"The Dignity of Every Human Being": New Brunswick Artists and Canadian Culture between the Great Depression and the Cold War by Kirk Niergarth (review)
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Reviewed by
Kirk Niergarth. "The Dignity of Every Human Being": New Brunswick Artists and Canadian Culture between the Great Depression and the Cold War. University of Toronto Press. xii, 356. $32.95

This study illuminates a significant chapter in the history of Canadian art by focusing on a vibrant network of New Brunswickers who embraced socially engaged realism during the 1930s. While this was a road only briefly taken between the landscape nationalism of the Group of Seven in the 1920s and the anti-establishment abstract expressionism of the Automatistes after the Second World War, it reflected a general trend toward a more humanitarian world order that was expressed politically in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, Bennett's New Deal, and the Popular Front among left-wing elements in Canada eager to transcend the misery generated by the crisis of capitalism.

The Depression not only inspired socially engaged realism; it also obliged Canadian artists such as Miller Brittain and Jack Humphrey to return to Saint John from New York, where they had studied and worked in better economic times. They soon became the centre of a "crowd" of creative young talent (among them Violet Gillett, Julie Crawford, Kelj and Erica Deichmann, Fred Ross, and Elizabeth Sutherland, along with frequent visitors Paraskeva Clark, Lucy Jarvis, Pegi Nicol Macleod, and P.K. Page), who regularly gathered in Ted Campbell's studio for good conversation and companionship. As artists, teachers, and community animators, they were anything but the backward, conservative, isolated "folk" often ascribed to the Maritime region. Inspired by artistic trends in Europe, Mexico, and the United States, and the times in which they lived, they painted longshoremen, newspaper delivery boys, and waitresses, convinced public institutions to commission murals that embodied their progressive thinking, and had an impact beyond the confines of Atlantic Canada. [End Page 197]

The catalyst for their extended reach was Walter Abell, an ambitious Carnegie Foundation-funded professor at Acadia University, who was determined to create a more structured approach to the appreciation and production of art. He and his New Brunswick collaborators were instrumental in founding the Maritime Art Association (MAA) in 1935 and the Maritime Art Magazine in 1940. These initiatives, in turn, fuelled what Abell described as the "Maritime Push" for Canadianizing their movement, a goal which he outlined during a conference in Kingston, Ontario, in 1941, resulting in the founding of the Federation of Canadian Artists.

What began with so much promise dissolved under the impact of post-war trends and the centralizing tendencies typical of the Canadian experience. By 1945 Abell had moved back to the United States (after briefly holding a position at the National Gallery, where his ideas were largely unwelcome), Maritime Art had morphed into Canadian Art published in Ottawa, and both popular and elite mainstreams of artistic taste were moving on. The murals produced by Brittain, Ross, and others were soon considered passé, even disturbing, with the result that many of them were destroyed or tucked away in storage. When interviewed later in life, the artists, having lived through the Cold War, minimalized the social values that inspired their earlier work. Most of them, Niergarth argues, were never overtly political, but they were influenced by their context, which certainly was.

Copiously documented, this story is well told and makes fascinating reading. Brittain and Humphry dominate the narrative and have the lion's share of the more than thirty black-and-white illustrations that accompany the text. Perhaps this is inevitable given the status that these two men achieved in their own time, but the work of some of the other artists, especially the many women involved in the movement, might have received more focused analysis. And it is unfortunate that the University of Toronto Press could not spring the funds for a few colour plates to showcase the original artworks, many of which are as relevant today as they were when they were originally created.

The Saint John crowd left an important legacy in their province, ensuring an appreciative audience for the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, opened in 1959, and support for octogenarian Fred Ross to supervise the reprise of his 1948 mural, Destruction of the...


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