- Pegi by Herself: The Life of Pegi Nicol MacLeod, Canadian Artist
2005 was an exciting year for the study of Pegi Nicol MacLeod (1904–1949), with the release of both Michael Ostroff's feature-length NFB documentary Pegi Nicol: Something Dancing about Her and Laura Brandon's illustrated biography. Both were welcome and overdue: At the time of her death, Nicol MacLeod was eulogized as one of Canada's most important painters, but as Brandon notes, she has since received inadequate recognition in histories of Canadian art. Nicol MacLeod's absence from the historiography of Canadian art is typical of artists of her generation who have been, until recently, squeezed into obscurity by a narrative that raced from the Group of Seven of the 1920s to the Automatistes of the 1950s. Nicol MacLeod's brand of modernism, her humanism, her transnationalism, and her socialism do not fit comfortably into this story of Canadian artistic progress. And not only are Nicol MacLeod's style and politics wrong for this narrative, so is her gender.
'Pegi's paintings are like jazz,' Brandon writes, and this goes some distance towards capturing the liveliness, originality, and improvisational quality of Nicol MacLeod's work. Her mature style achieves the chief aims of many of her generation of modern painters in Canada: It is unique and experimental, yet still connected to 'old master' craft traditions; it is personally expressive, yet communicative and socially significant. Brandon's analyses of Nicol MacLeod's paintings focus on connecting them to events of her personal life. This approach is effective when reading her self-portraits of the 1930s. These interpretations are strongest when they rely on specific textual evidence, as when Brandon observes that Nicol MacLeod's depiction of herself with rhubarb (a traditional purgative) was connected to a secret abortion she had in 1935. One wishes that Brandon had been equally daring in interpreting the social and political meanings of Nicol MacLeod's paintings. Indeed, in her own lifetime, Nicol MacLeod bemoaned her critics' inability to understand these broader connotations.
This is not a book of criticism, however, but a biography, and Brandon comprehensively documents the events of Nicol MacLeod's life. After growing up in a staid middle-class family in Ottawa, Nicol MacLeod received artistic training at the École des Beaux-Arts in Montreal. Brandon explains how, after returning to Ottawa, Nicol MacLeod used her considerable charm to develop friendships with powerful culture brokers such as Eric Brown, of the National Gallery of Canada, and Marius Barbeau, of the National Museum. These friendships helped catapult her [End Page 122] to the forefront of Canadian painting and encouraged her to draw inspiration from the style and subject matter of the Group of Seven. Nicol MacLeod was critically and financially rewarded for 'Sevenesque' paintings such as The Log Run (1930), which won her the Willingdon Arts Prize in 1931, but the onset of the Depression radicalized her politics and her art. Her subject matter became urban life and human beings – including nudes. Her friendships with left-wing cultural figures such as Frank and Marian Scott, Norman Bethune, King Gordon, Paraskeva Clark, and Barker Fairley helped shape her political thinking. She also became the art editor of the social-democratic magazine Canadian Forum.
Brandon is somewhat apologetic for Nicol MacLeod's political commitments. She writes that 'for Pegi ... it was easy to see the left as good and brave and as wanting only peace and justice,' and does MacLeod disservice with her observation that 'if Pegi readily supported the left-wing line in political matters, she did not think deeply about such things, being essentially a follower rather than an initiator' (98, 97). Brandon could have given more credence to Louise Parkin's observation that 'an extraordinary wisdom' underlay Nicol MacLeod's 'gaiety and intense vitality.' Nicol MacLeod first read works by Marx in the 1920s and reread them in the mid-1930s. While she may not have debated the finer points of socialist theory, the sophistication of...