nature, is surrounded by an aura of blue and green to create an aesthetic and spiritual fusion. In Open Window (1932), he balanced the same colour sphere with a quality of serenity and simplicity characteristic of the Chinese landscape painting he held in high esteem. An admirer of Duncan Grant and André Dunoyer de Segonzac, Varley declared that Quebec artists, working under the influence of modern French Schools, had an advantage over their Canadian contemporaries in their rich 'feel' for paint. His own landscapes, and portraits such as Vera (1930), are distinguished by strong planar structure created with loose, full brushwork of dry, heightened colour.

Philip Surrey, who had attended the Winnipeg School of Art and studied drawing with Le Moine FitzGerald, arrived in Vancouver in 1929. He attended only a few of Varley's evening classes, but became a friend of the family through his friendship with the eldest son, John Varley. While over at the Varley house, Surrey benefited from frequent critiques. He recalls Fred Varley suggesting that it might be worth trying to make a framing type of composition with the centres of interest at the edges of the canvas instead of near the middle. This can be seen in Varley's Open Window (1932) and is certainly used successfully in Surrey's Nox Nocti Indicat Scientiam (1934). The spacious areas of cool colour and lyricism in Going to Work (1935) can be attributed to Varley's influence, but Philip Surrey went on to use early morning light and deserted street scenes to create an individual, urban mood. He left in 1936 to study anatomical drawing at John Hopkins University in Baltimore; unable to enter, he went to the Art Students League in New York, and a year later moved to Montreal, where in his painting he quickly responded to the cosmopolitan environment. Unlike many artists in Vancouver, Philip Surrey felt the prime weakness of Canadian painting was its insistence on being Canadian at the expense of being open to international experience — the thinking of a painter who could learn as much as he did from Varley without diminishing his own identity.

Along with Varley, Emily Carr, W. P. Weston, and John Vanderpant, Jock Macdonald was among the first of the area's artists to share in the struggle to develop a personal vision of reality. When Macdonald joined the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts in 1926, he came with training (at Edinburgh College of Art) in commercial design. The staff and art community were small, he was quickly befriended by Varley (with whom he shared a studio), and soon participating in landscape sketching trips to Garibaldi Park and Savary Island. Convinced that inner reality was revealed by close attention to nature, he found the flat and decoratively stylized contours of his early pen-and-ink sketches and prints such as Indian Salmon Rack, Fraser Canyon, B.C. (1931) frustratingly inadequate. They were too closely connected to his early commercial training. Encouraged to paint, he produced The Lytton Church, B.C. (1930), a similarly tight composition combined with a 'leading of the eye in' fore- middle- and background perspective inspired by the Group of Seven. Macdonald's continuing struggle to exorcise the flat Scottish Art Nouveau design element from his work and to master colour values was part of the experimental beginnings that led to his use of increasingly abstracted subjects during his ensuing years in British Columbia. The aim of this later painting was to record through reference to nature the subconscious process of the artist, along with the symbolic spirit of the subject. The landscape was used in a formal compositional way to convey spiritual values.

Given the immense physicality of this region, the English romantic tradition seemed inadequate to Vancouver painters preoccupied with landscape. They looked instead to modernist ideas. Their acceptance of abstract forms and of a spiritual or mystical philosophy was a combined awareness of environment and introspection. The relationship of transcendental mystical concepts to art was not a new idea, certainly in Europe, but in Vancouver it was logical that such a perception would result from the presence of a large Oriental population. Macdonald and Varley considered this when they decided to start their school: 'The inspiration for the college was received from the character of Vancouver, powerfully influenced by the Occident and the Orient. It is planned to make contact across the Pacific through exchange of exhibition of work and to procure, if possible, the assistance of artists of the Orient to teach new phases of expression.'(6)

The spring of 1933 brought a cutback in funds by the Vancouver Board of Education that threatened to close the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts. Charles Scott, the director, obtained an agreement from the Board to continue to run the School on the revenue obtained from fees. This meant a sixty per cent reduction in salary for the teachers and a thirty per cent reduction for the director, who was to remain fulltime. Varley and Macdonald felt this was 'unfair and inequitable' and left to organize the British Columbia College of Arts.

Funds for the new college were solicited from individuals, including Robert Cromee and Mrs. E. Bernulf Clegg; Robert Lennie, K. C., supplied legal counsel. On Sept. 11, 1933, the college opened in a former motor showroom and garage at 1233-39 West Georgia with 234 full-time and part-time students. Joining Varley and Mcdonald in this undertaking was Harry Tauber, a Viennese stage and costume designer who had arrived in 1932. Tauber, whose calling card read 'Harry Tauber, Exponent of Modern Art,' had studied with Josef Hoffman in Vienna and worked for the Viennese Expressionist Imperial 'Burg Theatre.'

An unusual and magnetic personality, he brought his enthusiasm for expressionism, metaphysics, constructivism, and spiritualism to his classes in architecture, costume, eurythmics, film, and theatre arts. The staff also included three former Vancouver School of Decorative and

Applied Arts' students: Beatrice Lennie, sculpture; Vera Weatherbie, drawing; and Margaret Williams, design. All departments intermingled. Painting, dance, music, design, yoga, and meditation were blended with discussions on P. D. Ouspensky, anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner, theosophy, and expanding consciousness to the fourth dimension. Students did eurythmics in the evenings, dressed in black silk, with Harry Tauber in a blue jumpsuit. Tauber, interested in the philosophical and religious aspects of puppetry, brought together a group of marionette players who presented productions of The Witch Doctor and Petrouchka at the Vancouver Art Gallery. A modern production of Ben Jonson's Volpone, with masks, drew three hundred spectators each evening it played.

The College generated such enthusiasm among its students that it is tempting to consider what might have resulted had it not succumbed to financial difficulties. In June, 1935, amid an economic depression, the doors were closed.

Fred Varley moved away from his family to Lynn Valley. There, under intolerable living conditions, he confined himself to watercolours and pencil sketches which included plans for a painting he felt would be an important breakthrough: Liberation (1936-37), a huge painting of the resurrection of Christ that was not to be executed in B.C. In March 1936, with assistance from the National Gallery, Varley left for Ottawa.

The Macdonalds, with Harry Tauber and Les Planta, moved to Nootka, on Vancouver Island. Macdonald had grown more interested in interpreting concepts of nature beyond external representation. He became familiar with the writings of Ozenfant and Blavatsky, and of theosophists Jeans, Kinkowski, and Peter Ouspensky and his time and space theories. In Tertium Organum, Ouspensky stressed that the noumenal world could not be comprehended in the same way as the phenomenal world. During the early thirties in Vancouver, the search for unity and external or cosmic reality was through philosophical and religious concerns — a goal that Macdonald established for his art. As early as 1934 he had painted Formative Color Activity, which he later referred to as 'automatic' painting. The isolated environment at Nootka encouraged a return to these earlier concerns and he experimented with what he called 'thought expressions' or 'modalities.' Each of these works was about some aspect of nature: a cosmic event, the seasons, a mood. Unlike his later 'automatic' work (and Kandinsky's 1914 Abstraction, which appears similar), Macdonald's 'modalities' never abandoned a reference to nature.

Ill and short of money, he returned to Vancouver in November 1936, to suffer a collapsed lung the following year. The Vancouver Art Gallery's purchase of Indian Burial, Nootka (1937) brought some respite; the Macdonalds broke out of Vancouver isolation with a trip to California. In San Francisco, Macdonald admired Cézanne's paintings (their influence appears in his Okanagan landscapes of 1943) and, in Los Angeles, works by Picasso, Ernst, Kandinsky, Braque, and Archipenko.

Back in Canada, he returned to teaching, developing a strong and loyal following in the art community. The 'modalities' developed at Nootka were to remain his chief concern during the last year of the decade. Not only had he been offered showings on his California trip, but the Vancouver public was attending his exhibitions and lectures on abstraction in increasing numbers. In a letter to Harry McClurry (July 22, 1936) he explains the term 'modalities' and the reaction in Vancouver to his work:

Those semi-abstracts I call 'Modalities' this new word dug up from the dictionary, and so far as I think it is the only classification which interprets the expression of this work. It means 'expression of thought in relation to nature' and was considered by Kant to relate to creative expressions which did not relate to nature (objectively), nor relate to abstract thoughts (subjectively) about nature, but rather included both expressions... Strangely enough the Vancouver people have not scoffed at these canvasses, and many appear interested. What I find so interesting is the complete lack of scoffing. The desire for new thought expressions in the arts appears to be more general than one might imagine.

Although the interest was there, in public curiosity for 'the new', Macdonald's support came from a small circle of friends. They included photographer John Vanderpant, Emily Carr, and eventually Lawren Harris when he arrived in Vancouver in 1940. But it was not enough. Macdonald had to make the decision to leave that is so often forced upon west coast artists — the result of deprival of direct contact with prevailing art interests, and lack of financial support (compounded, in Macdonald's case, by the depressed economy). In 1946 he left for Calgary, eventually settling in Toronto.


In British Columbia, exploration of representational and subjective responses to nature was dominant. At the same time, a few influential artists were advancing the position of modern painting.

Like Macdonald, they took their inspiration from nature if only to act on the gesture of painting as a ritual to repeat a natural phenomenon. Painting became the action of water, or the form of trees, or the spirit of atmosphere. To a certain degree the interaction between abstraction and natural phenomena is a series of accidents which, despite their subject matter, require an 'energy' amongst the fragments of composition. It was this 'energy' that British Columbia artists sought through spiritual or religious means.

Emily Carr's early approaches, based on English painting traditions, lacked the means to express what she was observing. In a supplement to the McGill News in 1929, she describes her dissatisfaction — and her inspiration:

So far the West has small appreciation of and little desire to understand Modern Art. It is content with the dead photographic art of the last century, with the ideals brought out fifty and more years ago, to the 'uncultured west'.... In Vancouver and Victoria there are art societies who hold yearly exhibits, but anything that has a modern flavor is stuck into obscure corners... the oldest art in Canada, that of her native Indians, is by far the most 'modern' in spirit of anything in western Canada.... In the first place being creative art it is vital and alive. The artists have searched beneath the surface for the hidden thing which is felt rather than seen, the 'reality' in fact which underlies everything. [This aspect of Northwest Coast Indian art interested the European Surrealists in the early thirties.] 'The Indian believed that everything, even the commonest article and utensil, was possessed of a spirit of its own, peculiar to itself.... What are we Canadian artists of the west going to do with our art? We are young yet, and are only slowly finding a way, but are we obliged to bedeck ourselves in borrowed plumes and copy art born of other countries and not ours? Shall we try to make Canada look English or French or Italian by painting conscientiously in a style that does not belong to us? Or shall we search as the Indian did, amid our own surroundings and material, for something of our own through which to express ourselves....

Carr is asking some of the questions that the Group of Seven raised, but the answers for her lay not only in the structured geometry of the forest and Indian totem pole but in the attempt to understand the connection between self-expression and the formal language used in native art. She found it of interest that the Native Indian had no written language; this appealed to her own idea of the artist's work as a vehicle of expression and interpretation.

When in 1927 Eric Brown invited Carr to participate in the Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art she was in a position to benefit from her introduction to the Group of Seven. Encouraged by Lawren Harris to emphasize the strongly modelled and massive forms of nature with its 'underlying spirits,' her work quickly moved beyond merely describing the coastal forest and Native Indian villages. One can see the influence of Harris in the Vorticist light and geometric forms of her forest paintings. Another artist who became influential was the American Mark Tobey who tried to interest her in relationships between forms, reversals of detail, and an exaggerated playing off of light and shade.

Following Tobey's suggestion, in Grey (c. 1931)she limited her palette to black, grey, and white (an exercise that could reveal valuable lessons about form and light), heightening the contrast of light and shade. The source of light is from within the volume of the tree with the triangular shape of the tree dominating (the triangular form, often seen in Harris's work, has spiritual meaning in theosophy).

Although Grey has echoes of Harris and Tobey, Carr was to develop her own interpretation of the West Coast. She became a painter who took a theological approach to nature. Harris had introduced her to theosophy, encouraging her to read Blavatsky and Ouspensky. In the mid-thirties Carr was to reject what she felt were its cold and mechanical approaches to God and, through her reading of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, struggle to reach her own conclusions for a 'joyful' communing with nature. Her mature work allegorically implies the nature of existence. With a free sweep of the brush, the swirls of colour and open sky in Scorned asTimber, Beloved of the Sky (c.1935) achieve a spiritual uplifting and life force — an exultant freedom. In the study of place, Carr made the leap from the tradition of representing landscape to identifying it.

Searching for structure and meaning, other painters such asW.P. Weston had dramatized the vital forces of nature: the heroic landscape against the elements. With a different perception, Varley and Macdonald had struggled to identify the spiritual forces of nature. Reacting against the English tradition, they all selected and adapted other influences to evolve individual styles, regional in their inspiration. They went beyond interpretation of British Columbia per se to express the universality of nature. The image of the landscape we now have is largely one they have created for us.


Protesters marched in the May Day parade under a dozen banners — as Communists, Nazis, relief camp workers, prairie farmers. The Depression had reached Vancouver with lay-offs in the lumber, fishing, and shipping industries and the 1931 census showed 57,844 out of 234,321 wage-earners were unemployed in British Columbia. To ease the city's resources, the Department of National Defence established work camps for unemployed single men. To refuse a 'pick and shovel' meant possible jail.

'Four thousand unemployed transients and single men without dependents who are receiving direct relief in Vancouver will be given the opportunity during the next few days to go to work on provincial highways. Those who fail to avail themselves of this opportunity...will be denied relief.'(7)

As late as 1938, when newspapers in Ottawa were saying the Depression was over, there were more unemployed in Vancouver than ever before. Embittered and enraged, more than a thousand of them protested by occupying three of the city's most important buildings — the Hotel Georgia, the Central Post Office, and the Vancouver Art Gallery.

The choice of the Vancouver Art Gallery (occupation of which lasted a month) was entirely based on the visibility of the new municipal building. The gallery was among many landmark buildings built in Vancouver during the thirties: progress in the face of adversity. Mayor Gerry McGeer pursued an active building program in keeping with the prevailing Keynesian economic theory that spending generated employment and contributed to economic recovery. The thirties' attitude was one of 'What we do today matters mightily tomorrow,' with popular attention focussed on a brighter future.

In 1925, around the living-room fireplace at the home of Jonathan Rogers, 2050 Nelson Street, a few prominent citizens were discussing the cultural future of Vancouver. They drew up a list of possible donors for a civic art gallery. Henry Stone, a leading Vancouver businessman, agreed to start the fund with a gift of $50,000. A gallery had been the goal of many Vancouver art societies, most recently the B.C. Art League, but the obstacle had always been money. After funding requests had been turned down by the city and defeated in two by-laws, it became clear that total financial responsibility for such a building would rest with the individuals concerned.(8) They reapproached the city in 1930, seeking only the site for the gallery, and won approval in January 1931.

The Vancouver Art Gallery opened in October 1931, with the Thomas W. Fripp Memorial Exhibition. The Art Deco façade designed by local architects Sharp and Thompson had an entrance flanked by Charles Marega busts of Michelangelo and Leonardo. Inside were medallion portraits of great artists from history — preservation of the past and education for the future. The founding collection reflected this sentiment. In April 1931, Stone, the Gallery's first president, and Charles

Scott were commissioned by the founders to travel to Europe to obtain the nucleus of an art collection. The works were to be of good quality, comprehensive in appeal; as far as possible, they were to portray the history and development of British art. Sir Charles Holmes, director of the National Gallery in London, assisted in the selection. Scott pushed for the inclusion of Canadian art but it was not until the All Canadian Exhibition in 1932 that a few paintings were purchased. Regional art, although exhibited, was not supported in the Gallery's acquisition policy: 'These were generous people who were doing things, but their motives were sentimental,' according to Jack Shadbolt. 'They wanted memorials to a kind of life that seemed to them valuable....But they were empire values, Commonwealth values, and it took a long while until the gallery was effective in any other way.'

Exhibitions at the Gallery met what were felt to be the requirements of the time. Local artists or organizations could rent exhibition space for a fee of between five and fifteen dollars. Many art societies, such as the B.C. Society of Artists, Vancouver Photographic Society, and Pasovas Art Club, exhibited regularly. The B.C. Annual became a yearly hotbed of controversy; letters poured in demanding explanation for rejection, accusing juries of modernist biases. The National Gallery of Canada sent exhibitions, which were augmented by a few American College Art Association shows. Certainly the Vancouver Art Gallery reflected the conservative taste of the time: British watercolours and romantic landscapes prevailed. However, with the building, art was established as a recognizable permanent fixture in Vancouver.

There had never been a common direction or style for art in the Vancouver region. Although non-objective abstraction in painting and sculpture was the avant-garde of the thirties, few artists practised it. More prevalent were variations on Cubism which permitted a semi-abstract montage style. By the early thirties artists were no longer as influenced by the Group of Seven and were dealing with a new consciousness of space and modern composition. However, their awareness was limited by lack of money for travel, forcing an over-reliance on books, and on periodicals which — although usually a sensitive indicator of new trends — in the thirties and forties were remarkably unadventurous.

Exhibiting societies were the artists' mainstay and recognition. Leading artists exhibited at the Seattle Northwest Annual Exhibition or sent works east to be considered for national exhibitions.

In the local papers, current art issues were energetically debated. Although anecdotal and larded with regional pride, art criticism (by Bernard McEvoy of the Province, and Mildred Valley Thornton and Delisle Parker of the Sun) reflected an intense feeling that art mattered, that it questioned the values of life and could have some influence. From the thirties' theory and criticism of art one can sense an overlapping of aesthetic and moral values. Although modernism was discussed in the context of painting and sculpture, it was accepted only in the traditional areas of architecture and design where the intent was to reflect modernist conditions of contemporary life. Industrial design became the new hope for the economy — the machine aesthetic — as new materials such as chrome and plastics were introduced, and a new way of living was reflected in advertising. World's Fairs in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco promoted a concern for integrity in materials, in style of living, that was carried over into art by rendering subject matter in as true-to-form a manner as possible.

As painting also became concerned with the integrity of the medium and the composition of surface, emphasis shifted to the structure underlying the subject in a move toward abstraction. Visually, the Cubists, German Expressionists, French Impressionists, and Italian Futurists provided most of the basis for development in the late thirties. Artists were discovering that the medium could be substituted for the object or that artistic ends could be implicit in the means. Whether anartist like Lawren Harris was aware of this in his desire to combine nationalism (i.e. subject matter) with abstraction is debatable.(9)

Lacking a tradition, and a means of viewing the original art, artists relied on secondary sources. Seeing art in reproduction emphasized the formal, rather than the painterly, quality of the work. Abstraction — which lends itself to these formal qualities — could relay either the presence of nature or something entirely from the imagination. To interpret this visual world, a supporting scientific theory was readily available — since at the time science itself was breaking down structures and systems for analysis.

Lawren Harris first exhibited his abstracts in Toronto, at the Canadian Group of Painters' exhibitions of 1937 and 1939. He was familiar with the work of Wassily Kandinsky and had adopted certain aspects of theosophy that applied to colour symbolism. Late in 1937 Lawren and Bess Harris moved from Hanover, New Hampshire to Santa Fe, New Mexico.(10) There they joined the newly-organized Transcendental Painting Group, which sought to carry painting beyond the physical world to regions that were idealistic and spiritual.

With the war, Harris was unable to transfer funds to New Mexico and returned to Canada, coming to Vancouver at the end of 1940. One of the first works he began on his arrival was Composition #1 (c. 1940). Unlike other artists in Vancouver at that time, he was well on his way to cosmic abstraction and the ultimate oneness — 'thought form.'

Avoiding all references to nature, he laid geometric shapes one over another in limited space. He combined the triangle with Vorticist light shafts to symbolize the theosophic concepts of an upward rush of devotion and unison of the three principles of life — spirit, force, and matter. In a 1948 statement on abstraction Harris clarified the difference he perceived between abstract and non-objective art:

One kind is derived from the accumulated experience of nature over many years. In these the endeavor is to embody and concentrate this accumulated experience in organization of line, mass and colour in such a way that they express the motivating spirit in nature.... The second kind of abstractions aim at statements of ideas and intimations of a philosophic kind in plastic, aesthetic and emotive terms. For myself every abstraction I paint has its source in an idea. (11)

Harris was to remain in Vancouver for the next thirty years — an era that saw the development of art as an intuitive feeling for composition and colour. Landscape painters such as Jock Macdonald were able to make the transition to abstract art as their awareness of the range of art broadened.

The origins of art were also perceived to be broader. Northwest Coast Indian art. Surrealism, children's art, and even 'art of the insane' gained new acceptance and appreciation for their innate truthfulness. Because of her interest in native art Emily Carr had been described as a Surrealist. Part of this was the confusion over the interest of the Surrealists themselves in Northwest Coast art. In 1939 Wolfgang Paalen, on his way from Paris to Mexico, detoured to the West Coast of British Columbia to fulfill a long-time desire to study at the source of what remained of native art.

The isolation that characterized Vancouver in the thirties was changing. A 1943 visitor, British Surrealist Dr. Grace Pailthorpe, is given credit for introducing Jock Macdonald to automatic painting. With her companion Rueben Mednikoff she had researched the therapeutic value of art in psychiatry and adopted automatic expression to discover inner consciousness. She felt Surrealism and psychoanalysis had the same goal — liberation of the individual from internal conflict to free expression and function. This concept gave Macdonald a means of replacing direct observation with intuitive expression. In a lecture at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Pailthorpe explained that 'surrealist art was purely psychic and automatic, intended to express the real process of thought... the expression of the subconscious.'(12)

One man who shared Macdonald's interest in abstraction was John Vanderpant, who was part of the close and creative support system surrounding the Art School. Harold Mortimer Lamb, a mining engineer, art critic, and photographer, entered into a short-lived partnership with John Vanderpant to run The Vanderpant Galleries; through Mortimer Lamb, Vanderpant met Fred Varley and Jock Macdonald. The Vanderpant Galleries later became a focus for the modern image in photography, and Vanderpant's home a meeting place where students and teachers discussed contemporary arts from music and photography to theatre and painting. As a photographer, 'Vanderpant was among the first of the area's artists to emphasize a new objective style based on 'truth to the nature of the medium' through the use of composition and light. The subjects he chose to photograph, and his treatment of them, show some relationship to the work of Weston and Paul Strand, but unlike them Vanderpant saw the camera as an unmanipulated extension of vision and chose design and contrast of form and shadow as a means of expression. Although he used sharply-silhouetted forms or areas of concentrated light, in his work they have a subdued and understated beauty. He did not believe in manipulating the negative, nor did he have the glossy paper which would have taken technical precedent over expression. Abstraction was achieved by a close-up viewpoint that completely divorced the subject from its context in the world. Vanderpant found himself at the crossroads of modern photography as it existed in the thirties. His career was curtailed (he died of cancer in 1939) before his influence could extend beyond Vancouver.


It would be reasonable to expect to find evidence in thirties' art of the overwhelming social problems of the day, but this was not the case. Few artists in the Vancouver area were involved in what may be broadly called Social Realism, and when they were it took the form of documentation rather than any political stance.

Hotels and restaurants were decorated with romantic-allegorical art, some of which could be categorized as, to use Lewis Mumford's term, 'Italian restaurant painting.' Although murals were done in union halls, their content had no meaning for the workers beyond simple depiction of their labour. As social statements they were closer to the style of Thomas Hart Benton than to Diego Rivera; these murals did not make demands. There were no capitalists in silk hats, and the noble worker was the familiar art school anatomy study. Social Realism does not necessarily mean that the artist has a partisanship with the worker.

In 1934, Paul Goranson, Orville Fisher, and Edward Hughes, graduates of the Vancouver School of Art, asked Rev. Andrew Roddan, a man known for his support of the arts, to commission a mural for the First United Church. The six panels they produced allowed them to demonstrate their ability, and to popularize murals through exposure. Commissions followed for the W. K. Oriental Gardens and local hotels. Later they were approached by the B.C. Government to execute a mural for the Western States Building at the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco. Heroic in style, in subject matter the mural was descriptive of aspects of industry and labour. Paul Bunyan-like lumbermen, miners, and dock workers looked down on display cases of minerals and salmon fishing information. The mural was described as 'bold and fresh, with a direct emotional appeal' but its popularity rested on its success in selling the B.C. image. When the trio returned to Canada, the Ministry of Tourism commissioned a smaller version which was carried out by Fisher and Goranson.

As art students, Goranson, Fisher, and Hughes had been thoroughly exposed to the popularity of murals in their classes. The work of Mexican muralists (particularly Rivera and José Orozco) when considered against the formalities of conventional theories and modern European art was viewed as a breakthrough. There was no concern for, or understanding of, the underlying motivation. In a 1932 Vancouver Sun article headed 'Art Turns to Mexico,' the Mexican muralists were compared to Fra Lippo Lippi, who had freed himself from art that was strictly religious by a new involvement with nature. The article went on to comment:

European art has become introspective. It has been feeding off itself... The art of these new raw countries (Mexico and Russia) where men have unshackled themselves from tradition, is feeding off nature and off everyday life. And the same thing will happen in this Canadian West when our culture becomes bold enough and independent enough to throw off that apocryphal blindfold that keeps us slaves to the decadencies and formalities of modern European Art.

In Canada there was nothing to compare to the Works Project Administration (WPA) in the U.S., which commissioned artists to produce work for public buildings during the Depression.(13) In the past, federal buildings had not been noted for their murals (the official function of art was seen as the creation of monuments and memorials). Any effort to awaken government interest met with little encouragement. Political art up to this time had virtually not existed in Canada.(14) B.C. artists of the thirties, such as Harris, Varley, and Macdonald, seemed to see spiritual rather than political evolution as the solution to the plight of man; change achieved by visual revelations of the truth.

Macdonald stated: 'The creative artist's duty is to convey new reflections about life which the masses have not yet become aware of and it should be understood that the conscious level of the creative artist is above the conscious level of the masses.'(15) Macdonald's lack of interest in social comment is clear in a dining room mural he executed for Canadian National and Pacific Railways in the new Hotel Vancouver. As subject, he chose an Indian village set in a forest. Described as 'a fantasia on British Columbia characteristics,' the mural incorporates elements of landscape which merge with the figures of two Native Indians in flat and overlapping forms. The Natives are simply treated as part of the overall design.

For the same commission, Charles Comfort did a large panel of Captain Vancouver for the main lobby and Vancouver artist Lilias Parley a South Seas scene in one of the taverns. Beatrice Lennie, who executed the sculptured relief panel in the elevator court of the main lobby, recalled being directed to 'do something new and modern.' Lennie, who had been head of the sculpture department of the British Columbia College of Art, chose to do a twelve-foot panel in steel, brass, and chromium.

This work has been covered over or destroyed, but Lennie's two large stone panels placed on either side of the entrance to Shaughnessy Hospital have survived. In high relief, one panel shows a surgeon lifting a wounded soldier, the other a young soldier being helped by a nursing sister.

As subject matter, industry and labour appeared in all media, including the canvasses of Paul Rand. A skilled commercial artist, Rand had attended evening classes under Varley, Macdonald, and W. P. Weston, and his work reflected their influence. Rand's paintings of Coal Diggers (1935) and Zucca Harvest (194S) do not stress working conditions or serve any underlying social purpose. As Rand said, 'The first time I saw the zuccas being harvested in the Okanagan, I felt it an exciting thing to see.' No message for the oppressed, no laying bare of any class struggle. Rand's beer parlour scene, Fight (c. 1947), functions purely as a painting on the basis of its linear style, modeled figures, and strong composition.

As the thirties progressed to the forties, art became a combination of a developing sense of formal style and a search for themes and underlying purpose. It was on one hand a time of escapist invention and theory, on the other, a period of documentation. The aura of this decade was brought to an end by the Second World War. Many artists of the younger generation went into uniform, including E. J. Hughes, Paul Goranson, Orville Fisher, and Patrick Cowley-Brown who became official war artists. As the only official female war artist, Molly Lamb was grateful for full employment and the chance to travel and work: 'The whole structure of army life is agreeable to a painter. All the nuisances of living are done away with... and everywhere you turn there is something terrific to paint.'(16) Art created during the war emphasized accuracy and detail. Cowley-Brown recalled the difficulty of maintaining artistic integrity while meeting the illustrative requirements: 'To maintain all the balances was an intellectual exercise. Although the field sketches were more immediate, not much significant art work came out of the experience.'

With few exceptions war art is a record of history and is viewed as such. Thus, the Canadian war collection of almost six thousand oils, watercolours, drawings, and bronzes has been largely neglected as art worthy of exhibition.

War industries and port activities turned around the economic hardships. From 1939-44, over a million men and women were involved in industrial production for the war. The atmosphere of creative experimentation in art adjusted to meet the necessities of wartime and the economic reconstruction that followed. The province's fishing, mining, and lumber industries provided subjects for the British Columbia At Work exhibition held at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Nov. 21- Dec. 10 1944.

This exhibition was conceived by the Vancouver Allied Arts War Service Council to encourage presentation of industry's contribution to the war effort. However, because of its association with the Trade Union movement, the newly-formed Labour Arts Guild (successor to the Progressive Arts Club) was in a more advantageous position to persuade artists engaged in industry to enter their work. Both professional and amateur artists were represented in the exhibition of 150 works ranging in subject from wartime harvests to dock workers and lumber mills.(17)

The exhibition was followed by a second installment in 1945, justified by John Goss, a Marxist and director of the Labour Arts Guild, in the catalogue: 'In focussing attention on the industrial life of our Province which had hitherto received but scant notice from artists, [the first exhibition] thereby stressed the considerable and varied contribution made by our workers to the victory of Democracy over Fascism...'

In 1941 André Bieler (of the Fine Arts Department at Queen's University) had organized the Kingston Conference, the first general gathering of Canada's artists. In a CBC interview before the conference, the invited guest speaker Thomas Hart Benton answers a question concerning the effect of war on art: 'While art itself is not an active pursuit, it seems to thrive best in the midst of activity. Activity provides content... I hope and expect this war to throw the artist, along with a lot of other people, back to the earth, and I hope they will be thrown back hard. One of the greatest evils which people can suffer and especially artistic people is to get separated from the earth and from the common interests of the people.' The Kingston Conference was a factor in the formation of the Federation of Canadian Artists whose main purpose was to bring together artists and interested laymen to 'integrate art with the people.'

The hope that the war would stimulate artists to produce more and better work in peacetime was not realized. The war did provide a chance for some artists to travel, and this brought changes. On his return to Vancouver, Paul Goranson found employment scarce and moved to New York to design scenery for the Metropolitan Opera. E.J. Hughes, back from service in Alaska, went to live on Vancouver Island, where he continued to paint. Jack Shadbolt, returning from a bomb-ravaged London where he had viewed thousands of concentration camp photographs as part of his job, relived those images in his new work. The Art School also changed after the war when the veterans returned. These new students were married, experienced, work-oriented. As they made use of their study grants, the school responded by emphasizing commercial design. With the war's end came a shift of names, interests, conditions. Although the foundations laid in the thirties by artists and art institutions were firm, the vitality that had established this groundwork was spent. Change was inevitable and imminent.

From Vancouver Art and Artists: 1931-1983

Text: © Lorna Farrell-Ward. All rights reserved.

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