Canadian Modernists Attracting Respect

Canada might have seemed hundreds if not thousands of miles distant from the centers of modern art in the early decades of the 20th century, but the Canadian artists of the dominion transformed their isolation into an asset to become a major force in the Modern Movement. While the Canadian soil had nurtured such talented 19th century pictorialists as Cornelius David Krieghoff (1815-1872) and Peleg Franklin Brownell (1857-1946), and painters such as Horatio Walker (1858-1938) and Maurice Galbraith Cullen (1866-1934) they began to apply an Impressionistic brush to scenes of their native land. The modernism of the Cubists and their successors represented a break with local tradition. Hints of the modern could already be seen by the time Canada entered World War I in 1914.

Many Canadian artists had sojourned in Europe before the war and applied the new ways of seeing what they had learned there to the vast sublime of Canada’s north country, stretching from the rocky Atlantic shore into the forests of Quebec and Ontario through places where the tundra touched the Arctic.

The Canadian modernists were able to capture the essence of their landscape, using only those details necessary for conveying the lay of the land and the enveloping mood. Like Cezanne, many of the Canadian modernists outlined their shapes in hard black lines. They did not try to disguise the fact that these were painted expressions of their own perspectives rather than windows onto reality. Many paintings of windblown forests, overhanging skies and lonesome lakes contained dramatic if unspoken narratives about the power of the natural elements. Humans were largely absent, even if traces of humanity in the form of farm houses or small towns were sometimes visible against the endless sky or forest.

Canada’s modern art movement coalesced around the Group of Seven, founded in Toronto in 1920. The seven artists often exhibited together and set a public example for a distinctly Canadian style of art. Their body of work was representational, mostly landscapes but distinct in capturing the Canadian spirit, with an expression of warmth and a hint of cheerfulness that defined the composition despite the ominous ice-blue skies. Breaking with the academic traditions of perspective and color, their renderings were non-traditional and, as the Impressionists had done decades before, they struggled for the public’s acceptance. The seven painters became trail-blazers who set the stage for new approaches in the decades that followed. Lawren Harris (1885-1970), the founder of the Group, whose works were regarded as classic statements of the Canadian North, went on to paint in a style approaching abstraction, his landscapes no longer literal but abstractions with “layers of meaning.”

Three hundred miles north and east, a Montreal-based group of painters were making an impact of their own. Establishing themselves in 1920, the Beaver Hall Group took their name from the neighboring street, Beaver Hall Hill, where their studio was located. Women were prominent in the Group at a time when  female artists were still considered hobbyists at best. Taking on traditional subjects such as portraiture, landscapes and still life, the Beaver Hall Group explored the same modernist approaches as the Group of Seven and eventually exhibited alongside them in U.S. shows and in England.

Among the female painters of the group, Kathleen Morris (1893-1986), Prudence Heward (1896-1947) and Nora Collyer (1898-1979) stand out in the ranks of important 20th century Canadian artists. Unlike the Group of Seven’s emphasis on rocky mountains and remote landscapes, many of the Beaver Hall women chose domestic scenes of home and garden. Morris and Collyer painted narratives of children playing and adults going about the daily routines of their lives. Vibrant and action-filled, their work is a record of letters from home. Heward was a figure painter, whose work was distinct from her colleagues in style and substance. Her large canvases included a range of characters, mostly women, in a variety of settings. Her studies, intense and moody, convey powerful impressions of the subjects she portrayed.

By the mid-20th century, more abstract forms of modern art took hold in New York and Western Europe. In Canada, many younger artists felt detached from the Group of Seven and their regional comfort zone. By the late 1940s, the Automatistes, a group of abstract painters in Montreal, developed a philosophy of non-preparedness. Influenced by the Surrealists, their objective was to paint in the moment, automatically, with no advance “planning” before the paint hit the support. The artwork’s creation would be realized from the insights of the sub-conscious. They came to prominence in 1947 with their publication of a radical manifesto attacking the rigid status quo in art as well as challenging all authority in the Quebec establishment. Written by artist Paul-Emile Borduas (1905-1960) and signed by 21 others, the scathing statements ultimately caused Borduas to leave the country, living in poverty until his death seven years later. Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002), a co-signer of Borduas’s manifesto, emerged from the Automatistes as one of the giants of Canadian abstract art. Riopelle’s work, abstract yet orderly, hints at a system of indefinite patterns, with color and contrast offering light amidst colorful commotion.

Inspired by the Automatistes’ departure from tradition, a like-minded group of Quebec artists established themselves as the Plasticiens in 1953. They borrowed their name from the aesthetics of the Dutch De Stijl movement championed by Amsterdam’s Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). Following a dictum of non-representational abstraction, the artists crafted linear compositions with primary colors to create a utopian ideal of spiritual harmony and balance. Claude Tousignant (1932) is one of the movement’s leading proponents. Finally, in 1953, Painters Eleven emerged from Toronto and continued the trend away from representing the Canadian landscape in favor of pushing the boundaries of abstraction.

Sotheby’s Nov. 23 sale of “Important Canadian Art” at the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto), offered an impressive range of works from the late 19th century to the present day. Among the highlights was Riopelle’s abstract oil on canvas, “Composition,” which almost doubled its reserve, coming in at $278,500 (including buyer’s premium). “Absurdo,” the very commanding Abstract Expressionist acrylic on canvas by Tousignant also well exceeded its reserve, bringing $51,000 (including buyer’s premium). Although the 47 post-war works sold well, with well over half of the lots reaching sales of $20,000 and above, it was the work of Group of Seven artist, James Edward MacDonald (1873-1932) that brought the highest price of the evening sale. “Wind Clouds,” exhibited in the first Group of Seven exhibition in 1920, sold for $589,000 (including buyer’s premium), a reassurance that Canada’s early modernist trail-blazer’s place in art history is secure. ?

Editor’s Note: An interactive catalog of Sotheby’s results from the Nov. 23 sale of "Important Canadian Art " may be searched on Sotheby’s website.

Mary Manion is associate director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, Wis. A columnist for Antique Trader since 2006, Manion is a member of the New England Appraisers Association.

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