The Canadian Art Database

Kay Woods

A History of Painters Eleven
The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa (1970)

artscanada #226/227, May/June 1979.
[ 3,967 words ]


A comparison of the art scene in Quebec and Ontario in the 1940's shows a marked contrast. In Quebec, John Lyman founded the Contemporary Art Society, one of the first groups of artists to band together after the Group of Seven. These artists were doing experimental abstract work. Also at this time Paul-Emile Borduas was a most influential teacher of art in Montreal and doing his very original type of abstract work along with his colleagues of the Automatiste group. Alfred Pellan had returned from France to breathe a breath of very fresh air on the art scene of Quebec with his unique style. Another artist who was making a name for himself at this time was Jean-Paul Riopelle, who was soon to leave for Paris. The work of these artists, all different, all modern, none copying the style of the Group of Seven, was more progressive than work done in Ontario, and was accepted to a much greater degree.

In Ontario there was still a very marked influence of the Group of Seven on the artists of the day. There were some artists doing abstract work, but this work was often not accepted by the juries of the important Canadian Societies, and there was no other way for the artists to display their work. When their work was accepted it was hung next to a portrait or a landscape and did not show up to the best advantage. The work was usually regarded as childish, and insincere and was not at all understood.

Writing for the English Publication The Studio, in January 1949, Donald Buchanan in his article 'Canadian Painting 1947-48' states 'the greatest degree of contemporary achievement among painters, and of experiment also, is to be found not in Ontario, but in Quebec — in Montreal in particular.' He mentions Borduas's 'truly original work by that mystical Canadian Painter,' and also Alfred Pellan, Jacques de Tonnancour, Stanley Cosgrove and Goodridge Roberts. In Ontario he picks out A.Y. Jackson, Jack Nichols and Paraskeva Clark as doing more contemporary and interesting work.

This was a most difficult time for Ontario abstract artists to have their work shown and accepted. However, through imaginative ideas and the perseverance of some of these artists, conditions were soon to change.

In 1952, Alexandra Luke of Oshawa, Ontario, an artist who had studied under Hans Hofmann in Provincetown, Mass., and who was a great exponent of abstract art, organized a show of all abstract Canadian art in Ontario through the 'South Ontario Art Gallery Circuit'. This exhibition opened in Oshawa at Adelaide House in October 1952. The collection had the distinction of being the first Canadian exhibition of abstract painting to be assembled in Canada on a national scale and devoted exclusively to this art form.

Works by such artists as Leon Bellefleur, Roloff Beny, Bertram Brooker, Jack Bush, Oscar Cahen, Hortense Gordon, Lawren Harris, as well as his son Lawren P. Harris, Tom Hodgson, Jock Macdonald, Joe Plaskett, William Ronald, Marion Scott, Jack Shadbolt, Harold Town and others were included. There were 26 artists in the show, which was called Canadian Abstract Exhibition. In the brochure for the show Alexandra Luke wrote: 'painting should not stop with the already discovered beauty but continue searching.'

It travelled to Hart House in Toronto, The Willistead Gallery in Windsor, and to London, Peterborough, Hamilton, Montreal and Sackville, N.B. In Toronto it was very favourably received — the statement being that it should be shown across Canada.

In Sackville it was panned, the critics said of the paintings that 'the majority cannot be termed entirely successful.' In London they were glad it was an all abstract show and stated 'it is the best collection of abstract work ever to be seen in London.' This was a good start.

At a panel discussion at the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1953, called 'Why should we buy Canadian Paintings?', George Robertson, a writer and critic, suggested that more should be done to encourage large department stores to sell original Canadian Paintings by novel merchandising methods. (See Canadian Art, Winter 1954, pp. 51-52). William Ronald attended this discussion and since he had been doing design work for Toronto's Robert Simpson Company, he approached the company about this matter and found they were very interested. Hence in October 1953 Simpson's sponsored an exhibition of abstract and non-objective paintings under the title Abstracts at Home. Seven artists participated in this: Jack Bush, Oscar Cahen, Tom Hodgson, Alexandra Luke, Ray Mead, Kazuo Nakamura and William Ronald.

The aim was to persuade the general public that this form of contemporary expression in painting was as much at home within the surroundings of everyday living as in an Art Gallery. To illustrate this, paintings by each of the seven artists were used as the central theme in seven actual rooms which were decorated in both traditional and contemporary settings — Luke with French Provincial, Nakamura with modern and Ronald with Danish modern. Also on view in each room was a photograph of the painter and a short quotation regarding his or her work. The store then ran a full-page advertisement in the newspaper, complete with reproductions of each room setting. The advantages of this type of promotion were great for both the store and the artists. The aftermath of this showing was the bringing together of the seven artists who discussed the possibilities of showing their work as a group. They decided to meet at Alexandra Luke's lakeside studio in Oshawa, to talk further on this subject. Ronald asked that Jock Macdonald be included as he had been asked to participate in the Abstracts at Home show but had no painting suitable at that time. Oscar Cahen asked that Harold Town and Walter Yarwood be invited and Ray Mead wished to include Hortense Gordon.

At this first meeting Jack Bush told the group that history was being made that night and asked that minutes be taken. Mrs. Wm. Ronald was present and took the minutes while Harold Town taped the meeting for posterity. These eleven artists of like aims decided to attempt to arrange a large exhibition of their own in a commercial art gallery. Jack Bush was the only artist who was represented by a commercial gallery, so he approached the Wildridges of Roberts Gallery who agreed to the exhibition. The artists decided to bear all expenses evenly and called themselves 'Painters Eleven'.

The first exhibition of Painters Eleven was held at Roberts Gallery in Toronto from February 12th to 28th, 1954, with 33 works shown. This show drew the largest crowds the Roberts Gallery had ever had, but little comment and few sales. Critics and viewers did not 'understand' this work — they could not see a recognizable object and so were confused.

Pearl McCarthy, who was art critic for The Globe and Mail, reviewed this show by writing 'there are great differences of temperament and approach, and this collection will be best appraised by leaving aside all debate on the merits of representational versus abstract art and looking at these pictures for what they are. So long as artists do not claim that they have the sole answer to "what is art?", they should be appreciated strictly in terms of what they are seeking to do.'

'This is a group of sincere, competent painters.' and 'The exhibition should be seen by all artlovers, since it affords such a good chance to study different aims in abstraction.'

In the Toronto Telegram, Rose Macdonald wrote about the exhibition: 'the show that pulls the visitor up by the boot straps.' And in The Toronto Star, Hugh Thomson wrote : 'The show has one common denominator — it gives conservatism a polite but firm kick in the pants and blazes independent trails. There is colour splashed on most of the subjects, some clearly understandable at first blush, others vaguely discernible after inspection, others "out of this world."'

In March of 1954 this same exhibition was shown at The Robertson Gallery in Ottawa. The following year Painters Eleven again showed at the Roberts Gallery from February 11th to 26th.

In the brochure that was made up for that show there was the statement: 'There is no manifesto here for the times. There is no jury but time. By now there is little harmony in the noticeable disagreement. But there is a profound regard for the consequences of our complete freedom.'

Critic Hugh Thomson wrote: 'Their show opened its run last evening with a reception which caused considerable excitement, because this group, although none too intelligible, invariably causes a stir among art patrons by their temerity.' Then he went on to criticize most of the paintings and ended his article by stating that 'The pictures all bear titles but these you may be certain bear no clues as to the identities of the subjects. It's a quiz-game from first to last.'

This show was then seen in Oshawa from March 5th, 1955. The Daily Times-Gazette of Saturday, March 5th, states that 'when eleven abstract artists exhibit their works one expects to see something unusual. It has a powerful impact and may stir the emotions to wonder, delight, disapproval or understanding. Reaction of some kind is certain.' Then goes on to say 'They are bound together by an experimental world. By divesting their work of realism they strive to purify their compositions to the point where the emotions of the spectator will be wholly aesthetic as they are when listening to good music.'

In the March 5th, 1955, issue of Saturday Night under 'The Front Page' the article referring to 'There is no manifesto etc.' states: 'It seemed to us to be both an explanation and a challenge which could not be properly understood without a study of the exhibition itself. After looking at the work of the eleven, the first three sentences . . . can be understood. There is no new statement of belief in the paintings and time will assess their worth more accurately than any contemporary critic.'

But they looked in vain for a revelation of 'a profound regard for the consequences of our complete freedom.' This regard for consequences implies the discipline that denies complete freedom. Moreover, it is doubtful if artistic freedom means anything if it is unrestrained by the intellectual discipline imposed by the necessity for communication. It is not enough that a painter . . . be able to see or feel things differently from his fellows, he has a responsibility to share his vision, emotion and thought with others. If there is no such communication, art is meaningless and ceases to be art . . . .'

During this period the individual artists of Painters Eleven were showing their work in national and international shows, having one-man shows or showing separately from the group with other artists, and were winning awards and honours in Canada and abroad.

In 1955 William Ronald moved to New York where he was represented by the Samuel Kootz Gallery. This was a great turning point in his career as he was soon recognized in New York and won the Guggenheim Museum award for Canadian Painting in 1956.

In early 1956 Painters Eleven were put on the Western Ontario Gallery Circuit in a travelling exhibition. Thirty-three works were in this exhibition which was seen in London, Oshawa, Windsor, Hamilton, St. Catharines and at Hart House at the University of Toronto, where it was considered 'exciting and bewildering.'

In February there was yet another show at Roberts Gallery, called Small Pictures by Painters Eleven.

In 1956 Painters Eleven were asked to be guest artists at the Annual American Abstract Artists show held at the Riverside Museum in New York. They were the second group of Canadian artists to appear in New York. The other group was the Canadian Women Artists show at Riverside Museum in 1947, where both Alexandra Luke and Hortense Gordon were included. The show opened in New York on April 8th until May 20th, and was called 20th Annual Exhibition of American Abstract Artists with 'Painters Eleven' of Canada. Each of Painters Eleven showed two major works. Their critical reception at this show was much greater than it had ever been in Canada. One critic said the Canadian painters were comparable to the American painters and the level of the Canadians in 1956 was at the same stage as the Americans whose group was twenty years old.

In Weekend Magazine, critic Paul Duval wrote of Painters Eleven at this American Abstract Artist Show: 'Too often Canadian painting is remembered as a desolation of rocks and pine trees caught in a web of the northern lights. Painters Eleven are a lusty denial of this. They introduce a compelling new accent to Canadian art.'

On November 26th, 1956, Oscar Cahen was tragically killed in an automobile accident near his home in Oakville. Cahen was very much respected by the group and the loss of his talent was keenly felt. Painters Eleven continued to show his works in all major exhibitions after this so long as his paintings were available.

On August 27th of the following year William Ronald resigned from the group finding his responsibilities to Painters Eleven conflicting with his endeavours in New York where he was residing.

Painters Eleven were now nine. While other painters sought to join the group, it did not expand nor did it change its name. They hoped instead that other avant-garde painters would organize their own movements.

In 1957 Painters Eleven presented the show that established them in the Canadian art scene. A new gallery, the Park Gallery, was opened in Toronto with its first major show being Painters Eleven from October 31st to November 16th.

The owners of this gallery, men connected with a leading commercial art firm and a critic, were very generous in their business dealings with Painters Eleven and were of great help to them.

A very handsome catalogue was produced by the artists, complete with a history of the group, a reproduction of a major work by each of them, a photograph and a short biography of each artist. This catalogue stated very well their position as Ontario abstract artists by saying: 'In the war of sound (not sight) that surrounds painting today, we hear of a vast and conclusive return to nature, as if nature were a bomb shelter to be used in time of plastic trouble. We are nature, and it is all around us; there is no escape, and those who wish to go back have nowhere to go.'

'What might seem novel here in Ontario is an accepted fact everywhere else. Painting is now a universal language; what in us is provincial will provide the colour and accent; the grammar, however, is a part of the world.'

Paul Duval stated in the catalogue that 'within a few years since its formation, Painters Eleven has performed a service for Canadian art far beyond its numbers.'

Of the opening of the Gallery, critic Pearl McCarthy, (Globe and Mail, Saturday, October 26th, 1957) noted that 'There will be more abstraction by people who have stood the test of international comparison,' and after the opening, 'These abstractionists are worth seeing, being a great deal more artistically mature than one might think from the plaints of not being appreciated.'

In 1958, École des Beaux-Arts in Montreal asked Painters Eleven to exhibit in May. Quebec artist Jacques de Tonnancour contacted the artists and acted as their host while in Montreal.

Of this show, Robert Ayre of The Montreal Star, May 1958, wrote: 'The Eleven are sensational painters, for the most part working on a bigger scale than the Quebec non-objectives and with much greater violence. Only two of them appear to have studied with Hans Hofmann, but the Hofmann touch . . . is on the show. In other words, there is more of German expressionism in these explosions than French subtlety. At first, you may feel taken by assault, shaken by the detonation and the crash of colour, but you will discover that there isn't as much power as there appears to be.'

R. de Repentigny of La Presse (Montreal, Saturday, May 3rd, 1958), wrote under 'Enfin, les "onze" a leur meilleur' (At last, the Eleven at their best) . . . 'at the beginning of the excellent catalogue, (same as for Park Gallery opening) . . . one notices that these had to wait for an exhibition in New York in 1956 in order to be welcomed kindly by the critics, when they had already exhibited for three years in their ungrateful native city without raising any enthusiasm. Why, therefore, had they not exhibited in Montreal since their first showings they would have seen that the whole Canadian press is not on a level with the Queen City from the point of view of receptivity and appreciation . . . .'

'The exhibition of the Eleven is spectacular. Thanks to the hanging realized by the painter, Jacques de Tonnancour, and one can see the majority of the pictures at their best.'

It is not necessary to search for a community of styles in this group. What connects them is rather an attitude towards the painting, a certain emphasis or dynamism, according to the circumstances and the fact that they are all non-figurative.'

Thirty works from this same show were chosen by Richard Simmons of the National Gallery to be a 'Travelling Exhibition' at the end of 1958 and 1959, going across Canada to Winnipeg, Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Edmonton, Kingston and Sackville, N.B.

A very interesting show was organized by Mr. Clare Bice, Curator of the Public Library and Art Museum of London, called Points of View. This exhibition consisted of ten canvases by the Ontario Institute of Painters, ten canvases from Painters Eleven and ten canvases which Mr. Bice assembled representing various shades of opinion and approach between these two divergent views. He felt something should be done by art galleries to help the public understand the approach and intention of the artist. He also wanted the two groups to present their point of view, supported by the paintings to illustrate their contention, with the other ten paintings to indicate various gradations between the two.

Painters Eleven agreed to this show, stipulating that their paintings be hung together as a group in each centre shown, and that their written statement be properly presented. The show opened in London in October, then went to Hamilton, Hart House, Toronto, Montreal and Windsor.

The two opposing groups gave their views in art as follows: The Ontario Institute of Painters
We believe the painter's concern should be the warm breathing world of flesh and blood and growing things.

To cease to represent the visible world and attempt to paint the incomprehensible is to abandon his proper sphere.

To learn from tradition is to benefit from the experience of the human race of all ages, to reject tradition entirely is to return to the vague gropings of the primitive man.

To express his ideas and feelings for beauty the artist must select from nature and by means of conception, composition and style, form the objects of his picture into a unified and harmonious whole. The traditional artist, each with his own individual discernment of beauty, is not too concerned with passing fashions. We are therefore confident that traditional art with its infinite variety will be vindicated by artistically intelligent people.

Painters Eleven
Painters Eleven exists as a mechanism for the exhibition of work created in the spirit and character of this, the present, by artists who, though they may not agree, are kindred in creative intention. We have issued no manifestoes, we have condemned no one, no school or opinion. Most importantly, we have at no time insisted that ours was the only way.

What we have done is paint and exhibit here and abroad, receiving, in the time since our formation, more individual honours and collective acclaim than any other group in Canada. In so doing, we have secured recognition for the vital, creative painting being done in this province.

In this sense, our work will soon be accomplished, and no doubt we will return to the singular ways that are best for painters, anywhere, anytime.

In 1958, the Park Gallery and Painters Eleven invited ten Quebec artists to exhibit with them in Toronto. They had been so well received in Montreal. They had come to know and admire the Quebec artists and this was their way of showing their appreciation and of introducing their work to Ontario viewers. The ten artists who accepted the invitation were Leon Bellefleur, Paul-Emile Borduas, Alfred Pellan, Claude Picher, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Jacques de Tonnancour, Jean McEwen, Albert Dumouchel, Paterson Ewen and Jean-Paul Mousseau. It has been attempted in this paper to record the history of this very important Canadian group of artists by reviewing their main exhibitions and quoting the criticism of the day to show how they advanced and how the public slowly accepted what they were doing, both in the art itself and for art in general in Canada.

In ending this history of Painters Eleven as a group, there are two more newspaper reports worth recording. One from Oshawa and probably written by Margaret Alexandra Luke McLaughlin of that city, on appreciating abstract art. She stated that 'If people viewing contemporary art would strip their minds of extraneous ideas and think of paintings as visual compositions in colour and form, just as they think of music in terms of compositions of sound, they would soon prefer abstract paintings to static photographic realism.'

The other from Canadian Commentator, November, 1957: 'Painters Eleven have taken up abstract expressionism and made Canadians conscious of it, but they have not given it "Canadian" characteristics as the Group of Seven did. Abstract Expressionism is the least literal of art forms, its intent cannot be put into words. The meaning is in the picture and the picture either communicates to you directly or it does not. No critic can intercede.'

The final statement comes from Jack Bush, who acted as Secretary-Treasurer for the group:

To wind it up, in the Spring of 1959, I suspected that things had come to an impasse. I called a meeting held at Tom Hodgson's studio. Present were Jock Macdonald, Harold Town, Walter Yarwood, Alexandra Luke, Tom Hodgson and myself. The question was: Do we disband, or continue? Some wanted to continue as a group, some wanted to disband. The vote was finally to disband.

From the beginning of Painters Eleven we agreed to pay so much each into the Bank Account — no questions asked. We paid our own way all through, except for the shows with the Park Gallery when they generously paid half the expenses.

So, after the vote to disband, I took all the remaining money from the Bank, and sent an equal amount to each of the remaining members — I think about $11.63 each.

And that was the end of Painters Eleven. A great and exciting eight years; we accomplished what we set out to do, and then each went our separate ways — grateful to each other for the fun it was.

— (Letter of May 19, 1970.)

artscanada #226/227, May/June 1979.

Text: © Kay Woods. All rights reserved.

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