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Art and Society 1913-1950


June 2 to August 19, 2007

Art and Society is a stimulating exhibition of more than forty works from the collection of the National Gallery of Canada – including paintings, drawings, prints, and sculpture – looks at three generations of Canadian artists and their visions of the role of art in shaping society.

For many viewers a landscape is merely a glimpse of natural beauty, a streetscape is a visual document of a particular place at a particular time and an abstract painting is only a composition of lines, colours and textures created to evoke an aesthetic reaction. But the artists had broader messages to transmit in response to the changing nature of society and to the social and political issues of their times. Art and Society looks at the social, political and aesthetic goals of the Group of Seven, the Social Realists and the Automatists combining contemporary texts with works of art dating from 1920 to 1951 to convey the dynamism of the debates around Canadian art during these important decades.

For Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, J.E.H. MacDonald and other members of the Group of Seven, art was never something separate from society – it had an essential role to play in revealing Canada to Canadians and in furthering the country’s growth toward independent nationhood. Their goals were not political. Rather, they aimed, through their paintings and their words, to discover and foster new, uniquely Canadian values. We are “an upstart people with our traditions in the making,” Lawren Harris argued.

The economic, social, and political crises of the 1930s and 1940s challenged such Social Realist artists as Fritz Brandtner, Paraskeva Clark, Miller Brittain, and others who felt that landscape painting and abstraction were extraneous to contemporary life. For some, art was a medium for the promotion of liberal, humanistic values to be enshrined on the walls of public buildings. For others, it was a necessary tool for political struggle. As Norman Bethune wrote to the Montreal artist Marian Scott, “The function of the artist is to disturb. … He reminds the world of its dark ancestry, shows the world its present, and points the way to its new birth.

The formation of the Contemporary Arts Society in Montreal in 1939 and the return of Alfred Pellan from Paris in 1940 marked the beginning of radical changes in Canadian art and the birth of the third generation artists – the Automatists. Paul-Émile Borduas and a number of younger artists, including Jean-Paul Riopelle, rejected the oppressive religious and political conformity of contemporary Quebec society and articulated new social and artistic values. They dismissed the art of the social realists for its preoccupation with subject matter over the meanings of form, and for its inability to reveal anything previously unknown. The artists associated the spontaneity and magic of the automatic process with personal liberation and in the Automatist manifesto Refus global [Total Refusal] of 1948 Fernand Leduc called for the creation of “works of art sister to the atom bomb.” They countered with total responsibility to realize a moral revolution and the rejuvenation of a
collective sensibility – in effect, a new world.

Charles Hill
National Gallery of Canada



Paraskeva Clark, 1898-1986
Petroushka, 1937
oil on canvas
122.4 x 81.9 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Photo © NGC
© Clive and Benedict Clark

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