Painting: Modern Movements | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Painting: Modern Movements

 The years since the Second World War, and continuing into the 21st century, have witnessed an unprecedented expansion in the visual arts throughout Canada, evidenced in the number of professional artists, the proliferation of galleries and exhibitions, the development of art magazines, and the significant expansion of art schools like the Emily Carr University of Art and Design and Ontario College of Art and Design University.
Doc Snider
L.L. FitzGerald, 1931, oil on canvas (courtesy NGC).
F.H. Varley, circa 1930, oil on canvas board (courtesy Mrs H.A. Dyde, Edmonton).
Side Show Performer
Harold Town, 1950, oil on masonite (courtesy NGC).
Road to Nowhere
Jean-Paul Lemieux, 1956, oil on canvas (courtesy NGC).
Self-Portrait with Concert Program
Paraskeva Clark, 1942, oil with paper on canvas (courtesy NGC).
The Ukrainian Pioneer
William Kurelek, 1971-76, acrylic, graphite and pencil on masonite (courtesy NGC).
Touchwood Hills
Ivan Eyre, 1972-73, acrylic on canvas (courtesy NGC).
<em>Rhapsody</em>, 1994
Terrence Keller, acrylic on canvas (courtesy The Vanderleelie Gallery).
Pool in the Rocks
David Milne, oil on canvas (courtesy NGC).
Beaver Totem
Emily Carr, circa 1930, oil on canvas (courtesy NGC).
<em>Paravicino VI</em>
Douglas Haynes, 1995, acrylic on canvas (courtesy Bushlen/Mowat Fine Arts).
Winter Landscape
By Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté, 1909, oil on canvas (courtesy NGC).
Black Star
Paul-Émile Borduas, 1957, oil on canvas (courtesy Montréal Museum of Fine Arts).

The Breakthrough of Modern Movements

The years since the Second World War have witnessed an unprecedented expansion in the visual arts throughout Canada, evidenced in the number of professional artists, the proliferation of galleries and exhibitions, and the development of art magazines. The Canada Council for the Arts and the provincial art councils have played crucial roles in this development, as has the expansion of museums, art galleries, and alternative and artist-run spaces, as well as the growth of art departments in colleges and universities. In describing the character of recent painting in Canada, it is essential to bear in mind three factors: the strength of regional identities, the increased knowledge of developments across the country and internationally, and the differing sizes of the artistic communities. These factors have combined and recombined in complex ways, producing a dynamic which has discouraged the uniformity of "a Canadian painting" and encouraged the strength of painting in Canada.

Apart from the impact that Northern European modernist landscape and figurative painting had on the members of the Group of Seven, the breakthrough to modern movements came in Montréal in the 1940s through efforts initiated by artists themselves. The three leading figures, John Lyman, Alfred Pellan and especially Paul-Émile Borduas, had different, often conflicting views, from which came an energy in ideas and a dynamic of change. Lyman returned to Montréal in 1931 after almost 24 years abroad, mostly in France. Besides the example of his own work and his advocacy of modern European art, he wrote criticism for the Montrealer (1936-40) and initiated the founding of the Contemporary Arts Society in 1939. The society, open to artists who were not members of the Royal Canadian Academy, organized annual exhibitions during its nine-year existence and helped introduce European modernism to Canada. The founding membership comprised 26 artists, including Prudence Heward, Fritz Brandtner, Goodridge Roberts, Louis Muhlstock, Marian Scott and Philip Surrey. Borduas was among the French Canadian members.

Les Automatistes and Les Plasticiens

A more radical source of inspiration came from Alfred Pellan, who returned to Canada in 1940 after 14 years in Paris. An artist of sparkling and eclectic talent, his interpretations of cubism and surrealism were a revelation to artists in Montréal. Borduas, initially struck by Pellan's work, pursued a still more radical approach related to the ideas of André Breton, the founder of surrealism. Borduas was set not simply on imitating French art but on an original expression of a spiritual revolution. He became the centre of a group of young men and women, including Fernand Leduc , Pierre Gauvreau , Jean Paul Riopelle , Marcel Barbeau , Françoise Sullivan and Jean-Paul Mousseau . A clearly defined group by the mid-1940s, they gained the name Automatistes from an exhibition in 1947, the name alluding both to the freedom of gestural abstract painting and to the longstanding surrealist practice of automatic writing and drawing.

Direct connections with French surrealism were maintained through Riopelle, the most prodigious of the young painters, who moved to Paris in 1946, and Leduc, who lived there from 1947 to 1953. The climax of the Automatiste action came with the collective signing of Borduas's 1948 manifesto, Refus Global . Advocating personal freedom in cultural and spiritual expression, the pamphlet attacked the repressiveness of the Québec government at the time and the dominant place of the church in Québec politics, culture and education. The document caused uproar and led to Borduas losing his teaching post at the École du Meuble. After five years of personal and professional hardship, Borduas left Canada. He went to New York (1953-55), coming into contact with the work of the abstract expressionists, and then to Paris (1955-60). Both in his painting and his advocacy of cultural change, Borduas represents one of the major achievements in Canadian art.

The Automatistes split the Contemporary Art Society. The older members could not follow their direction and Pellan led a short-lived "anti-automatiste" group, Prisme d'yeux (1948-50), with Léon Bellefleur and Albert Dumouchel. The Automatiste movement gave way in the mid-1950s to a rigorous form of hard-edge abstraction first marked in the work of Leduc and the Plasticiens, a group that was formed in 1954 by the critic Rodolphe de Repentigny (who painted under the pseudonym Jauran) and 3 other painters; it first exhibited in 1955.

This group, influenced by the ideas and work of pioneering Russian avant garde artist Kazimir Malevich and the influential Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, was soon absorbed into the Non-Figurative Artists' Association of Montréal, which was formed in 1956 with Leduc as president, Repentigny as secretary and Guido Molinari as treasurer, and which included artists such as Rita Letendre and Jean McEwen . The direction somewhat hesitantly begun by the Plasticiens was rapidly developed by Leduc, Molinari and Claude Tousignant . Leduc returned to France in 1959, and it was the work of Molinari and Tousignant, in particular, rigorously hard-edged and abstract and developed on the dynamics of colour, that led Montréal painting in the 1960s. But their concerns were not exclusive, as is evidenced by the work of Yves Gaucher , first as a printmaker and from the mid-1960s as a painter, and Charles Gagnon , whose work has been in painting, assemblages and photography.

Toronto and the Painter’s Eleven

Toronto, in the 1940s, lacked the atmosphere of radical debate found in Montréal. There were only a few artists, such as Paraskeva Clark , Robert "Scottie" Wilson, Albert Franck and Jock Macdonald (a major figure as both painter and teacher), who worked against the dominance of the Group of Seven and their followers in the Canadian Group of Painters. Others, such as Jack Bush , and younger artists such as Oscar Cahén , Walter Yarwood, Harold Town and William Ronald , were by the end of the 1940s actively developing more radical solutions, looking to European and, in particular, New York painting.

Alexandra Luke organized the touring Canadian Abstract Exhibition in 1952 and in 1953 Ronald initiated an exhibition at Simpsons department store called "Abstracts at Home," including his work and that of six other artists, Kazuo Nakamura , Luke, Bush, Cahén, Ray Mead and Tom Hodgson. Deciding to continue to exhibit together, the group expanded to include Hortense Gordon, Yarwood, Town and Macdonald, and took the name Painters Eleven . They first exhibited together in 1954 and formally dissolved in 1960. Differing widely in approach and style, the best of the group's work was characterized by strong painterly surfaces found in Town, Ronald, Hodgson and Cahén. In 1956 the group exhibited with the American Abstract Artists in New York. Ronald, then working in New York, arranged for the critic Clement Greenberg to visit the Toronto artists in their studios in 1957, though Town and Yarwood refused to participate. Greenberg's visit had had the greatest impact on Bush.

Even as Painters Eleven was breaking up, their example was important to a strong and energetic group of young artists centered on Av Isaacs' gallery. The work of this group, reflecting a wide range of interests from dada to abstract expressionism, was characterized by powerfully expressive figurative styles and included Graham Coughtry , Joyce Wieland , John Meredith, Gordon Rayner , Dennis Burton , Robert Markle, Nobuo Kubota, Richard Gorman and Robert Hedrick. The most original was Michael Snow , who began his career as a painter but soon moved into a wide range of media — sculpture, photography and film.

The London Group

A vital centre of activity also developed through the 1960s in London, in particular with Jack Chambers , Tony Urquhart and Greg Curnoe . Chambers and Curnoe, in different ways, have given forceful definition to regionalism as a vital expression of the reality of living and working in a particular community. It was Chambers who initiated the development of the Canadian Artists Representation (see Artists’ Organizations ) in 1967 to set standards in exhibition and copyright fees and to assert the professional status of artists. The community in London, if small, remains vital and active in sculpture, installation and painting; among the painters special mention must be made of Paterson Ewen , who moved there from Montréal in 1968, and Ron Martin (since 1983 working in Toronto).

Painting in Atlantic Canada

The visual arts in the Atlantic provinces moved in radical directions later than in Québec and Ontario. The first artists in the region to address contemporary issues seriously were Jack Humphrey in Saint John, New Brunswick and, after the war, Bruno Bobak and Molly Lamb Bobak in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Lawren S. Harris in Sackville, New Brunswick was essentially alone as an abstract painter. The dominant figure in the Atlantic region since the war has been Alex Colville . His painting has set a new standard for realist art, and through his teaching at Mount Allison (1946-63) he has had an important impact on the development of artists such as Christopher Pratt , Mary Pratt, Tom Forrestall , and D.P. Brown . Since the late 1960s the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University , with artists and influential administrators like Garry Neill Kennedy ,and Eric Cameron, has been a gathering point for radical Canadian, American and European artists.

Painting in Western Canada

In the Western provinces, each of the major urban centres has established a distinctive character and sense of community. Vancouver has the largest concentration of artists and the longest history of interest in modern art; Jock Macdonald was working there in the 1930s and Lawren S. Harris settled there in 1940. The 2 principal artists from the 1940s, both as artists and teachers, have been B.C. Binning and Jack Shadbolt . Binning is best known as a draftsman and a painter of abstractions of ships and landscape. Shadbolt, deeply affected by the richness of the landscape and Northwest Coast Indigenous Art, has interpreted these themes in a highly personal surrealist manner. A combination of landscape and lyrical abstraction characterizes the work of Gordon Smith , Takao Tanabe and Don Jarvis, a direction reinforced by Toni Onley who moved to Vancouver in 1959.

A more rigorous form of abstraction, important for a younger group of painters, came from Roy Kiyooka, who moved from Regina to Vancouver in 1959. In the 1960s and 1970s Vancouver experienced the diversification of interests that occurred in Toronto and Montréal, with particular strengths in conceptual and communication art, video and performance, through the work of Iain and Ingrid Baxter in their N.E. Thing Co (formed in 1966), and Michael Morris and Gathie Falk , whose work has encompassed performance, painting and mixed media.

In Regina the focus of activity in the 1950s was on a small group of artists determined to overcome their sense of isolation from the principal centres, particularly New York. The summer school at Emma Lake, founded by Augustus Kenderdine in 1936, was extended in 1955 by Kenneth Lochhead and Arthur McKay to include a workshop for professional artists, the first of which was led by Jack Shadbolt. Subsequently many of the leaders were Americans, the most significant being Barnett Newman (1959), Clement Greenberg (1962), Kenneth Noland (1963) and Jules Olitski (1964). In 1961 Ronald Bloore, director of the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, organized the "Five Painters from Regina" exhibition with work by himself, Lochhead, McKay, Ted Godwin and Douglas Morton. Later that year this show toured Canada under the auspices of the National Gallery, giving rise to the name the Regina Five .

The Emma Lake Artists' Workshops also had a major effect on artists in Saskatoon, uniting artists of different generations and styles of work. For many years the doyen of painting in the city was Ernest Linder, who gained national attention with his precisely rendered close-ups of trees, plants and figure studies. Landscape painting, for instance that of Reta Cowley, Wynona Mulcaster and Dorothy Knowles, has been a major force; their example had encouraged the work of younger artists such as Greg Hardy and David Alexander. A sensibility to the landscape has also been a major factor in the development of abstract painting, for instance in the otherwise dissimilar work of William Perehudoff and Otto Rogers . Among younger painters, for instance Robert Christie, there is a substantial interest in colour field abstraction. Apart from these concerns is the constructivism of Eli Borstein , founder and editor of the journal Structurist.

For artists in Alberta, as in Saskatchewan, the Emma Lake Artists' Workshops and the Banff Centre for Continuing Education have been the most significant centres for development of the visual arts. In Calgary an informal group developed around Maxwell Bates , including Ron Spickett, Marion Nicoll and Roy Kiyooka. Bates, a practicing architect, painted in Calgary until 1961 (when he moved to Victoria) in an expressionist style. Subsequently, the modernist direction has been developed by artists such as Bruce O'Neil and Gerald Hushlak.

A modernist landscape style is found in artists such as Ken Christopher and in various forms of image painting with John Hall, Derek Michael Besant, Ron Moppett and Gary Olson. The interest in formalism, both in painting and sculpture, made its strongest impact in Edmonton, encouraged by support from the Edmonton Art Gallery and in particular its long-time director, Terry Fenton. The substantial group of formalist painters working there, led by Douglas Haynes, includes Robert Scott, Phil Darrah and Terrence Keller.

In Winnipeg in the 1930s, the most significant artists were Fritz Brandtner and LeMoine FitzGerald . Subsequent developments centered on the University of Manitoba with artists and teachers such as George Swinton and Joe Plaskett and, beginning in 1964, Ken Lochhead. In recent years Winnipeg, though somewhat isolated from other centres, has continued to be an active and varied community with such painters as Don Reichert, Ivan Eyre , Esther Warkov, Jack Butler, Sheila Butler and Suzanne Funnell.

Late Twentieth-Century Trends


Through the 1970s the place of painting at the leading edge of the visual arts was challenged by developments in conceptual art, installation art, sculpture, video and performance (see Contemporary Trends in Art; Video Art). For many people, painting, if it survived at all, would do so as an essentially reactionary form. But painting did not come to a standstill, and in recent years activity in the field has developed rapidly, especially among younger artists. Notable in Toronto and Montréal in particular, is a concern with what may be called expressive abstraction and with figurative painting, although not to the exclusion of geometric abstraction.

At a time when the outcome of these developments is impossible to predict, it is important to recognize that such terms are inexact and arbitrary; for we can describe the work of artists such as Christian Knudson, Richard Mill, Leopold Plotek, Christian Kiopini and Jocelyn Jean in Montréal as abstract and geometric, but must distinguish their concerns not only from each other but also from the approaches of, say, Toronto artists such as Ric Evans and Jaan Poldaas, Milton Jewell and Paul Sloggett. The significant factor is to recognize how the matter of painting, in each case, is addressed to the spectator— a point underlined in the work of Ron Martin, whose recent shift from an open and painterly form to a geometric colour structure is a syntactical, not a stylistic change.

For many painters, such as Jacques Hurtubise in Montréal and Joseph Drapell, , Milly Ristvedt-Handerek and Harold Feist in Ontario, the character of painting remains abstract, formal and personal. Nor is the distinction between the abstract and figurative exclusive in terms of a concern with painting itself. In the work of David Bolduc, Harold Klunder, Paul Fournier, Alex Cameron, Paul Hutner, Howard Simkins, Eric Gamble and Christopher Broadhurst, among others in Toronto and elsewhere, figurative images are woven into the abstract concerns of the activity of painting.

In the later 1970s it was difficult to escape the impression that painting was, if not an anachronism, at least an activity that had defined its parameters. In some respects it appeared to echo a period eighty years earlier, when the gap between academic refinement and the shock of the avant-garde seemed less definitive than it had been twenty years earlier. But it was, in the later 1970s as it had been in the 1890s, a false sense of closure, for the whole character of painting was at that moment in the process of revision.

1980s to Present

The early 1980s was a period that saw Canadian artists working in a broad diversity of media— video and photo-based work, installations, site specific interventions,public art , and performance work. This coincided with a time of growth in many sectors of the visual arts, with new gallery building and expansions in major urban centres, and the consequent increase of exhibition opportunities for artists. Unlike the late 1940s and 1950s, it was not a period of manifestos such as the 1948 Refus Global—the combative positions of old and new vanguards—but rather a time of ideological shifts. Some of these shifts questioned the value of naming movements, the relevance of art in society and even the relevance of painting as a historically loaded "senior" discipline. If painting was under critical and theoretical pressure, it was also resurgent.

Several factors can be identified that affected this situation, not the least of which was the resilience of painting as a fundamental means of expression. A pluralism within painting practice itself was also evident. Abstraction no longer maintained its status of "contemporary" in the face of a torrent of image painting in the early 1980s -- the so-called European Zeitgeist and "neo-expressionism" that appeared internationally, almost simultaneously. Image painting — here, a term to include a broad range of figurative and representational approaches— served as a vehicle for issues and activism: gender, First Nations culture, social injustice, and a global reckoning of environmental concerns. Abstraction was revisited, but it took on unexpected forms and expressions. Many painters who emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s continued to contribute to this dynamic, and artists who had been at the forefront of post-1950 modernist movements were still active. Many senior painters achieved a "national treasure" status while remaining true to the tenets of experimentation, and provided a generational bridge rather than a gap. Among the latter were Alex Colville, Paterson Ewen, Gathie Falk , Douglas Haynes, Guido Molinari, Jack Shadbolt , Gordon Smith , Takao Tanabe and Joyce Wieland.

The New Global Art World

Another factor in the circulation and dissemination of pluralism was the dissolution of established regional art communities: artists became nomadic. The proliferation of art colleges and need for instructors is one factor. The notion of inter-regionality extended to the international scene and Canadian artists who relocated abroad (e.g. painters Peter Doig and Lisa Milroy to England in the late 1990s) achieved recognition. From a regional perspective, style was no longer a simple case of legacy. On the East Coast, the influence of the precisionist realism of Colville, Christopher Pratt and Mary Pratt also supported the idiosyncratic image painting of Gerard Collins, Nancy Edell and Suzanne Funnell. The conceptual-systems artist Gerald Ferguson began to incorporate folk-art stencil motifs in his paintings starting in the 1990s, while remaining true to the tenets of his conceptual art practice. Montréal, a bastion of non-objective painting as exemplified in the work of Molinari, Louis Comtois, Charles Gagnon, Yves Gaucher and Claude Tousignant, saw the emergence of a generation of "new image" painting in the 1980s. Pierre Dorion and Claude Simard rented an apartment in 1983 and covered the space with painted images, which were then sold by the square foot. Other Montréal painters of note include Peter Krausz, Louise Robert, Susan G. Scott, Richard-Max Tremblay, Carol Wainio, and Irene Whittome (also known for her sculptural work and installations in the 1970s and 1980s).

Although Toronto was the recognized home base for the 1950s group Painters Eleven, abstraction did not have the same long-established tradition there that it had in Montréal. Through the 1960s and 1970s, there was always a current of image painting. Instrumental in bringing image painting to the forefront were artist-initiated endeavours. A significant one was the Chromazone Gallery collective, though works shown by this group were not exclusively painting-oriented. The Gallery operated from September 1981 to May 1983, but continued with key temporary location group exhibitions. The artists included Andy Fabo, Rae Johnson, Oliver Girling, and concurrently, Brian Burnett, Sandra Meigs, Andy Patton, John Brown, Richard Storms, Shirley Wiitasalo and Will Gorlitz. Joanne Tod emerged as a cause célèbre after showing in the sprawling four-gallery Monumenta exhibition in 1982. Subsequently, her work has established a national presence. Natalka Husar also emerged as a painter of prominence in the 1990s. Like Tod, her work deals with sardonic images of modern, urban cultural behaviour.

In Winnipeg, Wanda Koop and Eleanor Bond are two image painters of note whose work is characterized by a strong and emblematic approach with both working on a large scale. Bond's images of invented urban scenes from a bird's-eye view draw on her international experience. Likewise, Wanda Koop has drawn her inspiration from the past — Mannerist painting and Canadian vernacular icons —and an interest in cross-cultural influences. Other image painters of note in the Canadian West who emerged in the 1980s including David Alexander (Saskatoon), Chris Cran, David Janzen (both Calgary), Janet Werner (Saskatoon) and David Thauberger (Regina). New image painting in Vancouver also appeared in the early 1980s. The Futura Bold collective of Angela Grossman, Richard Atilla Lukacs, Derek Root and Graham Gillmore (1984) was recognized in the 1985 Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition New Romantics, which also included Mina Totino and Vicky Marshall. Lukacs's images of skinheads in the 1980s proved that painting still had the power to incite controversy. Added to the list of notables are Lucy Hogg, Landon MacKenzie, David MacWilliams, Laurie Papou and Neil Wedman. None could be said to paint in a style that speaks of regionalism, or even of the samestyle, but of pictorial concerns developed as individuals.

In a similar fashion, the new abstraction that appeared in the late 1980s and 1990s across Canada, which was expressed in the work of René Pierre Allain (Ottawa and New York), Bobbie Oliver (New York), Gina Rorai (Toronto), Arlene Stamp (Calgary), Monica Tap (Halifax), David Urban (Toronto) and Robert Youds (Victoria), was proof that abstraction had not run its course, contrary to the opinions put forward by some of its critics. To the pluralist spectrum are artists who crossed the lines between representation and abstraction in the late 1990s -- Chris Cran and James Lahey (Toronto), for example -- and artists whose painting cannot be easily categorized: Christian Eckart (Calgary-New York) Robert Fones (Toronto), Regan Morris (Toronto), Taras Polataiko (Ukraine-Saskatoon), Mary Scott (Calgary) and Renée Van Halm (Vancouver).

One of the consequences of inter-regional perspectives was the real possibility of artists being free cultural agents, rather than being categorized by affiliation with a particular type or style. A prominent example is Tony Scherman (Toronto). His paintings have delved into the variants of Greek mythology, the French Revolution, Shakespearean plays and pop culture icons, while expressing a contemporary relevance. Another example is David Bierk (Peterborough). He has also revisited historical masterworks to amplify the concerns of a contemporary, urban world, rather than to elicit nostalgia for the pastoral.

Yet another important critical development took place beginning in the 1980s that also altered earlier definitions of "regional art": the emergent social and political consciousness of a radical contemporary and urban-based First Nations art. It was work that considered the legacy of oral traditions, social history and colonization, and the impact of a culture and peoples dispossessed of historic roots and land. In many instances the artists utilized traditional motifs and images as well as Western contemporary art idioms. Some artists of distinction include Carl Beam (Ojibway), Bob Boyer (Métis), Robert Houle (Saulteaux), Alex Janvier (Dene) George Littlechild (Plains Cree), Gerald McMaster (Plains Cree), Shelley Niro (Mohawk), Jane Ash Poitras (Chipewyan, Cree), Rick James Rivet (Métis), Joane Cardinal-Shubert (Blood, Blackfoot, Peigan) and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun (Coast Salish, Okanagan).

If the 1970s ended with a unprecedented maturation in the visual arts spectrum and the foundations for increasing infrastructural support, the 1990s ended with increased visual and intellectual traffic between mediums: painting was informed by issues and innovations in photography, video and digital technologies, and in return, artists working in technological mediums addressed painting in many different and unexpected ways. Moreover, there was a new appreciation of cultural diversity and a heightened awareness of the many ways in which art as cultural production could add to a progressive social environment. This reawakening saw artists delve into the spheres of social concerns, belief systems (the spiritual), the ethics of the new age of science, and a reckoning with history and the history of art.

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