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Artists, Architects & Artisans:
Canadian Art 1890–1918
Brigitte Desrochers

November 9, 2013-February 17, 2014
National Gallery of Canada

Artists, Architects & Artisans: Canadian Art 1890–1918 examines creative collaborations at the turn of the century in Canada. The exhibition includes 322 objects displayed in 14 rooms of Moshe Safdie’s National Gallery of Canada building in Ottawa. Charles Hill headed the team that curated the ambitious undertaking, with a view on showing how a “larger population of art workers, a growing economy and greater awareness of developments abroad made the integration of the arts in Canada a topic of keen interest during the years from 1890 to 1918. The goal was a harmonious whole where architects, artists and artisans worked together, sharing a common vision expressed in brick and stone, wood and metalwork, furnishings and textiles, as well as painted decorations and ultimately included the entire urban fabric.”1

Itself a collaborative effort involving loans from over 40 institutions, this exhibition has been in various stages of conceptualization and realization since 1980—when the National Gallery presented an exhibition to mark the centenary of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. The closing section of that exhibition looked at the academy’s support for proposed mural paintings to adorn the interiors of the country’s Gothic Revival Parliament Buildings. The project, rejected in 1907, was spearheaded by the academy’s president, George Reid, who played a lead role among the mural artists. Reid was also an architect and a firm believer in the integration of the arts. He was, in a strange sort of way, the trigger of decades of discoveries to come for exhibition curator Charles Hill, who was appointed Curator of Canadian Art just when he was musing over Reid and, eventually, acquiring material by him.

Hill made the integration of painting, sculpture, graphic design, craft, and architecture a new thread for building the gallery’s collections. Whereas the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has a more comprehensive collection covering the full history of the applied arts, Hill has focused on those periods in Canadian art when the boundaries between the fine and applied arts were blurred or effectively denied. This approach builds upon existing scholarship to potentially bridge the gaps in an art-historical landscape largely composed of monographic studies. Recent exhibitions on this time period in Canada have included Susan Wagg’s Percy Nobbs exhibition at Montreal’s McCord Museum in 1982, Rosalind Pepall’s work on Edward and W. S. Maxwell at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1986 and 1991, as well as Mario Béland’s Napoléon Bourassa exhibition at the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec in 2011.

There’s nothing short of florid in the story this exhibition tells, and exploring it is a delight, thanks to the calm interiors the designers created and to Hill’s sparing use of evocative wall texts. At the entrance of the show, an 1888 quote by Samuel Molyneux Jones, challenges “‘the vulgar idea that all art is confined to the four sides of picture frame.” Midway into the exhibition, Mary Phillips of the Montreal Branch of the Woman’s Art Association declares, “‘In the idea, in the design, in the appropriateness, in the selection of materials, the art of the palace and of the cottage is the same. These conditions must be fulfilled alike in the Gobelin Tapestry and in Catalogne”—referring, lastly, to a weaving technique making use of rags too old for quilting.

The desire to create meaningful art for all levels of the economic ladder and across all walks of rural and urban life is reflected in the breadth of artistic production displayed. In typical Arts and Crafts fashion, the meeting spaces for Canada’s early arts clubs resemble hunting lodges, and many early domestic designs take pride in modesty. Even the grander homes offered a surprisingly rich spectrum of spatial expressions, from stately reception rooms to rustic billiard rooms, to humbler servant spaces. While the materials, detailing, and proportions change, a sense of all spaces pertaining to the same household is maintained.

Alfred Laliberté’s Boy with Turkey (1915) offers a similar range in expression, from the rough strokes shaping the animal to the finer modeling of its human captor; this bronze comes from a fountain, located in front of a new market in the city of Maisonneuve, now part of Montreal—one of many projects jump-started by the City Beautiful Movement in Canadian cities. This, along with the Hydrostone District housing project in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was one of the few plans to be realized, among a multitude of other City Beautiful designs created for Calgary, Regina, Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, and Brantford, Ontario, in the wake of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

Display labels consistently mention the participation of artisans, whose names are usually omitted from the credits. The fact that so many are “unknown” makes them all the more present in the beholder’s mind. One of the more touching illustrations of the alliance of the arts is an annotated sketch by Percy Nobbs for a baptismal Front Cover Bracket and Counterweightexecuted in 1917 as part of a series of alterations to Saint James Church in Three Rivers, Quebec. Nobb’s full-scale sketch provided details for metalworkers Herman Sontheim and Francesco Saverio Sciortino to fabricate the final product, which is displayed next to it.

A generous and affordable exhibition catalog is published by the National Gallery of Canada in separate French and English editions, with contributions from art, design, and architectural historians Christine Boyanoski, Andrea Kunard, Laurier Lacroix, Rosalind Pepall, Bruce Russell, and Geoffrey Simmins. Charles Hill’s piece, “For an Integration of the Arts” is the pièce de résistance. Taking a third of this 340-page catalog, the essay shines by its capacity to engage, in swift succession, international and national trends, local initiatives, individual contributions, and specific buildings and objects. It reads like the story of a multifaceted movement, born from Arts and Crafts and Beaux Arts ideals abroad, and carried forward by dedicated creators, who came together by way of associations and sought to bring about positive change in the world around them.

I was impressed by the wisdom of their ambitions, the quantity and variety of the associations they formed, and the breadth of the initiatives they advanced. Mary Dignam, for example, believed, after William Morris, that “an art made by the people and for the people as a happiness to the maker and the user is the only art there is and the only art that will be an instrument for the progress of the world.”2

She traveled and corresponded with proponents of the British Arts and Crafts movement and created Toronto’s Women’s Art Club in 1890, which triggered the creation of other clubs, with ever-broader reaches and ambitions. The Toronto base afforded its members live models for sketching and rooms for reading and discussions. Its 1892 offshoot, the Women’s Art Association of Canada, expanded in a number of cities and held regular exhibitions including work produced in the regions, by Aboriginal peoples and new settlers such as Russia’s Doukhobors, who had come to Canada as political refugees. By 1900, the exhibitions had become substantial, with 2,500 objects exhibited in the Montreal exhibition alone. “Out of this,” the wall text explains, “came a scheme for the promotion of home arts and handicrafts to train workers in their homes, establish standards, develop a market and bring immediate remuneration to the workers.” This, in turn, led to the opening of a permanent store in Montreal in 1902 and the founding of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild in 1905.

One needed free time and a degree of disposable income to join these associations; some welcomed both sexes, but most were exclusively male. At the simplest, clubs brought like-minded people around a particular art; but in their fullest expression, they fostered the meeting of a multitude and the cross-fertilization of media, genres, and traditions. Clubs from Montreal and Toronto are covered in this exhibition for being the most important and productive at the time.

Today’s dominant art-historical tropes of colonialism, feminism, or the objectification of nature are hinted at in the choice of material but absent from the exhibition commentaries. Given the relative lack of scholarship on this important phase of national identity formation, it is wise to be more generous on fact than on theory. An introduction of some of the main characters and a description of the creative ecosystem in which they evolved will long continue to be a solid stepping stone to further studies. It might even open up the road for fresh approaches, exploring, for instance, how creativity can sometimes flourish at all scales of society, from individual to familial, communal, and national.

This exhibition has the potential to engage the great-grandsons and great-granddaughters of the artisans, architects, and artists it features: today’s activists, hipsters, and crafters will appreciate the sheer energy of this movement, the esprit de corps felt between creators, and their commitment to making the world a better place. The smorgasbord of media (from bromide prints to tooled leather, enamel on silver and copper vessels, textiles, and exquisitely crafted furniture) is a natural draw for these groups, but the relative paucity of public programming to engage them might be the one notable weakness of this otherwise stellar exhibition. The National Gallery might, for instance, have identified leading architects and artists who work with artisans today (both analog and digital) to strike up a conversation.

At the outset of the First World War, the impulse documented in Artists, Architects & Artisans came to a near halt; civic improvement plans were shelved, commissions grew scarce, while many associations disbanded or became inactive. By the mid-1920s, the economy would pick up again, and the renaissance that followed is the likely subject for a future exhibition at the National Gallery. One hopes that the story line will extend, episode by episode, to shed new light on Canada’s modern movement and make its way to the present. It would activate an important discussion about the artful shaping of our personal and collective lives, and the possibility for creative intentions to be projected across the different spheres, scales, and materials of our natural and man-made worlds.