Art in the Fifties: Design, Leisure, and Painting in the Age of Anxiety
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
[ 11,143 words ]
Following the Allied victory, reconstruction in Europe and a period of economic expansion in North America seemed to offer the proponents of modernist ideas in architecture and design an unparalleled opportunity to apply those ideas. Although it met resistance from those who equated it with socialism, modernism was adopted as the official style of the post-war economies of the West.
In the process of dissemination, the ideals of modernism became modified. Modernism in the 1950s became more and more a discourse about the principles of good design and the unruly elements of the twentieth century artistic heritage became silent, forgotten, and repressed. Good design became one of the possible solutions for social and economic problems. As a result, modernism often took the shape of a'therapeutic' intervention designed to organize'leisure' time into'creative' activities. And in Vancouver, as elsewhere, this discourse about design was promulgated, not just by designers and architects, but by artists and art institutions. The artists of the fifties were concerned with issues like urban planning and industrial design. In the fifties they had an integration with and an impact on the community that has not been afforded to the artists of the following generations.
Vancouver —'where streetcars and rails are vanishing overnight, to make way for shiny buses that weave along streets of smooth newly-laid blacktop' — was seen as being at the forefront of the modernist experiment. (1) In 1955, R. H. Hubbard, the National Gallery's curator of Canadian art, observed:'Now that the Montreal school is in temporary abeyance ... the leadership has been assumed by Vancouver where a whole group of interesting painters is now active — to say nothing of the architects.' (2) And the National Gallery's director, Alan Jarvis, was quoted as saying:'There are more good artists per square mile in B.C. than in all the rest of the country.' (3)
These claims may have been exaggerated, but enthusiasm for modernism appeared to be stronger in Vancouver than elsewhere in Canada. Here modernism was received and supported not only by artists, but institutions, such as the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Vancouver School of Art, and the University of British Columbia. There are many reasons why this should have been so. At the time it was suggested that the mild climate made experiments in architecture possible. And the relative youth of the city, with its small and undistinguished building heritage, made it open to new ideas,
In painting, the situation was not quite the same. There was the legacy of Emily Carr, and the landscape tradition begun by the Group of Seven remained, in a problematic way, definitive of Canadian art. The'social consciousness' painting that flourished in the thirties and through the war had been a reaction to the Group of Seven's vision of an uninhibited Canada. In the fifties this activity came to a halt as painters took up abstraction once again.
THE LABOUR ARTS GUILD AND'SOCIAL CONSCIOUSNESS'
As the Second World War drew to an end the artistic community in Vancouver found itself involved with two enterprises, the efforts of men and women who felt that the end of the catastrophe was a challenge to make a new world. The year 1944 saw the formation of the Labour Arts Guild (1944-1946) whose aims were:'to mobilize all artists, amateur or professional, who desire to identify their talents and abilities with the labour movement and the politically and culturally progressive forces throughout the community.' (4) The same year saw the creation of the Art in Living Group (1944-1947), whose ambitions were equally all-encompassing:'We do not wish for a new world. Instead we are firmly determined to have a new world.' (5)
While there is no evidence that these organizations were opposed to one another in actuality —indeed, many artists participated in the activities of both groups — there was an ideological difference. Fred Amess (1909-1970), the leader of the Art in Living Group, was a proponent of modernism. A politically conservative man, Amess believed that the'new world' was a designed world whose economic structure was essentially that of bourgeois democracy.
John Goss (1948-1953), the president of the Labour Arts Guild, was a Marxist who admired the Soviet model and promoted socialist realism in the arts:'The artist should look to the labour movement, of which there is some form in every society, for his inspiration and sustenance.' (6) Goss was an English baritone and musicologist who had become stranded in Vancouver at the outbreak of the war. In 1942 he started the John Goss Studio on Granville Street where he taught music and organized concerts. In 1944 he ran as the Labour Progressive Party candidate for the Parks Board on a platform which advocated the building of a civic centre, beautification of the parks, and creation of more libraries. Goss's closest protégé, Julia Christianson, was the executive secretary of the Shipyard General Worker's Federation.
Goss and Christianson founded the Labour Arts Guild in July 1944, in order to promote interest in the arts among labour and interest in labour's struggle among artists. The Labour Progressive Party, many of whose members were on the first executive committee of the guild, hoped that by means of the guild they would be able to enlist artists in'active participation in the rising people's movement.' (7) -That executive included the poet Dorothy Livesay, the architect Ross A. Lort (who designed the new Vancouver Art Gallery in 1950), Ted Ward, Claude Donald (who worked for the National Film Board), and Una Bligh Newman, an artist who was also involved in the Art in Living Group. The guild had standing committees for music, literature, drama, and the graphic arts. It held a series of well-attended'People's Concerts', produced several plays at Goss's studio, sponsored a children's art class and a'people's art class' for workers. (8)
The Guild's first project was the mounting of a juried exhibition, British Columbia at Work, which was held at the Vancouver Art Galley (Novmeber 21-December 10, 1944). A second annual B.C. at Work exhibition was held the following year. The first exhibition had been conceived by the Vancouver Allied Arts War Service Council to celebrate the contribution of industry in the war against fascism. Shortly before the exhibition was to take place the project was handed over to the Labour Arts Guild. Mildred Valley Thornton, an art critic and painter of Indian life, had approached the gallery on behalf of the council and then as a spokeswoman for the Guild. The exhibition committee, Lawren Harris, W.P. Weston, and Jock Macdonald approved of the project. The gallery saw the B.C. at Work exhibition as an opportunity'to dispel the impression, of course entirely erroneous, that the Art Gallery exists to serve the interests of a privileged few.' (9)
The 1944 exhibition consisted of 150 works in various media. The exhibitors were a mix of professional artists like Alistair Bell, Nan Lawson Cheney, Molly Bobak, Lionel Thomas, Jack Shadbolt, and amateurs who had made images of the war work experience.
There was no stylistic homogeneity, nor was one openly sought. The criterion for inclusion in the B.C. at Work exhibition was subject matter alone — a celebration of labour. The selection committee applied this criterion rather loosely. The images range from pictures of boats and factories to heroic representations of the proletariat. Such exhibitions were common at the time. Juried shows based on subject matter such as B.C. at Play (1948) and Stanley Park in Pictures (1947) attracted serious artists, amateurs, and sketch club doyens as much as B.C. at Work. However, it is really only with the B.C. at Work exhibitions that subject matter was an important aesthetic issue.
Rhetoric surrounding the exhibitions might reveal why socialist realism was eventually rejected by the artistic community in favour of the more coherent ideology of modernism. Thornton, hardly a disinterested bystander (she was on the hanging committee) wrote:'This is one of the most significant exhibitions ever held here being strongly reminiscent of Russia's Art for the People policy. It has the live, breezy, robust quality of things that are both democratic and popular.' She saw it as an occasion to take a stab at modernism: 'Artists who subscribe to the various'isms' can do absolutely anything and say that it is what they saw, But here the element of truth cannot be flouted...' (10)
The idea that labour and art, hand in hand, would make the future had a wide currency in Canadian art circles. The Guild's statements on art seem to be cribbed from an article by Walter Abell,'Art and the Industrial Worker,' which they reprinted for distribution to the working classes. (11) Abell was the founder of Maritime Art and Canadian Art and from those editorships wielded considerable influence on the development of art in Canada during the forties. (12)
Because it typifies an aspect of art discourse prevalent at the time, the argument of'Art and the Industrial Worker' is worth summarizing here.
Beginning with a justification of propaganda:'The most impressive way of presenting any idea or movement to the world has been, and always will be, through the arts,' Abell went on to state that labour'is particularly in need of sympathetic presentation at the present time. Powerful forces are at work attempting to distort the image of labour in the eyes of the world. How often in the press and elsewhere we see labour blamed for interfering with the war effort through strikes, when the facts of the case are quite the reverse? It may be an attempt on the part of management to exploit the war situation in its own interests which is the real cause of the difficulty ...' Abell's examples of'people's art' included the Mexican murals. Soviet socialist realism and the art of the WPA project. He also mentioned the Montreal artist, Frederick B. Taylor, and the Toronto artist, Leonard Brooks, as artists who exemplified'social consciousness' in the arts.
For Abell there was a parallel between the plight of the contemporary artist, his isolation and poverty, and that of the worker — only by mutually supporting each other could art and labour flourish.'At present, the connection between art and labour is still in its infancy. It is my hope that during the next decade or two it will grow to healthy and vigorous maturity ... I doubt whether any force in the world today can exert a more transforming influence or contribute more to human progress than art and labour working hand in hand.'
The final section of Abell's article is subtitled'Art is Living': The equation between art and living was the cornerstone of fifties' modernism.'Art is Living' means'... attractive homes and finely planned communities to live in. It means beautiful public buildings enriched with painting and sculpture expressing the traditions and ideals of the community. It means well designed rugs on our floors, artistic dishes on our tables, attractive clothes to dress in. It means songs and dances to express our sense of rhythm and our joy of life. In the end, it means the kind of world which we human beings can live in happily; the kind of world of which we can be proud to be a part.' But isn't this vision of being as happiness, life as art, a Utopia presided over by a smile, the smile of the advertising of the period? It is a Janus-faced vision which looks back, through the Arts and Crafts Movement, to a harmony of life, labour, and environment that disappeared with the industrial revolution and forward to a technological world in which social and stylistic integrity will be restored. It is all but blind to the present, which it sees only as a field of transformation. This vision is called modernism.
However, the Labour Arts Guild and the people involved with sponsoring it, the Labour Progressive Party, had little interest in modern art. One of the aims of the B. C. at Work exhibitions, an essential aim if an alliance was to be forged between labour and art, was the creation of labour patronage. This appears not to have happened. All the works were for sale, but there was only one sale recorded — and that was to John Goss. For Abell, although he was a proponent of mural painting and a visionary with socialist leanings, experimental art demarcated a sacred circle of individual creative expression and freedom which he saw as a bulwark against fascism:'So long as the artist is free to pursue his quest, the attitude of the community to which he belongs is at least open to the recognition of social truth and capable of continued contact with reality. If and when creative freedom is taken from the artist, freedom in general may be expected to collapse. Hence the experimental artist deserves double support: first for his creative achievements, second as a test individual with whose cultural fate is linked the fate of us all.'
Compare this to Thornton's view of artistic experimentation:'If artists expressed themselves verbally with the same degree of profanity that they use with a brush, jail space would be at a premium.' (13)
The demise of the Arts Guild came quickly. In 1946, the Cold War had already begun in Canada. In February a Royal Commission headed by R. Taschereau and R. L. Kellock heard the testimony of Igor Gouzenko, a defector from the Soviet Embassy who claimed to have evidence of a vast network of Russian spies. Many members of the LPP were arrested, including MP Fred Rose who, in 1947, was sentenced to six years in prison.
In 1949, Goss was arrested in New York by the FBI and deported to Canada. When he returned to Vancouver, the Parks Board banned him from the facilities of the B.C. Institute of Music and Drama which it administered at the time. Despite the efforts of civil liberties groups he was blacklisted as a Communist and returned to England in 1950.
The end of the Guild paralleled a shift in artistic activity. Artists like Jack Shadbolt and Lionel Thomas changed direction in the late forties. Realistic handling of social themes was abandoned for a more personal language of experimentation with abstract form. While this might appear to be a retreat from social issues one must remember that, according to the belief of the day, as articulated by Abell, such experimentation was not just seen as a private activity understood only by a few, but symbolic of the fate of freedom itself.
By the late fifties few artists were concerned with social issues in their work. Indeed, on the theoretical front there appeared a rationale for avoiding such concerns. In 1959 Anthony Jackson wrote in Canadian Art:'The artist records his own experience of life in the concrete forms of art. To subject his vision to a social explanation is to negate the inherent dignity of man.' Such explanations, thought Jackson, were a result of'the influence of materialistic philosophy.' (14)
ART IN LIVING
The Art in Living Group was more successful in involving artists in its activities than the Labour-Arts Guild. Its theories were also centred around an equation between art and living. Led by Fred Amess, the Art in Living Group was an activist group with a mission. It set out to present'to everyone the idea that citizens must be participants in planning and that they must no longer be the mere recipients of dead formulae served out to lazy minds.' (15) The Group also wanted to decentralize the National Gallery of Canada and promote the creation of cultural community centres.
Amess and his colleague, B.C. Binning enlisted the sponsorship of the B.C. Region of the Canadian Federation of Artists, whose president, Lawren Harris, had been living in Vancouver since 1940. With that sponsorship Amess organized a series of exhibitions that would make the voice of the artist heard in the realm of architecture. Several members of the group had, or were planning to build, modern homes. Most notably Binning himself, whose 1940 home — which he designed — was featured in Art in Living publicity. Jack Newman and his wife Una Bligh Newman (who was also on the executive of the Labour Arts Guild) designed and built a home for which Mrs. Newman designed the furniture and rugs.
In 1945, almost forty years ago, Vancouver did not look as it does today. Until the mid-fifties, there were no high rises in the West End but wooden houses, many in a state of disrepair. These houses were not oriented to a view, nor opened to light. The East End was considered a slum. Now we live with a great deal of modern architecture and are sensitive to its flaws. The Art in Living Group learned about modern architecture from books, where the pictures of buildings, always taken under flattering conditions, illustrated the inspiring and Utopian ideals of the architects of the modern movement. Sensing that an economic boom would follow war, the artists, led by Amess and Binning, planned a massive intervention in architecture and planning. They were convinced of the central belief of the modern movement, simply, that good design had an uplifting moral and spiritual effect.
The first exhibition, Art in Living presented through photographs and drawings, examples of modern architecture from all over the world. Smaller exhibits'were designed to suggest a portion of the artists' contribution to a planned world' (pre-fab, multiple dwellings, etc.) These included a room of mural sketches, an exhibit showing the value of paintings and prints in the home, and'a modern living room, from whose large sun balcony will be seen a tree-screened view of a planned city.' The curtains, made by Ruth Carlson (whose painting of Three Prospectors was in the B.C. at Work show) used a motif designed by Lawren Harris.
The view from the balcony was revealing and prophetic: if the view is tree-screened and of a cityscape, the modern home is not in the city, it is on a suburban slope. During the following decade, the professional artists of Vancouver became enchanted with this model and almost all of them built architect-designed homes in the suburbs. This move accompanied their dwindling interest in paintings which reflected'social consciousness' and their practice of a personal art dependent on a language of expressive form which took its inspiration from the landscape.
A. Y. Jackson saw the exhibition and praised it, musing:'If the great architects were as well known as the great painters, perhaps their work would have a stronger influence.' (16)
A second exhibition, A School For Today, dealt with the problems of school design, presenting the work of the English architect, Oliver Hill.
A third, The New Community (August 31-September 19, 1945), featured a plan for the development of twenty-seven blocks in East Vancouver as a modern neighbourhood. The plan was modelled on Richard Neutra's development for the City of Los Angeles Housing Authority for war workers in the San Pedro area. Photographs and plans of that project were presented with the group's own project for Vancouver. As one can see from their plan, the houses face away from short cul-de-sac streets onto green pedestrian walkways:'Footpaths throughout the neighbourhood bring all its features within easy walking distance.' Each home would be designed to have a view, the maximum amount of light and privacy. Built-in features were planned to give these homes a functioning interior design.
The neighbourhood's community features included: shopping centre with outdoor café; neighbourhood centre including social rooms, a small clinic, workshop, gymnasium, and theatre for motion pictures and stage performances; bowling green; nursery school; and churches.
It was designed as a community of nuclear families. It was a plan with a moral structure. There were no bars or night clubs. Everything is clean, orderly and derives from the self-sufficiency of family life. What the group advocated as the ideal was rational but it envisioned an integrity to living which no one in the twentieth century could possibly experience because of factors which had nothing to do with design. The mother and children wouldn't have to leave the neighbourhood, but where do the fathers and husbands work? And under what conditions? This was, after all, a plan for a working-class neighbourhood. There was no suggestion that the inhabitants be consulted about their own plan for their own neighbourhood.
The Group's fourth and final exhibition, Our Day, stressed the place of architecture in the life of the people. It juxtaposed satirical cartoons illustrating present-day conditions with coloured charts and pictorial renderings which'showed possibilities and examples of more satisfactory forms and methods of contemporary living.'
The precedent in Canada for this series of projects had been the work of the Architectural Research Group in Montreal which mounted its City for Living exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1941. (17)
Unlike the Art in Living Group, who were mainly artists and art school students, the Architectural Research Group was a gathering of professional architects. In the work of the ARG one finds the therapeutic metaphor that guided the intentions of groups like Art in Living and, later, the Community Arts Council (CAC).
The City for Living exhibition consisted of photo panels and other didactic material which was meant to demonstrate that city planning would produce the'happy family'.'The smaller panels carry reproductions of the "happy family" and state that the family unit determines the dwelling unit, thence the community, thence the city, and thence the region.' (18) The architect, in the view of the ARG, would minister to his patient, the family, much as a doctor.'He [the architect] has the technical training and ability to plan the physical surroundings of the people so that their lives may be healthier and happier. He has the knowledge to put an end to the warping, stifling chaos of cities and towns, and to the destructive blight which creeps out into the countryside. All this is as surely part of the architect's responsibility as public health is the doctors.' (19)
The therapeutic metaphor is not gratuitous. For during this period it was believed that there were design solutions to social, economic and emotional problems. It was the period which saw the growth of a notion that art itself could be used as a therapeutic tool.
THE COMMUNITY ARTS COUNCIL AND DESIGN FOR LIVING;
ART AS A CORRECTIVE MEASURE
While the Labour Arts Guild hoped that art would spring from the experience of labour, the Community Arts Council, a major cultural organization of the fifties, devoted itself to an examination of leisure.
In 1945 the Junior League of Vancouver, in collaboration with the Community Chest, conducted a study of recreation and the arts in the city, Arts and Our Town. (20) The study was conducted by L. E. Norrie, using guidelines established by Virginia Lee Comer, the Junior League's New York-based art consultant. Norrie worked for the YMCA and was later able to use the results of this study in the formulation of the German Youth Reorientation Program in the American Zone of Germany. The art community provided advisors for the study, among them John Goss, Charles H. Scott and Dorothy Somerset.
The report listed more than 400 organizations which could be said to have, no matter how tenuous, a relationship to cultural activity. It also contained a great deal of demographic information about Vancouver in the form of maps and charts. In these charts the West End, the East End, and the area around False Creek emerged as'problem areas.' That is, they had the lowest average income, the highest density of population and the highest rate of juvenile delinquency. The report, therefore, was as much concerned with presenting a demography of juvenile delinquency as it was with arts activity. Indeed, the terms of reference it used to define the arts were broad and ill-defined; whereas it was categorical and concise about delinquency. Delinquency was determined by actions in four categories: sexual immorality, incorrigibility, theft, and breaking and entering. The juxtaposition of these two surveys, one of arts groups, the other of delinquency, was surely meant to imply an inverse correlation between the two.
This was the first such report presented to any city in North America. (21) There were two prefaces to the published report. One,'The Role of the Arts in Industrial Society,' declared:'Primitive tribes produced works of art, not for art's sake, but for the sake of living.' The anonymous author of this essay, perhaps John Goss, claimed that art was not for museums or for an elite and longed for those prehistoric days when'art was utilitarian.' The report was conducted because the Junior League'saw the need for coordination of cultural opportunities as only one of a number of inter-related concerns centring around the use of "spare time".' They wished to establish'the relationship between social problems and cultural artactivities.' (22) The'cultural arts' and the'creative art experience' were seen, above all, as a'facet of the recreational activity of human beings.'
As a result of the report fourteen recommendations were made including the need for a better library, a civic auditorium, an adequate museum, improved art education, community arts centres, and a coordinating council of the arts. The Community Arts Council, the first in North America, was formed in 1946 to implement these recommendations. Ira Djiworth, the Council's first chairman, proclaimed,'... a sort of beacon has gone out from Vancouver.' (23)
The Council was a'test project' of the Junior League of America which sponsored it in its initial years under the guidance of Miss Comer. It was meant to be a model for similar organizations throughout the continent. Comer thought the Council should be a coordinating body which did not initiate projects of its own. However, the Council found itself with little to coordinate. After Dr. Ifor Evans of the Arts Council of Great Britain consulted with the CAC in 1947, the Council decided on a more active role:'thinking turned from the American pattern to the British pattern ,' (24)
As a result the Council organized a festival of the arts,'Arts in Our Town, October'48.' The festival included an exhibition of crafts held at the Vancouver Art Gallery and a juried theme show, B.C. at Play. Perhaps this title was chosen in order to distinguish themselves from thosewho had organized B.C. at Work.
The festival had several purposes. One was to publicize the Council itself, so that it might assume a leadership role in the arts community:'Our idea is to bring various arts, such as painting, music, photography, crafts, town planning, and interior decorating under one sponsorship.' (25) Another goal was to popularize crafts, improve standards, widen the market and therefore raise the living standards of craftsmen and artisans. Above all, the Council wanted to demonstrate how the arts could be used to organize leisure or'spare' time and thereby strengthen the family unit which would, in turn, lessen juvenile delinquency.
The Council did not see itself in the role of nurturing the arts by extending aid to artists. Its purpose was not to develop'painters, musicians, and poets,' but rather'integrated, emotionally mature personalities.' The search for a utilitarian art, which had been set out in the 1945study, was still very much on the mind of Miss Comer when, in 1948, she claimed that the place of the arts was'in the preventative, diagnostic, and therapeutic program to combat mental and emotional sickness, which is the most appalling disease raging in our civilization today.' This view of art as a corrective measure went hand in hand with the belief that the arts could serve'the need for greater solidarity in the family unit.' (26)
In 1949 the Arts in Our Town Festival was replaced by an exhibition devoted to modern design, decorating, and domestic architecture held at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The Design for Living exhibition was a landmark for the history of modernism in Vancouver. Whereas the Art in Living Group had concentrated on proposals for sizeable redevelopment schemes, the Design for Living exhibition demonstrated the principles of modernism on an intimate scale. (27)
Design for Living was an exhibition of plans and interiors for homes designed to fit the needs of four imaginary families. These families were small, middle class, and had a relationship to the'cultural arts' which was taken account of in the layout of their homes. The catalogue drawings by Ruth Killam Massey illustrated the families' difficulty living in non-designed, ill-functioning spaces in which the family members practise their roles awkwardly and appear to be in each other's way. The designed home, it was implied, by eliminating conflict over space and allowing each member of the family to practise his or her cultural activity efficiently would help promote family solidarity.
The first home was for the'Peridots'. Mr. Peridot was a history professor who prepared lectures in the evening. His wife, Ruth, wove'her household linen of Canadian flax.' The post-and-beam house, made'no secret of its structure.' (28)
The second home was for the'McTavishes.' Mr. McTavish was a councillor for the neighbourhood boys' club. His children painted, collected insects, and made puppets. Their post-and-beam house, therefore, divided the'rec' room from the living / dining / kitchen area.
The third house was for the imaginary'Rathburns'. Mr. Rathburn was a structural engineer, and a mountaineer, and geologist in his'spare time'. Mrs. Rathburn liked plants, owned an Emily Carr painting, a collection of Indian craft and stipulated that the house provide'a good place to hang my picture and room to display my collection.'
The fourth home was for the'Saterians'. He was a'branch manager'and she, a musician. Like the other three houses it was to be situated in the suburbs, far from the problem areas mapped in the Arts and Our Town study.
The Design for Living exhibition, in its own terms, might not have been spectacular. However, the ideas contained in the exhibition had an impact. The 14,000 attendance figures for three weeks broke all previous records at the gallery. The press gave the effort much favourable publicity and reported the high-minded aims of the organizers with sentiments like:'The good home is said to be the nursery for domestic virtue and in turn a guarantee of a healthy community.' The exhibition wished to convince the community that the'good home' was a function of the good house.'Good design is essential to better living, and better living improves the standard of the entire community.' (29)
THE SITE OF THE INTERIOR
A goal of the Design for Living exhibition was to develop a regional secondary industry based on modern industrial design. By using local craftsmen and designers and local materials in the homes and their furnishings, the CAC set out'to prove that the same individuality, novelty, and usefulness now found only in the work of hobbyists can be manufactured.' It was hoped that these'hobbyists' could'investigate the possibility of turning their talents to commercial production.' This ambition was not realized. Nor could it have been, given the place of British Columbia and Canada in the structure of world capitalism.
However, following the war, an enormous effort was made by many in the arts to create a Canadian design industry that would be equal to the German, American, or Scandinavian models. In 1947 the National Film Board, the National Gallery of Canada, and the National Research Council collaborated to circulate a didactic exhibition, Design in Industry, across the Dominion. This exhibition was organized by Donald Buchanan, a photographer and art historian who was a co-editor of Canadian Art. Design in Industry consisted of examples of Canadian design and examples from other countries. Its purpose was to raise public awareness of the value of good design and promote interest among Canadian manufacturers.
Buchanan's positive models were Germany and Sweden, which had long traditions of modern design industries. His negative model was America. In his theoretical writing, Buchanan was often at pains to distinguish between'design', which relies on fundamental modernist principles, and mere'styling,' an American vice which indulged in the symbolic and decorative language of'streamlining','bloated curves', and'chromium plating'. He urged Canadian designers to avoid the American'faddishness' and cultivate design principles which would'unite clarity of structure with fitness for purpose.' Of'streamlining,' a popular style of the fifties which adapted the principles of aerodynamic design to all manner of inert objects, he wrote:'This is not true design, but merely the fashion of the moment, and it is a passing fashion, which a few years from now will seem as dated as the'art nouveau' decoration of the early 1900s, with their vegetable-like curves in wood and ironwork.' (30)
The success of the Design in Industry exhibition led to the foundation of the Canadian Design Index and the Industrial Design Division of the National Gallery in 1947. This, in turn, led to the establishment of a design gallery in Ottawa, the Design Centre, in 1953.
The Design Index was a'qualitative photographic index of industrial design for articles of everyday use.' Under the chairmanship of Buchanan, the index annually bestowed its seal on various Canadian products and distributed photographs of them to galleries, museums, libraries, manufacturers, and retail outlets.
The aim of the Design Index and the Design Centre was to aestheticize and nationalize the commodity. Their method — the distribution of photographs which handled their subject matter like sculpture, that is, not in any'use' context, but in a dramatically-lit white field — helped considerably in persuading people to look at furniture, toasters and radios as if they were objects for aesthetic contemplation.
The National Gallery published a'Design Quiz' in 1948, which was meant as a guide to all commodities a consumer might purchase. This quiz embodied the principles of modernist design as it was understood in the fifties.
The criteria were set out in the form of ten questions to which an affirmative answer was required:
'1 Is the form suitable to the function of the object? (This implies further that the object be both comfortable and easy to handle.)
2 Is there a harmonious relationship of all parts? (This implies that no part or section be overemphasized or dramatized at the expense of the object as a whole.)
3 Is the design as simple as it can be?
4 Is there a complete absence of all unnecessary or meaningless ornament? (This also implies the absence of attempts to add unnecessary material in order to give a false appearance of solidity or a false appearance of'streamlining.')
5 Is the use of texture and colour both honest and logical in relation to the material used and the function of the object? (This also implies that the object has not been made to look as if it were a handicraft product.)
1 Is it mechanically efficient?
2 Is the material used the most suitable in regard to the function of the object and the manufacturing processes used?
3 Is it strongly constructed and durable and safe?
4 Have ease of maintenance and repair been considered?
Is the design original, or if an adaptation, is the adaptation both logical and original? (This can include sound fabrications of simple, basic shapes, such as wooden salad bowls or pottery cups and mugs.)' (31)
On the surface, these would seem to be criteria which the CAC also wished to promote. However, whereas the aims of the Design Index were limited and clear — the creation of a distinctly Canadian Industrial Design industry based on German and Scandinavian models — those of the Council were not. The Council wanted to participate in the National Gallery's drive for a national design industry; however, they also wanted to bring the'cultural arts' into the home and into the community centre where they would nourish the balanced individual, regulate'spare-time,' and strengthen the beleaguered family unit.
The Design for Living exhibition, was therefore replete with items ill-adapted to mass manufacture. Natural materials and natural vegetable dyes were emphasized in the weaving. In the pottery, free-forms which symbolized the creative capacity of the individual were highlighted. Design for Living attempted to incorporate Indian crafts into modern design. For the Rathburn living room, Catherine Wisnicki designed a modern lounge chair and cabinet with side and back panels of cedar woven by Mrs. Jim Joe, a native craftswoman. Seemingly different concerns, one for industrial design that made use of new materials and was future-oriented, and the other for crafts which were produced by pre-industrial modes of work, were made integral in the exhibition.
This was accomplished by two strategies. One was the restatement of the continuum between the two poles, art and living; which depended on the notion that art once had a utilitarian function in primitive or pre-industrial societies. Since Rousseau, modernism has placed an image of man integrated with society and nature into the primitive, which it equated with the pre-industrial. In practice, this meant encouragement of crafts at an amateur level: people who could weave their own rugs, throw their own pots, would have a pre-capitalist relationship to commodities and thus transcend the alienation of a capitalist society. Behind the'art of living' equation lies the belief that the aestheticization of the commodity will return men to an integrated condition.
The other strategy was to situate painting, which represented high art, in a private interior surrounded by these same objects. For if painting ruled the interior, the differing commodity status of the various objects — those made by craftsmen as opposed to those fabricated industrially, a difference which spoke of antithetical views about the relationship of labour, art, and society — dissolved. On the one hand, the choice of the site of the domestic interior — already some distance from the Art in Living Group's plans for whole neighbourhoods — may be seen as a retreat from social issues. On the other hand, the family unit which inhabited the interior was seen by the CAC as the primary social fact.
In a 1954 issue of Canadian Art, an article celebrating the creation of the National Gallery's Design Centre, illustrated two interiors. One was a'1923' living / dining room, the other was contemporary. The earlier room contains overstuffed chairs, a clash of patterns based on vegetation motifs in the carpet and upholstery, unnecessary coverings, and a cacophony of different furniture styles. None of the objects in the 1923 room has been designed to reveal its function. Indeed, they woulddismally fail the Design Quiz on eight of the ten questions.
By contrast, the objects in the 1953 interior would pass the test with flying colours. And while the objects in the 1923 room do not relate to one another, the objects in the 1953 room are all in harmony.
Presiding over the 1953 interior are two paintings. One is B.C.Binning's Reflected Ship (1950). The forms in the painting are reflected and complemented by those in the room. The furniture and other objects derive their aesthetic being from the authority of the painting. It gives the collection of commodities a special status; they not only function, but they become embodiments of design and therefore objects of aesthetic contemplation. The painting has a presence in this situation it would not have elsewhere. For here, and here only, it articulates an environment which has been adjusted to it.
A Binning painting was also used to determine an interior in the Design for Living exhibition. In the home designed for the imaginary Saterians,'the entire living room' was meant'to reflect the wit and style of the Binning.' The other painting is an abstracted still-life. Like the Binning it is not a public statement, it is a private gesture. If the Binning painting speaks of general design principles, the abstract speaks of private, individual feeling. It individuates the interior and allows the interior to reflect the taste and sensibility of its occupant. The Binning gives aesthetic presence to the furnishings; the abstract painting to the objects of craft which are again private, individual gestures. And these objects are enhanced by the authority of painting.
The 1923 room also contains a painting. It depicts an oriental scene distant in time and place; the clashing motifs in the furnishings speak of different times and places. The objects in this room are disparate, united by nostalgia and sentiment, not design. In terms of modernism, the 1923 room is a chamber of horrors; the over-stuffed furniture, the needless covering on the table, the lamp disguised as a vase — all speak of a world of repressed desire, a repression leading not only to mental illness and juvenile delinquency but eventually to fascism itself.
The paintings in the 1953 room refer to the present and they focus the interior. In the 1953 room everything is light. The large curtains indicate large windows, and the kind of easy transition between the interior and exterior that was the most significant achievement of fifties' domestic architecture. This world — in which forms float, chairs begin to resemble musical instruments, everything is in harmony with an interior which in turn relates to an exterior — is the site where the repression of desire has ceased to suffocate its inhabitants. This was seen as a victory.
However, the cost of this victory was a limitation of the range of subject matter available to high art. High art in this period turned towards lei- sure. And leisure itself became an object of therapeutic scrutiny. As a consequence the art of the period became more and more a private gesture. The artist felt that it was no longer his role to comment on his society, but rather to offer refuge from it. Art itself, however, maintained a social role as a symbol of individual freedom.
PATRONAGE IN THE FIFTIES
In the fifties there were few places for an artist to exhibit work. The system of patronage remained relatively uncomplex until the formation of the Canada Council in 1957, which has had a dramatic impact on the course of Canadian art. The major patrons for Vancouver's'modern' art were the National Gallery of Canada, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and private individuals.
The Vancouver Art Gallery, for a while, was the only place the public could see the work of local artists. In 1951, after expansions and renovations, the art gallery reopened with a new look reflecting changed aims and policies. The Art Deco façade, designed in 1931, was replaced by a modern one, designed by local architect Ross A. Lort. (32) There was no decoration, but an arrangement of clearly defined masses and planes. The building was painted white.
Before 1951 the gallery had an open policy towards local artists. They paid a fee and rented gallery space. The fee ranged between two and five dollars. Artists of every persuasion availed themselves of this scheme, as well as organizations ranging from the Canadian Federation of Artists to local sketch clubs. The situation did not mean there was no selection process at all; just the opposite. The calendar was full of juried exhibitions.
With the new building, under curator Jerrold Morris, the policy changed. The various groups of Sunday painters, such as the West Vancouver Sketch Club, no longer had access to gallery space. An effort was made to show only the best of regional art, and the'best' art was art which was progressive and modern. Morris also hired Doris Shadbolt from the National Gallery, where she had worked under Walter Abell, to start an education program.
Both before and after 1951 works of art sold at the Gallery. Works were often exhibited to encourage private patronage. The best example of this is the Women's Auxiliary Do You Own a Canadian Painting? exhibitions, held annually from 1949 to 1961. The gallery kept sales records from 1938 to 1957. The records are evidence that a small group of private patrons existed in the city — although artists then made most sales through informal showings in their own studios. Prices were low. Not until 1956 did a private gallery, dealing with local contemporary art, become firmly established in Vancouver. An artist, Ron Kelly, had tried to operate a gallery in the mid-fifties but it was short-lived. The owners of the New Design Gallery, Alvin Balkind, and Abraham Rogatnick, were dedicated to a program that included local avant-garde painting and contemporary decorative art. The name of the gallery points to the deep inroads design theory had made into art practice by the mid-fifties.
The collectors who bought from the New Design Gallery were few. Many of them lived in architect-designed or modified homes which reflected their enthusiasm for the modern. But this group was not large enough to allow painting as a self sustaining career for local artists.
Public patrons included the Vancouver Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Canada. Although the Vancouver Art Gallery promoted regional art in its exhibition program, it did not follow through with an acquisition policy. There were no funds to encourage such a policy, and, the amount of work the gallery acquired from local artists was, by any standard, appallingly small. The National Gallery acquired the work of fifties' painters but sporadically and superficially. Acquisitions by either institution no doubt conferred prestige but did not constitute material support or signify serious interest.
Until the advent of the Canada Council the only grant funds available to artists were from the Emily Carr Scholarship. Carr had left more than five hundred of her works to a trust administered by Lawren Harris and Ira Dilworth. Around seventy works were designated by her as a collection for the people of British Columbia. The remainder was to be sold for a scholarship fund, available to graduates of the Vancouver School of Art. Harris was principally responsible for choosing the recipients.
The amount was not large — around $2,000 — but at the time it was enough to secure a year for painting.
The system of patronage in the fifties was, therefore, small and unsta ble. Avant-garde art was appreciated as an extension, albeit a privileged one, of the taste for things modern in design and domestic architecture. An artist in the fifties in Vancouver could not survive without also having a teaching career or other money-making work.
A large number of painters exhibited in Vancouver during the fifties. Jerrold Morris estimated that in 1950 there were 400 serious painters working in Vancouver. Not all of these painters were committed to modernism and, of those that were, not all were dealing with painterly abstraction, which was the international idiom.
For those committed to abstraction, Vancouver proved little more hospitable than elsewhere in Canada. Public indifference or hostility to modern art was, however, mitigated by the control of the art institutions — the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Vancouver School of Art, the Fine Arts and Architecture Departments at the University of British Columbia — by modernists. They were, naturally enough, the only group of artists in the city with national and international connections.
If Vancouver artists during the fifties did not produce a legacy of experimentation in painting, they did establish modern art in Vancouver. Had they not done so, the more innovative work of the following decades could not have happened here.
THE ACT OF PAINTING
In 1947 Lawren Harris chose a group of young Vancouver painters whose work was to be sent to the World Youth Festival in Prague (July 20-August 17, 1947). The painters he selected were Peter Aspell, Lionel Thomas, Gordon Smith, Don Jarvis, and Joe Plaskett. In 1959, Ian McNairn, of the Fine Arts Department at UBC, organized an exhibition that toured Canada. 7 West Coast Painters which included work by Jack Shadbolt, Herbert Gilbert, John Korner, Don Jarvis, Gordon Smith,
Takao Tanabe, and Peter Aspell. The years between these two exhibitions saw a regional'school' of modern painting emerge in Vancouver. And, in the words of Dennis Reid:'These painters, exploring their subjective reactions to nature, dominated the art scene in Vancouver until well into the sixties, and (partly because of the McNairn show) were then seen nationally as the most coherent'group' working outside of Montreal.' (33)
To be'seen nationally' was, at the time, to be seen by a National Gallery of Canada curator — in this case R.H. Hubbard, who toured the West Coast in 1955. In an article he wrote for Canadian Art later that year he declared,'Now that the Montreal school is in temporary abeyance ... the leadership has been assumed by Vancouver where a whole group of interesting painters is now active — to say nothing of the architects.' (34)
As early as 1946, Jack Shadbolt had announced the emergence of'a student group centred around the Art School. This group might justly be regarded as one of the most significant creative groups in Canada today. Among the present leaders are Ron Thorn, Don Jarvis, Bruce
Boyd, Joan Wright (Boyd), Dorothy Mouat, and Peter Aspell.' (35)
From a period lasting from the end of the Second World War until around 1962, Vancouver was seen locally and nationally as the city where modernism was most at home in Canada. (36)
Whether or not the Vancouver painters can be said to have formed a'school' is debatable. They never saw themselves as such and produced no manifesto. They did, however, have characteristics in common and these characteristics could be said to constitute a regional style, Ian McNairn described this as an attitude:'Probably one significant attitude they share in common is the awareness of their environment and secondly their acceptance of abstract forms.' (37)
In the late forties and early fifties this interest in nature found expression in paintings that R.H. Hubbard termed'animistic.' (38) These were paintings in which natural forms, driftwood, bones, plants, and stones, were used as the basis of abstract composition. Perhaps inspired by
English painters such as Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland, Vancouver painters abstracted natural forms to make statements about the human condition. Bruno Bobak's paintings expressed the human emotions of alienation and anxiety; Jack Shadbolt's, the humanized eros of the non-human natural world.
Alistair Bell might also be termed an'animistic' painter. His drawings, watercolours, and woodblocks celebrate the complexity of the natural world. He is attracted to richness and density. His drawing has a calligraphic quality, as if the things of the world he paints were inscribed with mysterious writing. This ties Bell's concerns to those of Morris Graves and Mark Tobey. Many of the Vancouver painters knew the Seattle modernists. In the fifties, contacts between Seattle and Vancouver were stronger than they are today.
Two painters who worked in Vancouver during the fifties, Charles Stegeman and Françoise André, were trained in Europe. While in Vancouver they became close to Mark Tobey. The influence of Tobey's painting can be seen in Stegeman's Sacred Rock. Both Stegeman and André practised a kind of surrealism which allies their work to animistic painters. However, their roots were in European surrealism. As a result their work often has an intoxicating richness that made it seem overwrought at the time.
Surrealism was rejected by American modernism in the fifties because it was supposedly,'... heavily larded with concepts borrowed from psychoanalysis and its overwrought rhetoric is not always to be taken seriously.' (39)
Don Jarvis, J.A.S. MacDonald, Lionel Thomas, and Peter Aspell painted figuratively in the late forties and early fifties. Jarvis and MacDonald placed figures in architectural settings. Their theme was modern anxiety and isolation. Aspell also painted the figure, but in a more traditional manner. The work of the figurative painters and the'animistic' painters was often perceived to be related. Jack Shadbolt noted in 1951 that the work of these painters was united by'a persistent overtone ... a disturbing loneliness.' (40)
Shadbolt was not the only one to come to this conclusion. Walter Abell wrote that contemporary painting depicted'the ghost universe.' (41)
Both Shadbolt and Abell took pains to discern the unity of contemporary art from the confusing facts of post-modern pluralism. For Shadbolt contemporary art reflected historical reality. He went as far as to state,'forms in relation to space equals man in relation to society ...' (42) Abell wrote from a similar perspective,'... a style of art is a statement of historical realities ... [therefore] ... all forms of contemporary art reveal a kinship with each other.' (43) For both writers this unity was perceived as a withdrawal from a world full of tension. As Shadbolt put it,'. . .the nature of our balance today is not one of confident externality and healthy assurances, but rather of hesitant uncertainty and, at best, intellectual humility and quiet hope in the dim-out. Concepts, then, under these conditions will necessarily tend to be enigmatic, intimate, nostalgic, and exploratory, rather than robust and objective.' (44)
John Korner took a similar position about the relationship between history and art when hewrotein 1954:'Newforms are needed to express our reaction to a world of rapid development in science and techniques, for which its creator, man himself, is not yet either physically or psychologically equipped.' (45) This stance would seem to have been that of the Vancouver painters as a whole. Even Lawren Harris, also writing in 1954, expressed his view that the artist expresses'the hidden needs of a people.' (46) For Canadian artists of the fifties, abstraction, painterly abstraction, was a serious issue argued in terms of content rather than style. They saw the subject matter of abstraction alternately as the void — the twentieth century's dominant cosmological and personal image — or as the search for a new sensibility for a transformed man. A critical discussion of works of art in terms of their formal qualities, especially Clement Greenburg's'flatness' is all but absent until the 1960s.
Perhaps partly because of the post-war commitment many Vancouver painters had given to the Art in Living movement, and because some of them had painted'social consciousness' work during the forties, many Vancouver painters in the fifties were reluctant to plunge into abstraction completely.
In 1951, when Shadbolt wrote of the'dim-out,' the most interesting abstract painting was being produced by Jerry Brusberg, whose large canvasses caused a storm of controversy when they were shown at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1950. B.C. Binning, Lionel Thomas, and Lawren Harris were also painting abstract canvasses in the late forties and early fifties. Joe Plaskett, swimming against the tide, had already abandoned abstraction for figurative painting by 1951. Binning's breakthrough came in 1948 when he took a year from teaching to paint. As a former student of Amédée Ozenfant, Binning constructed his paintings on a grid, abstracting shapes from ships and other seaside motifs. By 1953 he was painting canvasses which were pure abstractions, without reference to the external world.
Lawren Harris's work of the fifties is much more fluid than his geometric abstractions of the forties. He painted an interior universe of pulsating psychic fields and strange, other-worldly entities. Harris's later work has never been given its due. It is very deliberate painting. Harris was said to paint in a suit with his easel set up on a white carpet. Based on his theosophical view of the cosmos, these late paintings affirm the abstract programme as a kind of map-making for a new vision of reality.
Lionel Thomas, who stopped painting in the mid-fifties in order to devote himself to murals and sculpture, was also interested in depicting interior psychic regions. Much of Thomas's fluid imagery is based on biology and geology — those magnifications of tissue sections or crystalline geometry that were often used to justify abstract art at the time. Thomas's first abstract paintings, done in the late forties, were, however, based on a grid.
By the mid-fifties the dominant look of painting in Vancouver had become a lyrical, painterly abstraction with a landscape reference. This was the kind of painting that won national attention in the fifties. Its best practitioners were Jack Shadbolt, Gordon Smith, Molly and Bruno Bobak, Takao Tanabe, John Korner, and Don Jarvis. (Jarvis based his abstractions on the figure as much as, if not more than, landscape.) But even this work does not really form a unified school. It is unified in that it is about feeling, the landscape reference being metaphorical as often as it is literal. And that feeling unlike the angst-ridden work of the early fifties, tends more and more towards the ecstatic.
Korner's Galaxy series celebrates the orgasmic in images that are both cosmic and intimate. Shadbolt embraces Mediterranean colour in the late fifties, compare his 1953 Untitled (screen) to his 1958 Autumn Tokens, the subject-matter is similar — grasses and insects — the tone is different. The later work is richer in colour and uses much thicker paint. It is also more celebratory. Gordon Smith's work of the late fifties and early sixties, although controlled, even astringent at times, is also remarkable for his use of an open composition and clear, lightly saturated colours. Bruno Bobak, under the spell of Kokoschka, in his View of Vancouver veered towards the hallucinatory vision of the city as a body filled with light. If Takao Tanabe's Interior Landscapes speak of a more tranquil vision, or if Don Jarvis's encounter series are frankly menacing, their exuberant painterly manner ties their work to that of the others.
Jarvis's work accommodates two strong aspects of the regional tradition at the time. Aspell's 1947 Self-Portrait and Joe Plaskett's devastating pastels of his dying father (1972), demonstrate the vitality of an expressive figurative tradition in the work of Vancouver artists. Jarvis managed to work within the painterly abstract and the expressive figurative tradition in single, unified works of art.
In 1958, returning from studies in Mexico, Toni Onley galvanized the painting community with mature paintings that were completely abstract in feeling. His work from the late fifties and early sixties was probably the most accomplished painting done in the modern idiom in the city at the time.
This painting should be seen in the light of the extensive influence of the New York school. The leading Vancouver painters became, broadly speaking, abstract expressionist painters. The Vancouver paintings of the late fifties and early sixties are later than those of the New York school by more than a decade. The direct influences are not Pollock, Newman or de Kooning, but Gottlieb, Diebenkorn, Baziotes, and Nicolas de Stael. Like Cubism before it, Abstract Expression was disseminated through its variant forms, not through the direct derivation from its progenitors work. The worlds of New York and Vancouver painters were, of course, very different. The large-scale heroic masterpieces of de Kooning, Pollock, and Kline are urban. They are the expression of a big-city world of bars, jazz, money, fame, serious criticism, and intense interchanges. The Vancouver version came from a world of gracious suburban living, job security, classical music, contact with nature, and, as a result, a reticent sort of introspection.
The striving for a national art animates both the American and Vancouver experiences. The Americans resorted to the myth of the frontier and cowboys. Pollock was said to paint'as a cowboy might ride a wild horse.' (47) And Clyfford Still defined the act of painting in these heroic terms,'one had crossed the darkened and wasted valleys and come at last into clear air and could stand on a high and limitless plain. Imagination, no longer fettered by the laws of fear, became as one with vision. And the act intrinsic and absolute, was its meaning and the bearer of its passion.' (48)
Canadians, as seen by Ian McNairn, who organized the influential 7 West Coast Painters exhibition (1959), saw in Vancouver painting'a simmering excitement in visions of growth' which he tied to the fact that,'the country is in its spring.' It is ironic that the heroic, individualistic myth informing the New Yorkers often resorted to a nineteenth century image of man in the frontier while on the actual frontier, a place like Vancouver, the image is in the urban present tense,'the soul of Canada is in its people, flying from coast to coast, coming from distant lands, energetic, ambitious, materialistic, often restless, but with a vision.' And the painting of this period, although it has been characterized as landscape — by Shadbolt, Reid and others — is best understood as part of the desire to'become more cosmopolitan.' (49)
Nonetheless, many fundamental aspects of New York painting were duplicated by the Vancouver painters. Both placed importance on the act of painting. The aim of this kind of painting, was to produce the unconscious. The value or interest of a painting was as a record of the unconscious process which had produced it. When the painter'loses himself' in the act of painting he is producing knowledge of the unconscious. At various periods of the modern era (the post-war period is one) the belief has surfaced that intuition, not rational deliberation, produces the knowledge which most accurately describes truth.
Abstract expressionist painting, according to Clement Greenberg, was concerned with the truth of painting. For painting to be true to itself, the illusion of depth should be abandoned and the canvas treated as an arena of equivalences, exemplified in the'all-over' composition of Jackson Pollock, or composition that addressed the actual structure of the painting as an object (Barnett Newman).
While the Vancouver painters chose to work in an abstract painterly idiom they also retained references to natural forms and landscape. Their tie to landscape prevented the Vancouver artists from working to the full implications of painterly abstraction. The landscape references posed a series of problems which relate to the traditions of Canadian art.
Until the fifties the work of the Group of Seven was seen as the major modern achievement in Canadian painting. This was landscape painting that had used the decorative surface patterning of Scottish Art Nouveau to create an indigenous Canadian School. The motifs were Canadian, but there was nothing original or'Canadian' about the painting itself. However, the success of the Group of Seven lay in their ability to make images based on a specific topography. By comparison, the'landscape' element of the Vancouver fifties' painters was a compositional device, used to make images that refer to interior emotions as much as, if not more than, exterior places. (50)
If there was an anxious eagerness to create a Canadian art, the use of landscape references did not really accomplish this. The painters of the
fifties used European and American idioms of modern painting. Yet they had two forceful examples of what an indigenous art looked like. There were the remains of native culture, which, from the time ever since Franz Boas and Claude Levi-Strauss had studied it, had held an international reputation as one of the great art traditions. And there was the work of Emily Carr, whose modern experiments resulted from her study of native art. Of the artists in the present exhibition, only Jack Shadbolt can be said to have attempted to deal with the Carr legacy. Fascination with the forms of primitive art punctuate his work from the late forties on. Yet his inspiration has been African and Polynesian art as much as it has native art of the Northwest Coast. And that inspiration has always been an excitement about the form, not the symbolic structure, of native art. Indeed, whenever Shadbolt uses Kwaikiutl or Haida forms, he never deploys their most salient features of symmetry and hierarchical representation. For the Vancouver painters — placing a high value on the act of painting, going in blind and emerging with open eyes — such a rigidly intellectual tradition could have had little appeal.
It is not a revelation about place that makes the work in this exhibition distinctively Vancouver painting. It is something more subtle and has to do with the painters themselves. If this painting appears more lyrical — and less heroic — than painting in the same idiom from other places it is because it was tied to an attitude about the way the artist ought to live. In the 1950s Vancouver painters were involved in the discourse about modern design, architecture, and urban planning that was such a strong presence in Vancouver after the war. They saw the building of homes designed by their architect friends as part of their commitment to modernity. The shape that modernism took in Vancouver at the time, partly because the discourse had more to do with architecture and design than with art, tended to emphasize the classical features of the modernist ideology. Harmony, integrity, order, and balance were the aesthetic criteria of this aspect of modernism.
Vancouver painting was also effectively imprisoned within the realm of leisure. This affected it deeply, producing images that came from and described a realm of contemplation rather than action.
While Shadbolt had rejoiced in the'evidence of a creative ferment' in 1946, he seemed to sense the closing of an era in 1962 when he lamented the hostile and / or indifferent reception given to an exhibition of the new Toronto painting organised by the New Design Gallery. (51)
Artists in this exhibition included Joyce Wieland, Michael Snow, and
Harold Town. In Shadbolt's view, the art community had remained too conservative:'Our general critical atmosphere is still tenderly conservative or protectively reactionary.' Furthermore,'... it is to the attitudes of our artists that we must look to examine our conservatism.'
The artist, wrote Shadbolt, had become wary of the extremes necessary for the vitality of a community that would be modern and avant-garde:'Perhaps nowhere else in Canada is the artist so completely integrated with the middle-class community pattern.' Teaching positions made artists'vulnerable'. Thus,'... they confine their creative daring to the privacy of their studios where even there it is more concentrated on the extraction of a personal flavour from the generally held lyrical viewpoint, chiefly toward the haunting landscape of British Columbia, than on intellectual experiments in form.' (52)
Shadbolt's uncomfortable words point to the heart of the matter. While Vancouver often sees itself as vibrant, new and cosmopolitan — it was and remains a conservative community. The achievement of the painters who worked in the painterly idiom in the late fifties and early sixties should not be seen as a merely derivative, and rather late participation in an international style. Originality is not one of the pressing problems of our era. It should be also recognized that these paintings were made and exhibited for an audience mainly hostile to them — an audience that didn't know a Pollock from a paint rag — Vancouver. Tenacity and courage established the modern project in Vancouver. Not only in art, but in architecture, whose first modern clients were the painters.
From Vancouver Art and Artists: 1931-1983
Text: © Scott Watson. All rights reserved.
Copyright ©1997, 2020. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.