This article was writen by Liz Hill, historian and writer/researcher for The Drawing Board.
There is a typical Canadian tendency to assume that our art (like our TV programming) is either a poor imitation of American products or too regional to be interesting. To which I would argue that regionalism and being just off-centre in the art world is what makes Canadian art interesting! Twentieth Century Canadian artists navigated the complexity and diversity of Canadian identity(s) both internally and in relation to the wider art world. The list I’ve selected below aims to be diverse and represent a variety of groups and movements, but cannot begin to be truly representative so I encourage you to check out your local galleries!
Paul Emile Borduas (1905 – 1960)
Paul Emile Borduas was the leader of the Montreal Les Automatistes and the writer of the main essay of their manifesto Refus Global. Borduas was inspired by the automatic writing technique of Andre Breton and the Surrealists. He applied the spontaneous and automatic writing to painting. After exhibiting these automatic works in 1942 he gained a following including Marcel Barbeau, Jean Paul Riopelle, Roger Fauteaux, Pierre Gauvreau, Fernand Leduc, and Jean-Paul Mousseau. The group met in Borduas’ studio to discuss Marxism, surrealism, and psychoanalysis. As artists the group successfully exhibited in New York and Paris in 1946 and 47. In 1948 they produced a manifesto entitled Refus Global. Borduas wrote the main essay which argued that “rational exploitation [was] slowly expanding to all social activities” to the detriment of creativity, expression, and freedom. The Automatistes were opposed to the conservatism of 1940s Quebec society and Borduas rejected Catholicism and nationalism in favour of a “resplendent anarchy” which he saw as a political extension of the Automatistes’ spontaneous and intuitive aesthetic. The group disbanded shortly after the release of Refus Global, with some of the artists already leaving Quebec for Paris, including Jean-Paul Riopelle who would go on to have a successful international career. Refuse Global was widely condemned by the Quebec government and media. As the eldest and the leader of the group Borduas was removed from his position at Ecole du Meuble. He never taught in Quebec again but continued to work in New York and Paris until his death in 1960.
Jack Bush (1909 – 1977)
Jack Bush was a Toronto based artist who, as a member of the Painters Eleven group, contributed to bringing international modern art to Canada, and Canadian art to an international audience. His work, which would become associated with the Colour Field and Lyrical Abstraction styles of Abstract Expressionism, is characterized by an expressive use of colour and the creation of structure through colour. Bush worked as a commercial artist through out his career and was initially a landscape painter in the style of the Group of Seven and the Canadian Group of Painters but he became dissatisfied with Canadian art’s detachment from the international art world. He was exposed to American abstraction, as well as the work of the Automatistes, through trips to New York and Montreal. In 1957 he met the influential New York art critic Clement Greenberg who encouraged him to refine his approach to abstraction and became a life long mentor.
Bush was a member of Painters Eleven, a group of artists formed in 1953 who were similarly frustrated by the 1950s Toronto art scene that continued to be dominated by the influence of the Group of Seven. Alexandra Luke organized the first exhibit of abstract art in 1952 and the group exhibited annually from 1954 – 58. In 1956 they reached an international audience in an exhibit with the American Abstract Artists in New York. The group was diverse in background, training, and style but were united by the influence of the New York school of abstraction and a desire to bring the international art world to Canada and vice versa. Other members of the group were Oscar Cahen, Hortense Gordon, Thomas Hodgson, Alexandra Luke, JWG Macdonald, Ray Mead, Kazuo Nakamura, William Ronald, Harold Town, and Walter Yarwood.
William Kurelek (1927 – 1977)
Unlike many of the other artists on this list, William Kurelek was not a member of any artists’ groups or movements. His output and influences are intriguingly idiosyncratic, including Brueghel and Bosch, his prairie roots, Roman Catholicism, and fear of nuclear war. Perhaps best known for illustrating children’s books in the seventies, his other work includes realistic images of prairie life, particularly of Ukrainian immigrant communities, still-lifes, didactic series and apocalyptic images based on his devoutly Catholic beliefs, and earlier works depicting his struggles with mental illness. Born in Alberta and raised in Manitoba, Kurelek began painting in 1950 while living in Edmonton. In 1952 he ended up in England and was committed to a psychiatric hospital for depression. He continued to paint as a form of therapy, producing some of his darkest and most surreal works. During his art therapy he worked with Dr Bruno Cormier who happened to have contributed to Refus Global as a colleague of the Automatistes. He found comfort in Roman Catholicism and began to convert before leaving the hospital in 1955 and returning to Canada in 1956. Through the 1960s he established himself as an artist, producing a body of work that reflected his Catholic conversion, Ukrainian prairie roots, and growing preoccupation with nuclear war and the moral state of modern society. In the seventies he produced a number of books and series depicting Canadian immigrant communities.
Daphne Odjig (1919)
Daphne Odjig’s Winnipeg gallery, The New Warehouse Gallery, provided an early meeting place for the Professional Native Indian Artist’s Incorporation (PNAI), or “The Indian Group of Seven.” Odjig learned to draw and carve from her grandfather as a child, and as a young adult taught herself to paint by visiting the Royal Ontario Museum and Art Gallery of Toronto. In response to discrimination she adopted an Anglicized version of her name, but in the mid-sixties she returned to her Indigenous roots, both personally and creatively. She began to explore Indigenous history and traditions in her painting and in 1971 she opened the Odjig Indian Prints of Canada gallery, which would be renamed The New Warehouse Gallery, in order to promote and distribute her work and the work of other Aboriginal artists. In the seventies she also began to create large scale historical and legendary murals and paintings that dealt with themes of cultural survival and regeneration, and were based on personal and collective memory.
Odjig’s gallery became a meeting place for artists who would go on to form PNAI in 1974. In addition to Odjig, PNAI members included Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, Alex Janvier, Norval Morriseau, Carl Ray, and Joseph Sanchez. The group was diverse in background and artistic styles, but was united by a frustration with the prejudice and lack of opportunity faced by Indigenous and Aboriginal artists in the mainstream Canadian art world. In addition to seeking to improve opportunities for Aboriginal artists, the group was concerned with the survival of Indigenous culture, and critiqued assumptions about Aboriginal art which portrayed it as something from the past or as crafts and artifacts belonging in natural history museums rather than art galleries.
Joyce Wieland (1931 – 1998)
Joyce Wieland’s use of imagery and materials influenced by Pop Art and feminist art challenged the dominance of painting and high art traditions exemplified by other artists on this list, including Borduas and Bush. In addition to painting, Wieland was a filmmaker and multimedia artist. She expressed her perspective as a woman artist in a male dominated art wold through the use of domestic and craft materials such as embroidery, knitting, quilting, and even an elaborately decorated cake for one exhibit. Her use of lithography, collage, and cartoons reflects the influence of Pop Art and represented a challenge to high art modernism. After her first exhibit in Toronto in 1960, Wieland lived and worked in New York from 1962 to 1970, with her husband Michael Snow, another major Canadian pop artist. Despite nearly a decade spent working in the American art world, and exhibitions in the United States and Europe, Wieland remained invested in her Canadian identity and themes of Canadian nationalism. She viewed the landscape and ecology of Canada as female, tying together issues of nationalism, environment, and gender. In 1971 Wieland was the subject of the National Gallery’s first major exhibit of a living woman artist. It was entitled “True Patriot Love.”