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Michael Greenwood

Some Nationalist Facets of Canadian Art (1979)
Nationalism in Canadian Art, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, January 14 - March 30, 1979

artscanada #232/233, December 1979 / January 1980
[ 4,060 words ]


The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on Earth
- G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, 1823-1831

The question of nationalism in art seems often to be confused with identifying the particular characteristics that distinguish one nation's art from another's. But in fact, nationalism, a comparatively modern cult of national consciousness, simply draws upon those indigenous characteristics to furnish its own particular mythology with emotionally compelling symbols. In itself, nationalism has only incidental connections with the innate qualities and traits which define the character of a people's cultural tradition, of the kind, for example, discussed by Nikolaus Pevsner in his penetrating analysis of the 'Englishness' of English art.

Nationalist art in whatever medium deals in sentiments, ideas and images calculated to instill an intense feeling of national pride in the viewer, reader or listener; whereas art that bears the imprint of an indigenous local culture is generally quite innocent of any such aim and simply reflects, spontaneously and unconsciously, the essential flavour of the historic tradition from which it springs.

A well-known piece of music will serve to clarify the distinction: the slow movement from Haydn's 'Emperor' Quartet (No. 77 in C, Op. 76, no. 3), consisting of five variations on an old Austrian hymn, 'Gott erhalt' Franz den Kaiser.' Revived by Haydn as a tribute to his Emperor, threatened at the time by Napoleon's armies, the noble melody became synonymous with the pride and survival of an ancient people and passed into history as a German national anthem with emblematic associations quite distinct from its musical qualities.

The works of many nineteenth- and twentieth-century composers, from Glinka to Bartok, also took on a nationalist flavour by choice, through incorporating their countries' traditional folk music with the current international style. In such cases, probably representing the healthiest side of nationalism in art, a cultural artifact with strong local associations is displaced from its original folkloric context and appropriated to an entirely different set of purposes and values. The resulting montage often succeeds brilliantly in marrying nationalist or other ideological content, religious, philosophical or political, to more purely formal and, indeed, often experimental avant-garde concerns.

Thus nationalism may be as good a cause as any other for the purpose of engaging and liberating the emotional energy demanded by creative work. But there is an obvious risk attached to art devoted too fervently and exclusively to the service of any particular ideology. The fragile balance of artistic integrity can be upset by headstrong partisanship that admits of no compromise. Reduced to mere blatant propaganda, art succumbs all too easily to the perils of rhetorical distortion and crass sentimentalism. Nonetheless, genuine devotion to a cause, even obsessive, is far less destructive of artistic integrity than the cynical manipulation of emotionally charged ideological issues by so-called 'artistic' means to influence mass attitudes and behaviour.

Were it not so frequently confused, the distinction drawn here between nationalism expressed in art forms and national characteristics in art would scarcely need much elaboration. Several months ago the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria organized an exhibition of historic and contemporary Canadian paintings, mostly landscapes, with the title Nationalism in Canadian Art (January 14 - March 30, 1979). That it turned out in fact to be nothing of the kind is greatly to be regretted. Thoroughly researched and well-documented, the exhibition might have been the first serious attempt to examine the phenomenon of nationalism in Canadian art in an objective historical manner. But apart from an inconclusive reference to 'The Concept of Nationalism' in the first sentence of the catalogue introduction, the exhibition's professed theme is thereafter either totally ignored or the term 'nationalist' misused as a synonym for 'national'. Of contemporary painters who have been forthright in proclaiming strong nationalist convictions only Greg Curnoe and Joyce Wieland were included, the latter with merely a token example, the lithograph O Canada (1970). As for John Boyle, the most eloquent champion of nationalism among living Canadian painters, and one of the most gifted and original at any time in our brief history, he was left out altogether, an inexcusable omission from any anthology purporting to deal with this particular theme.

Likewise, the fascinating subject of Lawren Harris's 'nordic' nationalism and its influence on the Group of Seven's ideology is passed over in two or three sentences, while there is no mention whatever of the controversy with the Montreal internationalists which their dogma precipitated. In fact the nationalist issue per se is never seriously discussed or illustrated, making it hard to avoid the conclusion that, in all probability, it has not been clearly understood in the first place.

Anyway, while disappointing our legitimate expectations, the organizers of the exhibition made amends to some extent by providing a fairly useful survey of the history of Canadian landscape painting, to show the efforts of earlier immigrant and native-born artists to free themselves from the stylistic conventions, clearly quite unsuited to the physical realities of the Canadian environment, which they had inherited from their countries of origin. (See George Woodcock, 'Nationalism and the Canadian Genius,' artscanada, #232/233, pp. 2 - 10).

As artists of integrity they were obliged to come to terms with the vast untamed grandeur of their adopted country. Quite obviously, therefore, they had no choice but to reject the pictorial formulas with which they were familiar and attempt to see anew with unbiased eyes, tabula rasa. Needless to say, this was a goal easier desired than achieved. The artist's assumption that visual experience has to be digested and reprocessed before it takes form as art persists, and with good reason. But to what formal models could those artists turn for basic guidance in their search for a means to give adequate expression to their overwhelming experience of the Canadian wilderness? For within the historic styles of European landscape painting there is little precedent for dealing in pictorial terms with the challenge of wild nature. Generally, the landscape ideal is a humanized environment serving man's needs and controlled by his efforts and science, though in the later eighteenth century, a revival of interest in the metaphysical concept of The Sublime reinstated the contrary view of nature as the outward manifestation of impersonal and uncontrollable forces to be regarded with awe and reverence.

Eventually, it was a further manifestation of The Sublime as practised by Northern European artists later in the nineteenth century in a synthetist and almost abstract manner that furnished Harris and other members of the Group with the essentials of a formal and symbolic idiom more suited to their aims. For in its two-dimensional and colouristic approach, the style was modernist enough to satisfy their aspirations to contemporary relevance and, moreover, it was well-suited to convey the primeval sublimity of the Canadian wilderness.

It was also a perfect vehicle for the expression of Harris's interest in Kandinsky's metaphysical theories, and for his own curious mystique of the purifying and regenerative powers supposedly emanating from the North which, he believed, would activate a specifically North American fountainhead of creativity to replace the former European sources of inspiration.

But before the rediscovery of The Sublime, rather late in the day as it happened, earlier Canadian landscape painters had to interpret the country's character within the prescriptions of a style that was ill-suited to the task. Many of those active before the advent of Impressionism were equipped by training with a good working knowledge of the Picturesque, a popular style that included a wide variety of pictorial effects attractively blended according to the aesthetic theories of the Reverend William Gilpin and Sir Uvedale Price, whose writings on the Picturesque at the end of the eighteenth century were widely read by a large number of newly educated middle-class art lovers.

The scenic devices of the style were taken over from earlier movements, Classical, Baroque and Rococo, to produce a comfortable, domesticated compromise between the cool intellectual restraints of the classical landscape, typified by the work of Nicolas Poussin, and the awe-inspiring magnificence of nature, untamed and horrendous, as interpreted by Salvator Rosa.

As an adroit exponent of the Picturesque, Cornelius Krieghoff (1815-1872) succeeded in satisfying the tastes of his principal patrons, English garrison officers in Quebec, at the same time spicing the familiar recipe with a genuinely original flavour of his own based on intimate personal experience of the country. Luckily for Canadian painting, Krieghoff was more than an able purveyor of artistic confections. As a good tradesman, certainly, he supplied his customers with delightful mementoes of the typical scenery and way of life they had come to know during their tour of duty in Quebec: habitants carousing at wayside inns, the spectacle of Montmorency Falls, Indian encampments set amidst the splendour of fall colours, and so on; couched in a pictorial style which his patrons, themselves accustomed to the Picturesque manner, would find thoroughly acceptable.

But beneath their surface charms his paintings are sharpened by the power of incisive observation and aglow with heartfelt sympathy. How accurately Krieghoff captures the mellow luminosity of an autumn afternoon with the smoke of a riverside campfire drifting slowly upward in the still air. The painter's intensity of experience breaks through the seductive trappings of the Picturesque, a triumph of artistic integrity over the clichés of a ready-made, basically unsuitable style.

A later instance of faithful observation taking precedence over conformity to style is found in the work of Maurice Cullen (1866-1934) who had the advantage, denied to Krieghoff, of realist and Impressionist models. Realism, by definition a 'nonstyle', abjures both idealist and romantic attitudes in an effort to record the actual world with impartial objectivity, while Impressionism veers considerably away from this course by treating the world of nature as a continuum of reflective surfaces and recording no more than the transient effects of light perceived at a given moment.

Impressionism is a method more susceptible than realism to stylization — spottiness and fuzzy atmospheric effects used to create a facile pictorial unity at the expense of fidelity to observed fact. Cullen avoids any such mannerism, holding to the candid viewpoint and precise tonal values of the realists without sacrificing the fresh colour and painterly handling of the Impressionists.

In the Victoria exhibition he was represented by an outstanding work, March Sunset, Cache River, Quebec, that proves, if proof is wanted, that a work of art can be true to the character and spirit of its birthplace without rhetorical protestations of national identity. In fact, Cullen's fine painting, whose presence in the exhibition is otherwise pointless, could well be presented as a vindication of internationalism since at the same time it succeeds in being an eloquent and convincing expression of a uniquely Canadian experience.

Excellent painter and draftsman that he was, Horatio Walker (1850-1938) confined his attention to the rustic, agricultural setting of the Ile Saint Louis in the Saint Lawrence River, for which his Barbizon School style was not unsuitable. Far from nationalist in sentiment or subject —the association with 'old country' folkways being far too pro-nounced — Walker's landscapes are unlikely to betray their actual locale except to someone well acquainted with Canada.

C. W. Jeffereys is one of the few artists included in the Victoria show to whom the 'nationalist' label might legitimately apply. He chose to illustrate the intrepid adventures of certain Voyageurs and other early pioneers in North America, to show that a young country too can boast of a heroic past and of legendary characters who achieved astonishing victories over every conceivable difficulty in opening up a brave new land of splendid promise to their lucky successors. This is certainly the stuff of which nationalist myths are made and Jeffereys astutely recognized its appeal to latent national feeling, given the shortage of comparably heroic episodes in Canada's brief history. The fact that the Voyageurs were courageously furthering the territorial ambitions of New France is irrelevant: as heroes of the country's prehistory they become the symbolic forefathers of a new-born nation.

If a visual artist is not content simply to interpret in an unselfconscious, straightforward way the many-sided experience of belonging to a particular nation, but rather is determined to give active and uncompromising expression to nationalist sentiments, then his choice is limited. He cannot manage, as Riopelle has observed, without symbolic referents directly related to historical, physical or mythical aspects of his country's heritage.

He could choose, as John Boyle has done, to depict persons, places and creatures significant to the artist's conception of nationhood: men and women who have played an important part in the country's independent development; heroes of high and folk culture, native peoples' leaders and martyrs, rebels and visionaries, or simply nameless people who as familiars of the artist are also included in the partly autobiographical testament of his life's work. Famous Canadians and other symbols of national pride drawn from the country's history and folklore, as well as from the artist's more intimate circle, interact in a monumental panorama of experience, memory, faith and commitment.

To eyes conditioned by the precepts of modernism, the unusually ambitious scope of Boyle's independent revival of history painting with its wealth of political and personal allusion, its heavy undercurrents of eroticism and fatalism (reminiscent of the great but gloomy Swiss painter, Ferdinand Hodler) appears to invite a major artistic disaster just because of its seeming indifference to purely formal concerns.

Any faltering of intention at a critical point could, it seems, undermine the psychological coherence of his pictorial conception and reduce it to an incongruous assembly of emblematic fragments related only by their common membership in the pantheon of the artist's mythology. But the central force of inner conviction extends its hold over the recalcitrant parts and, moving outward, compels our acknowledgement of its sovereignty.

Boyle's iconic fusion of sacred and profane images is both popular and hieratic. Like Pompeian wall paintings, his works depict the gods and heroes of a people's mythology that has merely transferred its personae and themes from a religious to a secular ambiance. But if the idea of nationhood, as it has been suggested, is in fact a secular religion born of the Enlightenment and the middle-class revolutions of the late eighteenth century, then Boyle should be considered, in this sense, a religious artist. The omission of Boyle from the exhibition cannot be excused.

Greg Curnoe on the other hand treats the nationalist theme in rather less grandiose and nostalgic terms, more as a stubborn declaration of regional loyalty reinforced by an outspoken aversion to foreign influences, 'foreign' in his view meaning, above all, the United States, the country regarded by most Canadian nationalists as posing the greatest threat to the independence, even the very existence, of Canadian culture as a distinct entity.

Curnoe's stubborn parochialism would appear to stem less from any nationalist fervour than from a refusal to submerge his personal and social identity in the neutralizing stream of cosmopolitanism. By cultivating a small-town posture and becoming, in effect, a self-made local culture hero, Curnoe avoids the vulnerability of artists who feel an obligation to achieve 'mainstream' status. His work declares unequivocally that the world of London, Ontario, and the experience of an ordinary citizen, one Greg Curnoe, painter, musician, diarist, family man, cyclist, nihilist, etc., furnishes all that any artist needs to produce a fertile life work and to hell with what's happening elsewhere.

Curnoe rejoices in an iconography of familiar household objects and local landmarks, the most familiar being the view from his studio of Victoria Hospital (birthplace of the artist and all his clan). Then there are the inventories of other personal memorabilia, the racing bikes, for instance, or the stenciled [rubber-stamped] diary extracts of a tedious banality that would drive the most fervent admirer of Robbe-Grillet to despair. Nonetheless, Curnoe succeeds in objectifying all this prosaic material in assemblages that fairly crackle with pictorial inventiveness and an endearing kind of deadpan whimsicality.

To the abstract perceptions of art Curnoe designs an anthropological catalogue of a certain way of life, with indicators of a particular time and locale, and a mass of personal folklore that amounts in sum to authentic Canadiana without recourse to explicit nationalist emblems. The occasional intrusion of xenophobic slogans is simply part of the game, the semi-scared defiance of a beleaguered provincial toward the encroachment of alien mass culture upon local folkways. As the source of all we pretend to despise and reject, but are nevertheless cheerfully seduced by, the U. S. is Everyman's instant scapegoat.

Joyce Wieland's work constitutes a sustained love affair with her notion of and hope for Canada, a condensation of possessive and erotic feelings into epitomes of what to her is essentially a benevolent Motherland whose actual awe-inspiring grandeur is tenderly domesticated in quilted images, appliquéd or silk-screened, of lake and mountain, indigenous beast and flora. Even the nation's anthem with its defensive exhortation is translated into a warm comforter, a soft downy protection from the harsh realities of land and climate.

In another metamorphosis, the delightful lithograph O Canada, the anthem becomes a series of gently imprinted open mouths, one for each vocal syllable of the song, every note a tender kiss. Wieland's love of Canada is maternal in its protective anxiety for the physical well being of the land, and resentful of its callous exploitation for quick profit by foreigner and fellow countryman alike. Her passionate and delicate art is clearly at the service of 'True patriot love', but patriotism is a far cry from the arrogant connotations of militant nationalism. With her, it is, perhaps, a feminine counterpart of the severe patriarchal mystique of the North espoused by the Group of Seven.

There may be some excuse, after all, for the confusion so evident in the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria's misnamed exhibition. Nationalism is an extremely complex phenomenon with no simple definition. In its comparatively brief history it has manifested itself in many different ways and for a vast number of reasons.

For the most part, the growth of nationalism appears to have coincided with the rise of the middle classes and the decline in the power of both the Church and the feudal aristocracy. Louis XIV's famous dictum, L'Etat, c'est moi, nicely illustrates the drawing of power away from the Church and landed aristocracy, leaving an autocratic state vulnerable to a takeover by merchants, lawyers and bureaucrats in the name of the People. During the Age of Reason and especially after the revolutions in America and France, waning belief in God and King helped to install the idea of the nation itself as the supreme repository of the peoples' collective will and identity. Once democracy became recognized, at least in principle, as the most desirable political system for economically advanced societies, the remnants of ecclesiastical and feudal interests could no longer seriously challenge the supreme authority of the nation.

But the idea of nationhood had to be made real to the mass of people, it obviously could not remain a mere hazy political abstraction. It had to be identified and particularized for each group of people claiming for itself a unique identity and common cultural heritage. The task of fostering a sense of nationhood was taken up with enthusiasm by the new middle-class intelligentsia, often poets, philosophers or university professors, who found an absorbing outlet for their creative talents in studying the language, history, legends and folklore of their respective peoples.

In the wholesale scramble for the status of authentic nationhood which grew in pace and enthusiasm during the Romantic period, especially among minority groups absorbed into larger political entities, any significant cultural achievements that could be discovered in the past were resurrected and paraded as evidence of a distinguished national tradition. One famous discovery of this kind deserves mention here: the ancient Gaelic bard, Ossian, whose epic saga of a legendary Hebridean hero, Fingal, became popular reading throughout Europe, so great was the enthusiasm for cultural ancestors. The fact that Ossian's alleged composition was entirely fictitious, the brainchild of a young Scottish clergyman, the Reverend James MacPherson, in 1762, did nothing to diminish its popularity not only with the Scots, whose memory of the ignominious defeat of the Young Pretender in 1745 was still painfully vivid, but with all those who yearned for primitive landmarks to give legitimacy to their own cultural development.

While its emergence may have been due primarily to objective historical causes, nationalism soon took on a less rational aspect and mysticism raised its hoary head. In its worst aspects it became, in the words of H.G. Wells, 'a monstrous cant which darkened all human affairs.' This harsh judgment may ignore the psychological advantages of nationalist sentiment to the energy, cohesion and defensive instincts of a people, but there is no denying the fact that the sanctification of the State as a law unto itself has resulted in terrible human suffering.

In the shift of emphasis from a rational concept of the nation as a social and political entity to one of a more mystical nature, the German scholar, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), a disciple of Jean Jacques Rousseau, proposed an organic theory of nationhood: as a collectivity formed by nature and developing independently through the centuries, a nation was endowed with a 'soul', or Volksgeist, expressed in unique attributes and characteristics, especially in language, cultural traditions and folkways. The immense appeal of this theory, especially to minority peoples of ancient origin living in the shadow of imperialist powers, had repercussions throughout the nineteenth century in nationalist movements which sprang up by the dozen, demanding language rights, cultural autonomy and, sometimes, even complete political independence. Such movements continue to this day and have at various times since 1800 involved the Greek people, the Poles, Ukrainians, Armenians, Hungarians, Slavs and numerous Balkan countries formerly within the Austrian empire, Irish, Scots, Welsh, Bretons, Basques, Provençals, Catalans, and many other groups suffering either from real oppression or from an offended sense of 'national' pride and dignity.

To sum up, if, as it has been said, a nation is an accumulation of human beings who think they are one people, what chance is there for a real growth of nationalist sentiment in Canada? On the face of it very little, for few of the usual ingredients of a nationalist movement are present, except, perhaps, for some resentment of the ownership by foreign companies of a large section of the Canadian economy.

A common and unique ancient language we do not possess. Apart from those tongues spoken by the Inuit and various Indian peoples, we are officially bilingual, our two languages being imported from other countries. English Canada has chosen to adopt American usage, accent and vernacular speech to the extent of being almost indistinguishable from the model. The author has listened to the arguments of dedicated Canadian nationalists, often university professors, couched in standard American academese, an irony to which the speakers themselves appeared oblivious!

The Canadian population, scattered over a vast geographic area, is probably the most heterogeneous in existence, ethnically and culturally speaking, while official government policy supports and encourages the retention of multicultural traditions.

Politically, the federal system grants considerable autonomy to the provinces, which often gives them the power to frustrate attempts by the central government to frame policies considered to be in the best interests of the country as a whole.

The pluralist policy applied to Canadian affairs in general would seem to militate strongly against the emergence of an overall sense of national unity as we perceive it from existing models. But it could ultimately prove to be our salvation. If there is to be a future for Canadian nationalism it will have to move away from the negative and defensive position it now occupies and base its strength on the very aspects of the Canadian system that now appear so divisive.

Paradoxically, we may still discover a legitimate sense of national pride in the unique nature of the Canadian experiment which does not seek to impose any rigid conformity, political, religious or cultural, upon its citizens, but rather makes a positive virtue of diversity and provides an example of true liberal humanitarianism.


artscanada #232/233, December 1979 / January 1980


Text: © Michael Greenwood. All rights reserved.


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