Kathleen Jean Munn, painter (born 28 August 1887 in Toronto, ON; died 19 October 1974 in Toronto, ON). Kathleen Munn is recognized today as a pioneer of modern art in Canada, notably for experimenting with abstraction earlier than most Canadian artists. Considered too “advanced” by critics and the public in the 1910s and 1920s, she remained on the periphery of the Canadian art scene during her lifetime.
Early Life and Education
Kathleen Munn was the youngest of six children in a closely knit middle-class family who owned a jewellery store at Yonge and Bloor. They lived in the apartment above. The family valued education highly and thus Munn was very fortunate to receive lifelong financial and emotional support for her singular commitment to art.
Munn took art classes in Toronto at the Westbourne School from 1904 to 1907. Encouraged and talented, she began to exhibit in 1909 with theOntario Society of Artists (OSA), the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (RCA), and the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), receiving limited attention. She continued to exhibit with these member societies until the late 1920s.
Seeking inspiration beyond Toronto’s conservative art scene, Munn was among the few early 20th-century Canadian artists to experiment with Cubism, Synchromism, and abstraction. She placed herself in the midst of the international modern art movement by studying in New York at the Art Students League, where she won a prestigious first prize. She attended classes between 1912 and 1930, studying with leading abstract artists, such as Stanton MacDonald-Wright, Andrew Dasburg and Max Weber, while receiving foundational training in colour and design theories as well as life drawing. Her studies were complemented by travels to Europe and visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In New York, Munn read the influential theories on dynamic symmetry by Canadian-born artist and writer Jay Hambidge(1867–1924), who argued for the development of a modern art rooted in classical principles. Hambidge’s essays confirmed for Munn the primacy of the human form and suggested to her the basis of a methodology for its representation, ideas fundamental to her most innovative cycle of drawings from the 1930s.
Kathleen Munn’s first truly modern paintings are of farm animals. Paintings such as the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Untitled (Cows on a Hillside), and the National Gallery of Canada’s Untitled (Cows and Chickens)both from 1915–16, are perhaps the most modern paintings made in Canada at the time, comparable only to Emily Carr’s 1913 paintings of West Coast Aboriginal villages. Inspired by the influential Blaue Reiter artists — an art movement in pre-war Berlin that included figures like Russian painter Vasily Kandinsky —as well as Synchromist colour theory, Munn builds the image through a pattern of flat rectangular patches of colour laid down to create both a unified surface and a sense of space, while maintaining a tremendous naturalness in the animals’ depiction.
The 1920s were a decade of great experimentation for Munn,one that led to an eloquent flourishing in a number of related pictorial styles and to her reimagining the conceptual potential of the human figure. She refined her use of colour to achieve a rhythm and composition akin to musicality, an attribute much sought after by artists engaged with abstraction. It also marks her fundamental commitment to the nude, despite the well-documented discomfort of Toronto audiences in the 1920s and 1930s with such content. In The Dance (1923) and Composition (Reclining Nude) (1926–28), two of her most important paintings, she achieves the simplicity and clarity she sought in her ongoing preoccupation with the formal integration of thefigure in landscape.
Yet Munn’s paintings were misfits, just like Carr’s.The Dance stood out dramatically at the 1923 RCA exhibition. The Mail and Empire critic described it as “unique” and a “futuristic painting with a cubist suggestion.” When Munn painted Untitled I (c. 1926–28) — which was originally, with Untitled II, part of a larger canvas — it was among the first purely abstract works made in Canada. InYearbook of the Arts in Canada, 1928–1929,Fred Housserwrote, echoing other critics’ assessment, that Toronto audiences were not ready for Munn’s “advanced” art.
Munn developed a close friendship with Canadian abstract artist Bertram Brooker with whom she shared a vision of modern art with ancient roots. Brooker was her primary conduit to key members of the Group of Seven and Toronto collectors Ruth and Harold Tovell. This led to Munn being included in Group of Seven exhibitions in 1928 and 1930, and to the purchase of two Passion Series drawings by the Art Gallery of Ontario (then the Art Gallery of Toronto) in 1945.
Developing a unique drawing method rooted in dynamic symmetry principles, in the 1930s Munn effectively only drew one figure over and over: the human body, expressed in its most idealized form. Dynamic, singular and germane, this form is Munn’s visual expression of the unity of being. Munn’s Passion drawings are the pinnacle of formal arrangements of this singular form with its variations in complex compositions. Munn sketched the interaction of multiple figures in hundreds of drawings, ultimately producing sets of crowds that she then collaged to create 10 large completed works.
Munn exhibited her Passion Series in 1935 at the Malloney Galleries in Toronto, her last major exhibition held in her lifetime.
Kathleen Munn’s work received limited critical attention during her lifetime, despite her active exhibition record in the 1910s and 1920s. Her artistic interests, rooted in international modernism, differed from her contemporaries who were committed to a national art movement. This distinction is significant as to why she has remained on the margins of Canadian art. Munn gradually abandoned her artmaking around 1940 and her work was largely forgotten when she died in 1974.
Since the mid-1980s, groundbreaking scholarship, touring exhibitions and publications have brought renewed attention to Munn’s pioneering work. Munn’s archives played a critical role in her rediscovery and revealed her deep engagement with modern art. Her work is now sought after by important private and public collections across Canada.