- Canadian Painters in a Modern World, 1925–1955: Writings and Reconsiderations by Lora Senechal Carney
The key to this volume is in its subtitle, Writings and Reconsiderations. It is, in effect, a critical compendium of writings by Canadian artists, their associates, critics, and connoisseurs dating from the decades in question. The intention is to explore how artists responded to the tumultuous socio-political realities of the period. Integral to this is an examination of what artists and critics understood by the terms 'modern' and 'modernism' in the Canadian context.
There are eight chapters. The first three focus on specific artists: Lawren Stewart Harris, David Milne, and Emily Carr. Subsequent chapters deal either with artists' responses to decisive episodes (the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the Cold War) or with the two major modernist movements from Quebec (Art vivant, the Automatistes). This is an eclectic, valuable mix. Each chapter's selection of writings is preceded by an introductory narrative by Carney. Although one or two have less impact than the others, they are all characterised by a wealth of knowledge and the ability to marshal this with clarity and some elegance. The volume is quite nicely illustrated, in particular with photos of the individuals involved. However, there are few reproductions of artistic works–Carney makes it clear her interest does not lie in 'a detailed study of paintings' (p. xxxiii)–which is a pity. A selection of apposite reproductions would have helped the reader better grasp how sometimes daunting ideas and theories were actually translated into art. For it must be said that, while Carney's narratives are likely to appeal to anybody interested in Canadian art, in general the writings themselves are a different matter. A good many are extremely rarefied although, in fairness, few are as excruciatingly abstruse as the sort of explanations that are nowadays deemed necessary to exhibitions of modern art. (That said, the 1955 Manifesto of the Plasticiens (pp. 271–4) does have its moments!) And on occasion, they seem (perhaps inevitably) remote from the reality they are supposed to be addressing. This is particularly so in the case of the Spanish Civil War. Their appeal will surely be as a source of material–indeed, as something of a gold mine–for historians of twentieth-century Canadian art and Canadian culture in general.
I was especially taken with the chapter on Milne and that on the Automatistes. In the first, the commentary and the texts combine eloquently to bring out the importance of Milne's little group of friends and critics in offering stimulation as the artist worked alone at Six Mile Lake. Equally, it underscores how his thinking was in line with that of Clive Bell and Roger Fry (the notion of 'aesthetic emotion'). A highlight here is an exquisite critique of Milne's work by Saint-Denys Garneau in a 1935 letter to Maurice Hébert. The chapter on the Automatistes compellingly demonstrates how a group of like-minded artists coalesced and (adding significantly to the thrust of the volume) how they took on the role of avant-gardists. [End Page 246]