Canadian cultural historians are all too familiar with rhetoric regarding the nationalist vision of the Group of Seven’s landscape painting, a production that in actuality was regional in content and international in style. Niergarth offers a vision of the national significance of another regional Canadian art, inspired by different international trends. The important distinction that Raymond Williams makes between “alignment” and “commitment” frames this insightful and nuanced discussion of the social commitment and political alignment of the New Brunswick art community throughout the 1930s and 1940s, along with its relationship to the larger Canadian “political and ideological currents” of the period (11). Continuing the politicization of Canadian art history, this regional study carefully situates national and regional debates surrounding the relevance of social realist art within the political and cultural agendas that determined what was “modern,” “Canadian,” and “art.” Like all good concentrated studies, its contribution goes beyond the New Brunswick cultural scene, furthering scholarship on marginalized areas of history including depression era political art of the western hemisphere, social realism in Canada, challenges by regional voices to the hegemony of centralized cultural dominance, issues of professionalism in art, and the gendering of art history.
The first section’s attention to art administrators and writers builds a comprehensive cultural, political, and social picture at the provincial, national, and international levels that is foundational to the second section’s focus on New Brunswick, primarily Saint John artists. Crossing boundaries between visual art and literary studies, it closely scrutinizes how socialist ideals were circulated through the interplay between text and images (by mainly New Brunswick social realist painters) in national publications, especially the left wing New Frontier, the more moderate Canadian Forum, and the socially conservative Saturday Night. How the paintings were employed and received in popular culture is enriched by thorough considerations of the writings of Canada’s cultural elite (accessed through an impressive variety of archives), people such as Walter Abell, founder of Maritime Art (later Canadian Art) and a champion of the Maritime artists’ social content and their interpretation of the modernist style. By bringing to our [End Page 165] attention the pervasive role of the Carnegie Foundation in Canadian culture and the influence of the Mexican muralists on Canadian figurative painters, the importance of a hemispheric approach to the political alignment of these supposedly regional artists and their art is capably argued. Niergarth’s careful research makes use of extensive primary, secondary, and archival sources mentioned in the endnotes, but it would be more accessible to the academic reader if a bibliography were included.
The second section focuses for the most part on the lives and works of two Saint John artists, Jack Humphrey and Miller Brittain. Through detailed and insightful formal and social/political analyses of their works, an effective argument is made for their alignment with the American social realist movement and Canadian left wing sensibilities, if not politics. A voice is given to the era through enlightening and instructive quotes by artists and their family and colleagues, accessed through rich archival material and oral interviews. Humphrey and Brittain are considered in great detail as professionals, presumably because they self-identified as “‘Artist’ in the Saint John City Directory” and because their education and exhibition records (and gender and class) qualified them as such (118). In fact, twenty-one of the twenty-four images (unfortunately only black and white) attached to this section are works by Brittain and Humphrey. While the detailed formal and social examination of these are welcome and insightfully executed, this concentration on two men, already acknowledged “in the history of Saint John art [as] ‘giants”’ (117), highlights the limited, albeit sensitive, discussion of works by other New Brunswick artists, notably the wartime sketches of both Julia Crawford, a lifelong resident of New Brunswick, and Pegi Nicol McLeod, who throughout the 1940s devoted her summers to the Fredericton art community.
A detailed discussion of New Brunswick murals by all...