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Kay Woods

The Renascence of Canadian Art 1950 1960 (1979)

artscanada, December 1979/January 1980, #232/233
[ 2,813 words ]


By 1950 Canada was awakening after the arduous years of depression and war. The country was opening its doors, looking beyond its borders and branching out in all directions. This spirit of expansion invaded the art scene as well, stimulating art and artists everywhere. There had been strong individual artists working during the difficult years — artists such as Emily Carr in the West, Lawren Harris who was creating his remarkable abstractions, David Milne in Ontario, Goodridge Roberts and Jean-Paul Lemieux in Quebec, and Jack Humphrey in the Maritimes — but for the most part art in Canada had become conservative and unprogressive. The younger artists were dissatisfied with the staid conventions adhered to or set down by the 'established' artists of the day. The mighty Group of Seven had flavoured Canadian art for almost thirty years and the time for change was long overdue. The image of pine tree, rock and northern lake, so barren of all habitation, had been dulled by constant repetition. Another aspect of the Group of Seven that rankled with young artists was its nationalist intent. These artists knew that art could never be great if it deliberately put first the characterization of country; and if they continued this practice they would surely stagnate along with the art they produced. They could no longer accept the strong suggestion of at least some members of the Group that their image of the land spoke for all of Canada and so the first thrust in their revolt against this image was a concerted effort to discard the nation-alist attitude that prevailed through its fixation with the land.

One obstacle the artists had to try to overcome was the confining regional isolation imposed by the vast size and the geographical layout of the country. They began to look beyond their regional existence for other ideas, to exchange viewpoints with other artists and seriously to investigate new forces both national and international.

Conditions for change were fomented in the schools of art. Great teachers like John Lyman, Paul-Emile Borduas, Jock Macdonald, Jack Shadbolt and, later, Ronald Bloore and Guido Molinari incited their students to follow paths as yet uncharted in Canadian art; and there were others, like Jack Chambers and Jack Bush, who taught unwittingly, yet taught nonetheless, by inspiring others simply by their strong example. These teacher-artists were constantly curious, open to ideas that were then circulating throughout the Western world. During the decade of the 1940s, innovators fleeing from oppression in Europe had converged on New York where their ideas took hold and were fertilized by the proximity of the powerful new work they encountered there. Canadian artists looking to New York brought back the new trends and shared them with their students and colleagues. It is just these artists who stand out in retrospect as the ones most responsible for leading the art of this country into its maturity. Each of them has grown in stature and their work has gained international recognition.

This revolution, which caused such a remarkable turnabout in Canadian art, began in Quebec. Rebellion was more familiar to the artists there than to their Ontario counterparts, since a major upset of the status quo had already taken place in that province, beginning in 1939, when the Contemporary Art Society was formed by John Lyman in Montreal, partly as reaction against the Group of Seven, whose work never spoke for Quebec. Lyman stated that, 'The real Canadian scene is in the consciousness of Canadian painters, whatever the object of their thought.'  ((1) The next year Alfred Pellan returned from 14 years in Paris, bringing his synthesis of Cubism and a dreamlike fantasy, which was a part of European Surrealism. In 1946, Borduas and his group held the first exhibition of their work based on the Surrealist principle of automatic writing, after which they became known as Les Automatistes. Then, in 1948, Borduas published his Refusglobal — the ultimate statement for personal liberation and for freedom in art.  ((2) By the mid-fifties in Quebec the groundwork enabling new concepts to be accepted for their own unique characteristics had been laid. At least the idea of change was no longer considered outrageous. Les Plasticiens were a group of four painters working in Montreal who proclaimed, in a manifesto in 1955, that their main concerns in art were for perfection of order and form, elaborating on the theory defined by Piet Mondrian in 1917.  ((3) In the Plasticiens' attempt to purify painting to basic elements they developed a style of unemotional austere geometric abstractions in cool bold colours, the opposite stand to the spontaneous automatism of Surrealism espoused by the Automatistes.

Although never actually a member of the Plasticiens, Guido Molinari was close to them in concepts and he emerged as the rising star in Quebec art in the 1950s. As a student, Molinari had investigated automatist techniques but soon discarded them in favour of disciplined and well-thought-out structure. A visit to New York in 1955 reinforced his interest in structure and colour, on seeing the work of Mondrian and Kandinsky. By the end of the decade the trend originating with the short-lived Plasticiens had evolved mainly through the work of Molinari and Claude Tousignant, who were more drawn to New York colour painting than to European. Employing colour according to the theories of Josef Albers, Molinari made use of a few strong vertical bands, repeated and placed in series, each colour being modified by its proximity to another. He and Tousignant have pursued the optical dynamics of colour ever since. Another artist whose work reflects the major concerns of the Montreal artists and who works in this tradition is Yves Gaucher. He made his mark by the early 1960s through geometrically composed prints; and then he turned to painting large monochrome canvases vitalized by a precise ordering of coloured lines which vibrated against the background colour.

The art of Quebec found its initial impetus for change in Lyman's insistence on the importance of the properties of painting itself, rather than content reflecting aspects of the country; and over the last few decades this impetus has consistently matured. There has never been any attempt to create a national school of art for Canada in Quebec. These artists were concerned primarily with a much more international view.

The words rebellion or revolution are much too strong to describe what was taking place in Ontario — perhaps renascence would be more appropriate. Restive and impatient with the established criteria, the younger artists struggled to break the bonds of the accepted norm, which to them seemed static uninspired mediocrity. They were keenly aware of the similar unrest in the neighbouring province, and were encouraged by the stance taken by the artists there.

The teacher most responsible for introducing the newest trends from Europe and New York to his students at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto was Jock Macdonald (1897 - 1960). Macdonald came to the college in 1947 and his influence was soon felt by such artists as William Ronald, Graham Coughtry and John Meredith, all of whom have since made very substantial contributions to Canadian art. His own early paintings had been landscapes of British Columbia, where he lived in the thirties, paintings greatly influenced by Lawren Harris and Frederick Varley of the Group of Seven, artists with whom Macdonald had close contact. By 1940 he was seeking an image in his work that would express visually the energies he felt were hidden in nature beyond appearances, and he turned his attention to automatist painting in watercolour and ink. He studied the theories of Wassily Kandinsky, such as Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and in 1948 and 1949 attended Hans Hofmann's summer art school in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Hofmann's notion of art as the reflection of the spirit was close to his own. By 1955, after a year of studying and painting in Europe, Macdonald was finally able to bring into his work the full artistic response to his own personal beliefs. Such was the background of the man whose inquiring nature and progressive outlook inspired his young associates.

For a more conservative Ontario, it was a shocking occurrence when, in 1953, a group of artists soon to call themselves Painters Eleven took the role of devil's advocate. William Ronald was the artist responsible for organizing in that year the small exhibition of abstract, nonobjective paintings at the Robert Simpson Company in Toronto that led to the formation of Painters Eleven. He invited some of the most progressive artists in the area to participate in a promotional project sponsored by Simpson's that would show the public that their painting complemented both traditional and contemporary home furnishings.  ((4) Later they met to discuss showing their work as a group, which by then also included Macdonald, Harold Town, Walter Yarwood and Hortense Gordon. The first exhibition of Painters Eleven was held at the Roberts Gallery in Toronto in 1954. The show was viewed by a large number of people and caused an overnight sensation. Critics and viewers alike protested that they did not 'understand' the work, but nevertheless the cause for abstract art was successfully launched in Ontario.  ((5)

Although the members of Painters Eleven influenced each other to some extent, they never acquired a group style. Common to all was the rejection of realist painting and an interest in Surrealist ideas and automatist techniques, and they were unified by their Abstract Expressionist approach, inspired by the New York School Abstract Expressionists. But there was no aesthetic credo and they did not feel themselves to be a part of a movement. They were drawn together for artistic purposes more than for political causes, though their revolt against the old-fashioned art institutions with their headquarters in Toronto, their determination to update the Toronto art scene by presenting their abstract paintings en masse and as often as possible, was also a political action.

Ronald, as a student, had been encouraged by Macdonald to strive for freedom of expression. He had also been advised by his mentor to visit New York in 1952. This brief but fortuitous sojourn, highlighted by listening to the teachings of Hans Hofmann at his Manhattan studio and seeing the work of the New York painters, determined his direction toward Abstract Expressionism. By 1955 Ronald had moved to New York and was represented by the prestigious Kootz Gallery. Central Black (1956) is typical of the strong expressive paintings by Ronald during the next few years.

One of the members of Painters Eleven, Jack Bush (1909-1977), acquired an interna-tional reputation for his work from 1960, after Painters Eleven had disbanded. His early representational work of the 1930s had been followed in the next decade by painful efforts at abstracting nature.  ((6) During the first years of Painters Eleven Bush, like most others in the group, was exposed to New York Abstract Expressionism and was closely observing the work of de Kooning, Kline and Hofmann. Bush's painting changed in 1957, when he accepted the sincere criticism offered by the New York art critic Clement Greenberg. Bush turned in the direction of the Colourfield Painting that Greenberg was then widely encouraging among New York artists as the appropriate art for the times. It proved a fertile alternative for Bush. His large canvases lost their free-form images and spontaneous gestures and became calm beautiful formal statements, emphasizing colour and flattening the illusion of spatial depth.

The bright abstractions of Painters Eleven, not to mention their bravado, strongly influenced later artists emerging in Toronto, artists such as Michael Snow and Gershon Iskowitz, who followed their lead in looking to New York but who were able to express themselves in a more personal way. John Meredith's imagery portrays his innermost being in a manner that would greatly please and satisfy his former teacher, Jock Macdonald; and Graham Coughtry's series of two figures entwined, dissolving into space, spoke also of personal resolution.

Important joint exhibitions and open dialogue occurred during the 1950s among the major Canadian and American abstract artists. The first of these exchanges was again instigated by Ronald while he was living in New York. Painters Eleven were asked to be guest artists at the 20th Annual Exhibition of American Abstract Artists held at the Riverside Museum in New York in 1956. In 1958 they accepted an invitation from Quebec artists of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to exhibit their work in Montreal and later in the year ten Quebec artists exhibited with them at the Park Gallery in Toronto.  ((7) The climax to this enriching interaction was the invitation from Painters Eleven to Clement Greenberg in 1957 asking that critic to view and comment on their work.

Similar critical assessments and expansive interchanges were taking place in western Canada also. In 1955 Kenneth Lochhead, Director of the School of Art, Regina College, founded a workshop at their summer school location at Emma Lake, Saskatchewan, as a solution to the artistic isolation felt so deeply by artists in the midwest. Well-known artists from across the country were invited to come for a two-week session, not to paint but to discuss art. The first guest in 1955 was Jack Shadbolt from Vancouver. Shadbolt had studied with Frederick Varley and Emily Carr and then in London, New York, France and Greece. His main theme was nature and the cycles of all living things presented in a manner derived from the automatic spontaneity of Surrealism. In later years they invited to Emma Lake such New York artists as Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella as well as Clement Greenberg who introduced the avant-garde concerns of the times to the artists of the West. These workshops engendered great excitement and inaugurated a period of strong development for Prairie artists. A form of abstract imagery emerged that was markedly different from that seen in either Quebec or Ontario. The group of artists associated with the University of Regina at this time, later known as the Regina Five, included Ronald Bloore, Ted Godwin, Art McKay and Doug Morton as well as Ken Lochhead. Bloore kept his independence intact, showing little American influence in his own work, which remained contemplative and metaphysical, and unique in Canadian art.

The very best of Canadian art from 1950 on is not nationalistic in flavour or intent. Artists no longer attempt to formulate a type of 'Canadian art' that presents an image of the land and its people. Nor is the viewpoint of the most progressive and ambitious art narrowly contained within this country's boundaries. Knowing that good art of any country is rooted in its culture and coloured by geographic, social and political influence, place of origin need not be displayed in order to claim it for itself. The artists of this period in Canadian art history of whom we are now most proud looked out and beyond their borders. What they saw and found of value elsewhere in their travels or through their studies was brought back and incorporated into an art that does not speak of Canada but very strongly for Canada

artscanada, December 1979/January 1980, #232/233


Text: © Kay Woods. All rights reserved.


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