Art and Identity: Exploring competing views of Canada

Anniversaries, typically, are occasions for reaffirmation: To look back at past glories as building blocks of an even more glorious now. Not so Canada 150, which is shaping up to be the most circumspect sesquicentennial on record. Converging as it does with darker moments in Canada’s history, including facing up to our country’s treatment of indigenous people, July 1 looms as a complicated marker for a nation as much at odds with its past as it is hopeful for its future. Helping to complicate the picture are several new books on Canadian art whose challenge to officialdom resides in a mission to broaden the narrowcast view of our cultural history.None of these new books will produce watershed revelations regarding our sense of national self. But taken together, they help to suggest how much our official history has left in the margins. About that official history: Early 20th century art in Canada is home to our most dominant cultural mythology, the Group of Seven, which, along with Tom Thomson, has been yoked so long to the plow of Canadian culture that they’ve choked the growth of virtually everything else. Evelyn Walters, a Toronto-based historian, reminds us — again — that other people were making art in Canada as Modernism, a European notion, began to arrive on our shores. But even Modernism has been a hard pill to swallow for G7 devotees, who have largely preferred to see, in their unpeopled renderings of northern wilderness, a true north strong and free of the meddling influence of a global esthetic movement. Article Continued BelowWalters’ The Beaver Hall Group and Its Legacy, her second book on the expansive, inclusive crew of young Montreal painters formed around the same time, is a necessary muddying effort. Montreal, the country’s financial and cultural heart at the time with close ties to Europe, was quick to embrace its innovations and trends. Beaver Hall painters included Edwin Holgate, Kathleen Moir Morris, Mabel Lockerby, Henrietta Mabel May and A.Y. Jackson, a native Montrealer doing double-duty as a charter member of the Group of Seven (in 1920, he became the Montreal crew’s president.) Their first exhibition in 1921 featured 11 men and eight women, a surprisingly co-ed crew for Modernism’s mostly-boys’ clubs, and the work, which ranged from urban scenes to portraits to nudes, had almost nothing to do with the rugged wilderness of its Toronto counterparts. That’s likely why Beaver Hall became the footnote and the Group of Seven the main event: Canada wasn’t ready for full-blooded Modernism, and the Group was more easily shaped to fit a patriotic mould of untamed wilderness uncoupled from larger trends. The Beaver Hall Group, not so pliant to typecasting — flag-bearing wasn’t its thing — lasted only a couple of years.