Monday, November 1, 2010

What Our Younger Artists Don't Know About Canadian Painting

This is a no holds barred blog entry. Older artists won't likely raise an eyebrow when they read what I am about to write. Hopefully, the words I write will impress younger painters to see the Canadian art scene from a different perspective.

To begin with - Canada is a vastly different country today then it was 50, 60, or more years ago. Canadians are a pretty patriotic lot today. We have our symbols in place and we know who we are as a people. But I want to turn back the clock 60 years or more.

English Canadians in the early to middle of the 20th century, struggled with self identity issues. Let me give you a couple of examples. When I was a kid in 4th grade my teacher would occasionaly have us sing - our other national anthem, 'The Maple Leaf Forever'. A picture of Queen Elizabeth looked down on each school classroom and when we chose to identify ourselves by flag we used either the Union Jack or our Naval Ensign. (not a bad looking flag either).

Ask any Canadian over the age of 60 to sing God Save our Queen - and they can stand and bellow without losing a beat. Ask any Canadian under the age of 40and they would look at you as if you have a mental problem. Canada sure had a problem. We had a colonial mentality and we were caught between two pretty big international players. School kids up until the middle of the 20th century had a strong sense of the British Commonwealth. may ask, where am I leading with this?

Because we had a weak national identity, we also had a big national insecurity complex. Older Canadians can remember the days when we used to say, "Canadians are not a funny people...we don't have much of a sense of humour?" It seems hard to imagine that today, doesn't it?

As Canadians we didn't see ourselves eclipsing the ordinary. The CBC, for instance did not allow for a "Star System", in broadcasting. Our few heroes were Foster Hewitt, Barbara Ann Scott, Frederick Banting and a whole slew of hockey players.

This attitude was particularly hard on the Group of Seven. Their colour driven, impressionistic style of painting did not go down well in Canada.

AY Jackson didn't pull any punches in his autobiography of the early days of the Group. Jackson quoted some of the many letters received by readers to the Toronto Star.

"They daub and squirt." "Art is desecrated by modernism," "A horrible bunch of junk," The brazenness of these daubers," "Arrogance of Canadian Group," Fignments of a Drunkards Dream".

Jackson went on to write in his autobiography about how the group fought back.

How do you fight national insecurity and a country unwilling to bestow recognition on its own citizens? Well, you put this article in the Toronto Star.


What press says about modern Canadian Art
1. They are garish, loud, affected, freakish. (Toronto Star)
2. A single, narrow, formula of ugliness (Saturday Night, Toronto)
3. A school of landscape painter who are strongly race of the soil (London Times)
4. The foundation of what may become one of the greatest schools of landscape painting. (The Morning Post, London)

AY Jackson then wrote this letter to the editor of the Mail and Empire

for nearly ten years there has been no cessation of the carping criticism of academic painters of the National Gallery of Ottawa, the Group of Seven and the modern movement in Canada generally, the efforts made to prove that what recognition the modernist has received is due only to favouritism in Ottawa.

That the many exhibitions the Group of Seven has in the United States at Boston, New York, Philadelphia Washington and various other cities, might have been due to the merits of their work seems inconceivable to the academic mind. The fact that these exhibitions have nearly always resulted in invitations to exhibit again might suggest that they were appreciated. Those who are in charge of American art galleries have heard that in Canada there are artists who are trying to interpret their country with freedom and freshness of vision. Seldom has there been any of the brash criticism these artists have received at home, and the generous recognition they have received in the USA should have been a stimulant to all Canadians instead of arousing feelings of envy and bitter partisanship.

No Canadian exhibition that has ever went abroad has won the fine eulogies that the Wembly Show did. It was only in Canada that the London times and Morning Post were sneered at. If the academic painters in Canada are not overwhelmed with invitations to exhibit abroad, it is inherent in any long established societies. The natural instinct is to look after their own members first and to show tolerance towards old members who should be retired. Inability to control members who are better politiicans than artists results in exhibitions which may be representative but which are nevertheless dull and monotonous. So in self protection they seek to gain control of the work of artists, who have more vision than they and to be the sole and final arbitrators or what is to be called Canadian Art.

They might better prove their right to such authority in some finer way than by getting a lot of malcontents to sign a petition to our overworked prime minister.

A.Y. Jackson.
When Canadian discovered that people in other countries recognized and paid tribute to Canadian art abroad, they were able to identify their homegrown, dismissive, and parochial attitudes.

All of which reminds me of Toronto Blue Jay baseball player telling Toronto fans in their world series.,,,in the press......"ITS OK TO SHOUT AND CHEER."

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