When I was an ambitious youngster with dreams of becoming a visual artist, my mother gave me a 1992 book called By a Lady: Celebrating Three Centuries of Art by Canadian Women by Maria Tippett. At the time, I was pining for art school. I wanted a full-on immersion in painting, drawing and filmmaking, with little sense of what a career in the arts actually meant.
The title of the book was inspired by the once common practice of giving work made by women artists the generic “lady” designation instead of the artist’s actual name.
The memory of the book floated up while I was walking through the Vancouver Art Gallery’s new exhibition Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment. I remembered some of the work in the VAG show from my earlier reading. But I’d never heard of many of the artists before.
I’m sure I’m not alone in this experience.
Uninvited includes more than 200 works of art from the 1920s through the 1940s. The sheer breadth of the exhibition is considerable, but the work itself is chin-dropping. The diversity, beauty and astounding skill of the artists included takes one’s breath away. How have we never heard of them. Excuse me while I say this a little louder. HOW HAVE WE NOT HEARD?
It turns out there are number of different reasons for this — none of them all that heartening.
The exhibition is organized and circulated by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, with the support from the National Gallery of Canada. But the herculean task of putting the show together largely fell to curator Sarah Milroy. In the book-length catalogue that accompanies the show, Milroy details the process of trying to track down some of these artists. It was neither simple nor straightforward. Unlike a lot of work by male artists at the time who were featured in galleries and museums, the work of female artists tended to stay within families. There are still probably caches of amazing stuff, mouldering away in someone’s attic or basement.
But before we bemoan and mourn the things we don’t have, let’s celebrate what we do have, which is extraordinary.
Rethinking inclusion and exclusion
The exhibition is structured along a few organizational lines, including different regions of the country (from the Maritimes through to the Prairies and onwards to the Pacific Coast). Indigenous artists and immigrant artists are also given careful consideration.
While geography plays a central role in what women had access to see and to paint, more central were resources. I’m talking about things like education, studio space and a network of other artists. Money, power, social standing and familial support also had an enormous impact. But of these, money was perhaps the biggest indicator of a successful career.
As Milroy states: “Like many of the women in this exhibition, [painter Prudence] Heward could make such pictures because she could imagine them but also because she could afford to…”
Many of the most prominent artists came from wealthy families and didn’t have to rely on selling their work to make a living.
Unlike their male peers who were able to travel, women artists of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s were still consigned to work within their immediate environs, whether that was painting the view from an apartment window or photographing a kitchen sink. Images from artists living in Montreal or Toronto are markedly different from those of women on the West Coast, although it is interesting in the case of painter Anne Savage to see the forests and rivers of British Columbia through the eyes of an artist who is not from here.
Based in Montreal, Savage was at the centre of the art world at the time. She was deeply influenced by the Group of Seven’s romanticized renditions of the Canadian landscape, as the work in Uninvited clearly demonstrates.
Savage’s painting entitled Temlaham, Upper Skeena River from 1927 will bring you to your knees. It is a regal and sublime treatment of the landscape, built up in blocks of colour, broadcast scale and atmosphere. It is calm, serene, with more than a whiff of the implacable. It’s a place that is not in need of any humans to give it meaning. It is self-contained, self-actualized. I haven’t quite hit on the right word to sum it all up. But maybe that’s the point: grandeur doesn’t need humans to ascribe meaning with puny words, it just needs to be depicted properly, immortalized in all its power. That is exactly what Savage does.
Other examples of the artist’s work from the painting trip that she took in 1927 with sculptor Florence Wyle are much more intimate in nature, but equally well-observed. The trip itself was a bit of an odd enterprise. Organized by ethnographer Marius Barbeau from the National Museum of Canada, for whom Savage has little patience, part of the intent on sending the two women into Gitxsan territory was to document what Barbeau termed “a vanishing race.” The Gitxsan did not want anyone to visit, but when the two women arrived with a local resident who spoke on their behalf they were treated as guests.
One of the most compelling aspects of Anne Savage’s paintings of the Gitanyow village is the liveliness depicted. The place wasn’t a sad site of extinction, but just the opposite, full of action and people, mothers and their kids carrying on with life.
There was another agenda at work on the part of the trip’s organizers. Funded in part by the deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs, the intent was to promote assimilation, annexation of territory and undermine Gitxsan authority.
The story of their trip forms the basis for the catalogue essay by Kristina Huneault. It also informs the nature of the exhibition as a whole. As Huneault writes: “Since the 1970s, a number of exhibitions have surveyed this history, but Uninvited is only the second to include work by Indigenous women. Its presence here requires us to rethink the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion that have long been of interest to curators and scholars of Canadian women’s art.”
In the exhibition, painting, photography and sculpture shares space with weaving, beadwork and regalia from artists like Attatsiaq of Arviat, Nunavut; Sewinchelwet (Sophie Frank) of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw or Squamish Nation, and Rose Runner of the Tsuut’ina First Nation, among others.
Much of the work in Uninvited runs in curious parallel to the dominance of the Group of Seven on the Canadian art scene. The title of the show comes from the fact that although the members of the Group of Seven often supported women, they never invited a single female artist to join them. This situation is summed up in a cartoon that Arthur Lismer did in 1927 entitled Emily Carr and the Group of Seven.
In the drawing, Carr is depicted as a diminutive creature with an umbrella tucked under her arm and a tree branch sprouting from her hat, while the men crowd around her, their varying levels of confoundment and consternation given concrete form in a swirl of question marks and exclamation points above their heads.
The image is meant to be funny, but there’s pointedness to it. The idea that Emily Carr, as great a painter as any of her male colleagues, must be winnowed down and made a joke carries with it the rancidity of male privilege.
The time, money, space and independence necessary to develop as an artist were much harder to come by for women, who often bore the full weight of family and domestic duties in the era spanning Uninvited. As Milroy states in her introductory essay, “Such pressures and distractions left the output of many women artists patchy and inconsistent, with no steady through-line of artistic development. Creativity customarily requires confidence and the uninterrupted mental space in which to consolidate a vision.”
When the women weren’t invited to join the men, they formed their own collective. The Beaver Hall Group in Montreal included both women and men with artists like Anne Savage, Lilias Torrance Newton, Mabel Lockerby and A.Y. Jackson. Although the Beaver Hall group didn’t last long, it was nevertheless an important vindicator for women artists of the time.
Although some of the work in Uninvited takes inspiration from the domestic sphere, there are also epic landscapes, ecstatic sculptures and nudes, all crackling with ambition, verve and erotic power.
This distinctive vision is especially apparent in the work of Pegi Nicol MacLeod. MacLeod’s painting A Descent of Lilies is swirling with phantasmagoric eroticism. The flowers are there, but so is a nude woman riding a horse and a central figure, whose spine forms one of the compositional pillars of the piece, arching out and down a like zippy waterslide. The colours — pudenda pink and purple butt up against an odd greenish yellow that speaks of stamens and other floral reproductive parts. It is fleshy, sexy and lush with hothouse colour.
MacLeod did not have an easy time of it. Poor and desperate for much of her life, she was often forced to make work in the margins. In the essay that accompanies Macleod’s work, writer Shary Boyle sums it up in a single sentence. “The family lived hard, with much of Pegi’s work of that period framed through apartment-block windows and fast snatches of sidewalk sketching.”
It’s a story that is repeated in different fashion throughout the show, women who left their careers behind or made work intermittently. Emily Carr stopped painting for 15 years, making a living as a landlord and dog breeder.
But even women who had money and resources were still offered little respect. A case in point is the sculptors Frances Loring and Florence Wyle otherwise known as “The Girls” in art circles.
The two women lived openly together as romantic and creative partners. They were the subjects of biographies as well as a CBC documentary. But in spite of their abilities, the two were still seen as indistinguishable from each other, their work often shown together. As Catharine Mastin writes in her catalogue essay, “Despite their unique practices and aesthetic interests, these two-artist exhibitions enshrined their designation as ‘the Girls,’ levelling their otherwise distinct art practices as inseparable, their merit equal and inevitably comparable.”
Despite the bravura work in Uninvited, a great deal of sadness pervades the show, not only because so many of these women were denied proper recognition in their time, but also because many had their careers truncated if not entirely obliterated by the duties that were largely relegated to women: marriage, children and taking care of aging parents. The charred quality of “what if” lingers in the air like smoke.
How much was lost is heartbreaking, but still how much did come into being is still enormous. Women artists fought, struggled, balanced their lives in order to create great work. That is the ultimate triumph, and it is more than enough.
'Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Movement' is on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Jan. 8.