A mixed issue is an occasion as well as a test of the editorial mission. The range of topics and approaches found in this issue demonstrate both the scope and the depth that the Journal of Canadian Art History/Annales d’histoire de l’art canadien strives to maintain. Honouring the very high standard set by founding editor Sandra Paikowsky, JCAH/AHAC aims with every issue to get “better and better.”
The restoration of two works by Jean-Antoine Aide-Créquy (1749–1780) done by Élisabeth Forest, Marie-Claude Corbeil, and Elizabeth Moffatt at the Centre de conservation du Québec has unearthed a wealth of information about the working methods of this priest and painter, claimed as the first painter born in Canada – avant la lettre to be sure. This article extends a very strong tradition in JCAH of attention to object, a mission confirmed by the thematic issue on the frame not so long ago.
Jean-Antoine Aide-Créquy (1749–1780) est un artiste important de la seconde moitié du XVIIIe siècle. Il serait le premier peintre né au Canada à œuvrer au pays, et cela dans les années qui suivirent la Conquête anglaise alors que, faute de pouvoir importer des œuvres de France comme il était de coutume, une peinture locale s’ancre plus fermement au pays. Ce mouvement avait été amorcé au cours de la première moitié du XVIIIe siècle. Bien que, vu la rareté des commandes, la majorité des artistes retournent en France, certains demeurent, comme Jean Jacquiès dit Leblond (1688–1723?), ainsi que d’autres à qui l’on doit des tableaux d’église, des portraits et des peintures votives.
L’historien d’art Gérard Morisset s’est intéressé très tôt à la carrière et à l’œuvre d’Aide-Créquy, les résultats de ses recherches ayant été publiés en 19363. Quelque cinquante ans plus tard, John R. Porter publiait une étude savante dans les Annales d’histoire de l’art canadien.
La restauration de deux grands tableaux d’église effectuée par le Centre de conservation du Québec a été l’occasion d’entreprendre l’étude des matériaux et des techniques d’Aide-Créquy, étude qui a permis d’enrichir les connaissances de cette période de l’art canadien et de déterminer, entre autres, quels étaient les matériaux alors disponibles pour la peinture.
Jean-Antoine Aide-Créquy (1749–1780)
Materials and pictorial technique
Jean-Antoine Aide-Créquy (1749–1780) was an important Canadian artist of the second half of the eighteenth century and has been called as the first painter born in Canada. Both a priest and a painter, he was active during the years that followed the English Conquest, a pivotal period when local art became more prominent due to the difficulty of importing paintings from France, which had been the custom until then. The conservation treatment of two large religious paintings at the Centre de conservation du Québec provided the opportunity to undertake a study of Aide-Créquy’s materials and techniques. The results of the study add to our knowledge of this particular period in Canadian art history and provide more information about painting materials available during this time.
Of the dozen paintings attributed to Aide-Créquy, eight have survived and were included in the study. Six of the works – five large-scale oil paintings and a small oval oil painting – were executed between 1774 and 1780. Two were painted for religious communities in Quebec City – the Ursulines and the Augustines de l’Hôtel-Dieu. The other four were painted for altarpieces in the churches of Saint-Louis de L’Isle-aux-Coudres, Saint-Joachim, L’Islet and Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies, parishes located near Baie-Saint-Paul where Aide-Créquy was parish priest. The six works are all signed and dated by the artist and are still located in the place of worship for which they were created. The two other works included in the study are smaller-scale oil paintings on cardboard. They are neither signed nor dated and their attribution to Aide-Créquy is far from certain.
After my biography of David Milne (1881–1953), Painting Place: The Life and Work of David B. Milne, was published in 1996, and just after David B. Milne: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings was launched in 1998, a crucial fact about Milne came to light. I’ve been sitting on it for the past decade and a half, partly having been distracted by other interests and activities, partly believing that it wouldn’t change fundamental things, partly being uneasy about not having revealed immediately a truth that is pertinent, and partly being uncertain how to present it. Many large projects – and the Milne Project was one – are expected to produce supplements or updates, since continuing studies by original researchers or others often turf up new facts or material, but a Milne supplement was never considered, even though several works by him have surfaced in the interim.
The shock came in a letter I received from James T. Angus, who, as a young boy, knew David Milne when Milne lived alone in a tiny cabin at Six Mile Lake in southern Muskoka from 1933 to 1939. The Angus family lived at Big Chute, a few miles away. Big Chute was the site of one of the proposed locks on the Trent-Severn river system that connected the Severn River to Georgian Bay. The lock was never built, however, but to make the waterway functional, a short rail device, managed by James’s father Scotty Angus during the summers, moved boats around the otherwise impassable rapid.
The American nature photographer Lorene Squire (1908–1942) longed to visit Canada’s North, where the wildfowl of her birthplace, Kansas, spent their summers. In 1937, Squire got her wish. During the summer of that year and into the fall, Squire travelled to various wetlands in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta to photograph the waterfowl that were her passion. The first of three trips that Squire would take into the North, this voyage would propel her photographs onto the pages of leading publications including, Country Life, The New York Times, The Saturday Evening Post, LIFE, and the Hudson’s Bay Company’s magazine The Beaver. Squire’s 1937 trip would also inform her only published book, a written account of her photographic journey from a local pond in Harper, Kansas, where she began her career, to the vast marshlands of the Northern Prairies. The story of her travels is punctuated with descriptions of the wildfowl she encountered and the many photographic challenges she faced trying to picture “the life story of wild ducks”.
In Wildfowling with a Camera (1938), Squire writes at length about her wish to witness for herself the vast and wild breeding grounds of North American waterfowl. Squire grandly imagines the northern marshes of Canada as an aqueous promised land where she “would find wide green stretches of marshland and a great many number of ducks, all to be photographed with no effort or trouble.” Squire’s pleasure in tromping through wetlands and stalking her feathered prey from land and water is strongly articulated in both her written prose and in the photographs reproduced. Left unmentioned in her book are the roles that groups like the American Wildlife Institute and the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), particularly its public relations department and its visual arm The Beaver, played in sponsoring the photographic adventurer into the Northland.
This article situates the recently rediscovered first monograph by Canada’s inaugural Governor General’s Award-winning author, Bertram Brooker (1888–1955), within contested histories of Canadian modernism as well as Brooker’s still largely misunderstood multi-disciplinary achievements. The latter included the first solo exhibition of abstract paintings in Canada, at Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club in 1927, as well as an extensive body of writings that anticipated, and may have indirectly informed, the media analyses of Marshall McLuhan. Brooker’s Subconscious Selling applies the psychological theories of the French pharmacist Émile Coué (1857–1926) to practical problems in salesmanship. The techniques of self-affirmation developed by Coué – repackaged for Canadian readers with a heavy dose of the French philosopher Henri Bergson added by Brooker – offer the key to a seminal group of semi-abstract canvases painted by the artist-advertiser in the mid-1920s.
This reassessment joins the current reevaluation of one of Canada’s leading modernists in strengthening the case that Brooker’s visual art and innovative advertising insights were inspired by the philosophy of Bergson, as well as related currents in early twentieth-century thought which, in the words of Bergson scholar Adi Efal, participated in “a revision of the ‘rationalist’ tradition.” In challenging the received portrait of Brooker as a mystic and Theosophist, this article simultaneously contributes to a growing literature on the Bergsonian sources of Canadian modernism, culminating in the globally-influential media speculations of McLuhan. This Bergsonian turn in Canadian studies participates in an ongoing reconsideration of the French thinker, taking a fresh look at his impact on modernist art and ideas for the first time since the influential Deleuzian “return to Bergson.”
The 1960s and 1970s represented an era of expansion of the National Gallery of Canada’s (NGC) permanent collection in both geographic scope and historical range. Under Director Jean Sutherland Boggs (1966–76), the NGC began collecting postwar and contemporary American art, reversing a longstanding policy formalized in 1956. This turning point in the institution’s history signalled Canadian culture’s increasing connectedness with wider North American developments. Boggs’s vision was carried out by Brydon E. Smith, the NGC’s first Curator of Contemporary Art (1967–79). Boggs had brought Smith to Ottawa from the Art Gallery of Ontario, where she had hired him in 1964. While in Toronto, Smith had showed flair as a young curator and organized the first exhibition of what is now known as Pop Art by a Canadian museum titled Dine, Oldenburg, Segal.
Under the Boggs-Smith tandem, the NGC would build an impressive core collection of some of the most innovative, radical art being produced in the USA. One of the earliest works acquired by the NGC was Jackson Pollock’s No. 29, 1950. It was acquired in 1968 on Smith’s recommendation. It became the foundational piece on which the Gallery subsequently built its small, but significant holding of Abstract Expressionist painting and sculpture. While an important acquisition in its own right, the work thus also deserves study for the change it heralded in the shape and direction of the permanent collection.
To write a straightforward, traditional biography of Canadian artist David Milne (1881–1953) seems an odd task to undertake, as there are already several excellent publications in print on this painter and his work. This was my first thought on reading about this new book, but then, I surmised, perhaps a small, portable book on Milne, one written for the every-person, might be a really good idea. However, a basic challenge for a would-be Milne biographer is that David Milne did not really have much of a “life,” but devoted himself completely to his art. So unless one were able to write well about his work, there would be little point to a biography. As King points out in his preface, David Milne is an excellent example of an artist’s artist. I would add that Milne’s work is demanding and difficult, and one begins to appreciate it only after some hefty doses of study – both of writings on art and paintings. It is not generally work that has mass appeal. If this makes Milne sound like an elitist artist whose work is accessible only to art experts, well … there may be no way around that estimation. King does not state what his goal was in writing this book, nor whom he hoped his audience for it would be. He does not inform the reader whether he unearthed any new information about the artist, nor whether any points he makes are new thoughts of his own. He only rarely refers to previous texts on the artist in his own writing, although in his acknowledgments he credits several previous writers on Milne as having been important to him in his research.
The institutional affiliations surrounding Conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s share a history fraught with contradictions. Located at the terminal point of the post–Second World War economic boom, the apex of Conceptual art is situated in a period of cultural upheaval and hard-fought struggles against the dominant culture. Questions of autonomy and authorship, alignments with Continental philosophy and critical theory, and an acute awareness of the influence of social and political systems on art production all primed the entry of Conceptual art into the arena of higher-level art education. Key among these instances was the renewal of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD), where a once traditional curriculum was reengineered into a program guided and informed by Conceptual art practices as developed by a small international coterie of artists. This transition away from traditional art forms and pedagogical models toward experimental and discursive models of learning laid the foundations for art education today. This same shift is understood to have mirrored larger socio-economic trends – the turn from technical to administrative skills, an emphasis on cognitive labour, and a preoccupation with the concept of dematerialization.
“Who gets to be remembered? Why do people get to be remembered?” asks Brian Foss on CBC’s Sunday Edition.1 He refers to the Beaver Hall Group and the project that he and Jacques Des Rochers, as co-curators, have worked on for almost ten years. 1920s Modernism in Montreal: The Beaver Hall Group is a monumental exhibition, accompanied by an equally important publication, which opened at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in October 2015 and toured across Canada. Students of Canadian art history are familiar with Beaver Hall, but perhaps not in the way that this exhibition presents them. Outside the classroom the Group is not very well known at all. Paintings by its members do not grace calendars and mugs in the same way as those by another Canadian artist group, of a certain number, founded in the same year.