#292 What’s OK & not OK in OK
April 23rd, 2018
A Legacy of Canadian Art, from Kelowna Collections
by Roger H. Boulet
Kelowna: The Kelowna Art Gallery, 2017.
$15 / 9781896749860
Reviewed by Maria Tippett
Drawn from eight private collections in Kelowna as well as from the permanent collection of the Kelowna Art Gallery, A Legacy of Canadian Art, from Kelowna Collections was mounted in 2017 to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday and the founding of the Kelowna’s public art gallery forty years ago.
The exhibition features work ranging from Northwest Coast Indigenous stone carvings, dating back to 2000 BCE, to modernist paintings rendered in the 1980s. A handsome catalogue written by the exhibition’s curator Roger H. Boulet is “intended as a general narrative about the development of Canadian art” (p. 87).
It was a challenge for Boulet to wrap his general narrative around the particular paintings, sculptures, and graphic images that were available to him for illustration. He thus writes about Inuit art without showing us one example. (Surely someone in Kelowna has an Inuit sculpture.) He writes about John Lyman, who founded Montreal’s Contemporary Art Society and inspired so many artists, yet fails to give us an illustration of Lyman’s vibrant paintings.
Boulet’s few examples of work by female artists leaves the reader wondering whether Canadian painting and sculpture was really so largely the work of male artists.
The problem is not just what Boulet excludes: he includes too many illustrations of work that might well have been left in the bowels of the Kelowna Art Gallery or on the walls of the living rooms of the private collectors. There are “tired” paintings by the Group of Seven’s Arthur Lismer (p. 39), Lawren Stewart Harris (p. 41) and Alexander Young Jackson (p. 44).
A muddy oil sketch by Winnipeg’s Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald (p. 59) and an over-worked triptych by Jack Leonard Shadbolt (p. 81) represent these two artists.
As these examples show, even these blue-chip artists had their bad days. But do we want to see them exhibited and illustrated? Do poor examples not devalue the more accomplished work that built these artists their well-deserved reputations? I am not suggesting that the Kelowna exhibition lacked work worthy of showing. Sybil Andrews’ Forest Pool ca. 1938 (p. 56) proves this Campbell River artist was competent with the paintbrush and the woodcut gouge.
The non-objective paintings of Quebec’s Marcelle Ferron (p. 75), Paul-Emile Bordaus (p. 56) and Jean Paul Riopelle (p. 74), along with Alex Simeon Janvier’s Tin Flute (1985-1986) (p. 86), are exquisite examples of these artists’ paintings. Nor am I suggesting that an exhibition drawn from private collections is not a worthy enterprise. Moreover, I recognize that it is unfair to blame Roger Boulet for the lacunae of good examples of the artists he discusses in his text.
Where the author can be faulted is surely for an uninformed presentation of the history of Canadian art — of which there are many examples. His discussion of the ways in which nineteenth-century artists exhibited their work, concentrating on art societies and public art galleries, fails to take into account the important earlier venues at agricultural fairs that were held in every town and city across the country. Likewise, Boulet’s discussion of the Group of Seven might have reflected on the ways in which the imagery of the First World War shaped the way that the landscape of northern Ontario was painted after 1919. (For it is not surprising that when official First World War artists A.Y Jackson and F.H. Varley returned to Canada they wanted to paint things that were smashed up, and found them in the limbless trees in northern Ontario.)
Boulet also gives artificial resuscitation to several long-discredited myths. One is that Emily Carr did not resume painting after until she was invited to exhibit at the National Gallery in 1927; yet it has long been clear that Carr’s fauve-inspired landscape paintings made during the1910s and 1920s show that she never stopped painting.
Another myth is that Indigenous artists resisted incorporating what Boulet calls the “colonial narrative” into their work (p. 82) In fact, not only did early nineteenth century argillite carvings by Haida sculptors often feature American eagles and British sailors, but also, more recently, we find Inuit artists like Mansie Akpaliapik or Northwest sculptors like Don Yeomans weaving non-Indigenous themes into their art.
Roger Boulet is by no means blind to the problems inherent in his project, as can be seen in his concluding lament: “The presence of the Internet, and the relative ease of travelling to other places, has undermined the will to form collections that transcend location and region” (p. 89).
Indeed this statement could have provided him, in focusing on his eight private collectors, with a segue into a discussion of what motivated them to form their own collections. Was it for investment? For prestige? For the sheer pleasure of viewing paintings and etchings within the privacy of their homes? And how did they acquire their work? Was it inherited? Was it bought at auction houses or private art galleries — or from the artists themselves?
And why, in an exhibition in Kelowna, are there so few paintings featuring the Okanagan? Were these collectors consciously ignoring regional art? The notable exception of James Wilson Galloway (Jock) Macdonald’s splendid painting “Victory” Garden Rutland, B.C. (1944) (p. 53) simply reinforces the point.
Here, surely, are a few of the questions that could have been posed while maintaining the anonymity of the collectors. And the Kelowna Art Gallery’s laudable ambition in sponsoring this exhibition and the beautifully-produced catalogue accompanying it, with its title, A Legacy of Canadian Art, surely inspires hope that some of these works might eventually become part of its own permanent collection.
Maria Tippett spent the formative years of her academic career as a sessional lecturer at Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia, and the Emily Carr College of Art and Design. Following her year as Robarts professor of Canadian studies at York University (1986–7), she lectured in South America, Europe, and Asia and curated exhibitions. In 1991, she returned to academe, becoming a member of the Faculty of History at Cambridge University and a senior research fellow and tutor at Churchill College, also at Cambridge. Since her formal retirement in 2004, she has written four books, including the recently published Sculpture in Canada: A History (Douglas & McIntyre, 2017). Among many awards, in 1980 she won the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize for her path-breaking Emily Carr: A Biography (Oxford University Press, 1979).
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