In 2012, the first collection of scholarly essays on women and art in Canadian history came forth from the Canadian Women Artists History Initiative, in the form of a book edited by two CWAHI founders, Kristina Huneault and Janice Anderson. By any yardstick (as fields used to be measured), Rethinking Professionalism: Women and Art in Canada, 1850–1970 was a monument to Canadian women’s agency and achievement, and, I must insist, a celebration of women’s contributions to the fields of art and art history. The project had drawn on the palpable excitement created by CWAHI’s inaugural conference, held in 2008 at Concordia University. Rethinking Professionalism was launched at the second CWAHI conference, “Imagining History,” and as I write, a call for papers for the third CWAHI conference, “The Artist Herself: Broadening Ideas of Self-Portraiture in Canada” (Queen’s University, 2015), is stirring excitement and confirming, as though it were needed, the communal desire to better understand women’s art practices in Canada and Canadian women’s art practices abroad.
This special issue of the Journal of Canadian Art History brings together a selection of papers stemming from the 2012 Montreal conference of the Canadian Women Artists History Initiative (CWAHI). In Canada, as elsewhere, the study of women’s contributions to visual and material culture has increased dramatically over recent decades; moreover, consideration of women’s art has broadened the range of issues, objects and practitioners open to art-historical inquiry. The 2012 CWAHI conference asked participants to consider this expanded terrain and the state of research on it. What aspects of previous scholarship on women and art in Canada are still vital today? What new approaches are emerging? And what remains to be achieved?
With 54 papers and 195 participants, the responses to these questions encompassed a far greater wealth of ideas than a journal special issue can accommodate. The most complete record of the conference as an historical event is to be found in videos available on the CWAHI website (cwahi.concordia.ca). A number of presentations have also been expanded for publication elsewhere, and these give a sense of the breadth of topics discussed and the approaches employed, which ranged from methodological inquiry to statistical investigation. Thus, for example, Kristy Holmes asked us to think critically about whether the project of developing a specifically Canadian approach to feminist art history is one still worth pursuing, while Joyce Zemans updated her classic accounting of the institutional status of women and the arts in Canada. Given these resources, this JCAH/AHAC special issue aims not to document the 2012 conference but, rather, to bring together a group of papers that enables consideration of its guiding questions through one particular perspective: that of the “artistic field.”
In 1927, in one of the better-documented events in Canadian art history, Emily Carr (1871–1945) made the long trip from Victoria to Toronto for the Canadian West Coast Art: Native and Modern exhibition, in which her work was prominently featured. Studies of Carr note that her inclusion in this exhibition marked a turning point in her career. For Carr, meeting the members of the Group of Seven was particularly important because it highlighted the differences between her situation in Victoria and the central Canadian art world. In her journal, she reflected on this difference as she worried about the quality of her own paintings. “Their works,” she confided to her journal,
call to my very soul. Will they know what’s in me by those old Indian pictures, or will they feel disappointment and find me small and weak and fretful? Have the carps and frets and worries that have eaten into my soul, since I returned from Paris full of ambition and then had to struggle out there alone, made me small and mean, poor and petty – bitter? They too have had to struggle and buffer, but they’ve stood together.
In addition to her sense of isolation, Carr also worried about her gender. Here, her response was more ambiguous. Two days earlier, she had asked herself if being a woman made a difference to what she hoped could be common artistic cause.
The feminist’s first reaction, Linda Nochlin suggested, to her famous question about why there had been no great women artists, was to “dig up examples of worthy or insufficiently appreciated women artists throughout history; to rehabilitate rather modest if interesting and productive careers; to ‘rediscover’ forgotten flower painters . . . to engage in the normal activity of the specialist scholar who makes a case for the importance of his [or her] very own neglected or minor master.” Certainly, the “forgotten flower painter” Nochlin had in mind was not New Brunswick artist Julia Crawford (1896–1968), but Crawford does fit the description of the subject pursued by the hypothetical, and ultimately misguided, feminist “specialist scholar.” While Crawford had at least one admirer who considered her “the East Coast Emily Carr,” this view of her talent and status was not, and has not been, shared by those most influential in establishing the canonical hierarchy of Canadian art. To make a case for Crawford’s “importance” – in the sense Nochlin uses the term – might succeed in expanding this canon, but would not challenge its basic assumptions, assumptions that did not serve Crawford well in her lifetime. “To claim creativity for women is to do more than find a few female names to add to canonised lists in surveys of Western art,” Griselda Pollock writes. “[C]hallenging the cultural negation of women’s creativity is more than a matter of historical recovery.” But, she continues, “few of us have really thought through how impossible the task of doing that more actually is.”
The folk art category in Nova Scotia has long participated in a larger search for optimism that emerged there at the end of the twentieth century, in the midst of a shifting socio-economic landscape that radically shaped the parameters within which folk art would be understood. Folk art was an optimistic construction in the sense that it provided public history makers of influence in and around Nova Scotia with a cultural object upon which they might affix their desire for an organized daily life under the disorganized and despondent realities of late capitalism. Indeed, Nova Scotia was a place that, beginning in the 1950s, saw overwhelming social reorganization by centralized bureaucracies aimed at advancing an urban, modernizing ideal over traditional ways of rural living. This “decade of development” in Atlantic Canada saw workers moving away from an industrial-labour base in agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and mining and towards newly expanding trade and service sectors. Yet by the 1960s, despite the fact that Atlantic Canadian politicians on the whole maintained faith in local material progress and confidently asserted that economic disparity between the region and the rest of Canada would narrow, many working Nova Scotians still struggled to earn a living wage. In 1969, unemployment in the province was nearly double what it was in the rest of the country, and personal incomes were almost half of what they were in Ontario. The resulting increase in Atlantic Canadian out-migration prompted one leading economist of the day to suggest in 1966 that “a cheap one-way fare to Montreal would solve the region’s economic problems.”
Dans la compilation d’Yves Robillard, Québec underground, 1962–1972, l’auteur prétend que les expériences de son propre collectif d’artistes Fusion des arts marquent les années 1960–70 par un art opposé à l’institution, au système, bref à l’establishment. Cette pratique artistique relève de l’animation socio-culturelle et se veut engagée sur le plan politique. Plusieurs années plus tard, dans son livre Vous êtes tous des créateurs, ou, Le mythe de l’art, Robillard encense et consacre La chambre nuptiale (1976) de Francine Larivée. Il la considère comme relevant du nouvel art initié par Fusion des arts, soit « l’œuvre dite d’animation », suivant ses termes. Elle serait donc, pour lui, l’apogée des pratiques « anti-establishment » que son propre groupe avait initiées. Et ce faisant, il établit une filiation historique et idéologique entre Larivée et son collectif. C’est pourquoi, en 1976, à titre de critique d’art, il a été le plus enthousiaste défenseur de l’œuvre dans les médias au moment même où elle a été produite. Les articles que Robillard a publiés sur cet environnement le démontrent. Pour lui, suivant la définition qu’il donne de l’art anti-institutionnel dans l’ouvrage sur l’underground, l’œuvre s’oppose à l’establishment, car elle est une forme d’expression artistique populaire qui refuse les médiums traditionnels pour être présentée hors des murs institutionnels officiels et même réalisée par de nouveaux publics. Depuis, cette vision a été reprise par Guy Sioui Durand ou encore Michel Roy, entre autres.
Francine Larivée’s La chambre nuptiale
Conforming to the Cultural Democracy Model, or When Neo-avant-garde Feminist Art Joins the Establishment
For many years art historiography has built up a myth around the subject of Quebec underground art, in which its artists and their works have been portrayed as operating outside the establishment. Using the example of Francine Larivée’s work La chambre nuptiale (1976), this essay, which is based on the author’s doctoral research, presents an entirely different historical view.
In his anthology Québec underground, 1962–1972 the artist and art historian Yves Robillard claimed that during the 1960s the activities of his artists’ collective, Fusion des arts, constituted a form of politically engaged socio-cultural action undertaken in opposition to powerful institutions and the larger system within which they functioned. It was, in other words, against the establishment. In a book published some years later, Vous êtes tous des créateurs, ou, Le mythe de l’art, Robillard eulogized Larivée’s La chambre nuptiale, describing it as an example of the new art first defended by Fusion des arts, which he called “l’œuvre dite d’animation” – the artwork-as-intervention. He identified La chambre nuptiale as the culmination of the anti-establishment practices initiated by his own group, thereby establishing a clear historical and ideological link between Larivée and Fusion des arts. This is certainly why, when La chambre nuptiale was created in 1976, Robillard, in his role as art critic, became the work’s most enthusiastic defender in the media. His reviews make his position quite clear: in accordance with the definition of anti-institutional art that he had given in his book on the Quebec underground, Robillard saw Larivée’s work as anti-establishment because it was a form of popular art that rejected traditional mediums, because it was presented outside the official institutional circuit, and because it was executed and experienced by new sectors of the population. The same view has since been reiterated by other analysts, among them Guy Sioui Durand and Michel Roy.
After several years of intense work, Canadian painter and etcher Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes (1859–1912) released her elaborately illustrated children’s book King Arthur’s Wood: A Fairy Story just in time for the 1904 Christmas season in London, England. A reinterpretation of Sir Thomas Malory’s “The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney,” Forbes’s foray into the world of Arthurian legend consisted of an original story, fourteen large watercolour illustrations, and numerous charcoal drawings. Intended as a luxury object and released in a limited print run of 350 copies, the book was a critical success: as early as 1899, the artist was elected an Associate of the Royal Watercolour Society on the strength of a portfolio of watercolours intended for the book; once released, a reviewer for the Studio glowingly described each “exquisite” image as “a poem in itself.” The book has recently been digitized, its story and illustrations made widely available for the first time.
Late in the evening of 14 October 1891, Lord and Lady Aberdeen took possession of the 480-acre property in British Columbia’s Mission Valley (now the Central Okanagan) that they had purchased, sight unseen, the year before, during the course of their first visit to Canada in 1890. Until that point they had had no connection with Canada. John Campbell Gordon (1847–1934), first Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair, and his wife Ishbel Maria, née Marjoribanks (1857–1938) married in 1877, creating a “loving, progressive and activist union,” as historian Veronica Strong-Boag elegantly puts it, and, both as a couple and as individuals, they engaged with various political and social causes. They divided their time among Haddo House, Lord Aberdeen’s ancestral Aberdeenshire estate in northeastern Scotland, Edinburgh, and London and spent a brief period as viceregal couple in Ireland in 1886, returning there for a longer period from 1906 to 1915. The period of the Aberdeens’ intense engagement with Canada falls between the two Irish postings, beginning with their cross-Canada railway journey in 1890, and the purchase of their first property in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. The next year, following their visit to the property that they named Guisachan, and enamoured of the Okanagan’s rich possibilities for fruit growing, they purchased a second property, the Coldstream Ranch in Vernon in the north end of the Valley. There they planned to sell some of the land for lots that could be used for planting orchards on a large scale. Two years later, in 1893, they were appointed Governor General and viceregal consort to Canada, a decision prompted in part, one assumes, by their well-publicized business ventures in British Columbia and obvious interest in the country. The end of their viceregal tenure in Ottawa in 1898 did not, however, signal the end of their sustained personal and financial commitment to the Okanagan and Canada: that ended when they sold the Guisachan farm in 1903 and the Coldstream Ranch in 1906, both sales prompted by accumulating financial losses and their inability to handle the enormous financial burden by themselves. This paper focuses on the ten days the Aberdeens spent at Guisachan in 1891, a period marked by their optimistic faith in a glorious future for commercial fruit farming in the Okanagan alley.
The popular leisure activity of assembling personal albums first originated within British aristocratic circles during the early part of the nineteenth century. Well-appointed, leather-bound volumes, albums took pride of place in the Victorian drawing room where friends and family would gather to share stories and engage in conversations – activities that often included an album’s creator showing her book to visitors. Frequently serving as a basis for discussion, personal albums have long been sites wherein memories are recorded, oftentimes encoded. Lady Caroline Bucknall-Estcourt (1809–1886), a British military wife and a member of the landed gentry, compiled one such album. She used it as a repository for watercolours, letters, poems and various other ephemera for almost forty years (1837–1875). The first eighteen of these were spent accompanying her military husband on postings throughout the British Empire, including four years in Canada. On the strength of this connection, the album was acquired by Dr. Lawrence M. Lande for his extensive collection of Canadiana, and subsequently donated to the Public Archives of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada), where it forms part of the Lande Collection, a major repository of national historical memory.
The home arts movement is a valuable and unique part of the history of late nineteenth-century art and display practices and their intersection with Victorian women’s working lives. Centrally organized through the London-based Home Arts and Industries Association (HAIA), the British home arts movement promoted the concept of handicrafts as an alternative mode of production through the ideal of rural workshops for the hand production of exquisitely crafted objects. Both the Dun Emer Guild (Dublin, 1902) and the Canadian Handicrafts Guild (Montreal, 1905) subscribed to the home arts ideals of advocating the handmade, supporting rural regeneration, and promoting artistic innovation as these gained a global currency at events such as international expositions and world fairs.
At the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, both the Irish Dun Emer Guild and the Canadian Handicrafts Guild displayed craft objects and their makers for the many international visitors welcomed to the Irish Pavilion and the Canadian Building. Within the Fair, the Dun Emer Guild exhibited at the Irish Industrial Exhibition, organized by the Irish government’s Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction. This pavilion presented a variety of craftwork produced by Irish home arts and industries associations. Similarly, the Canadian Handicrafts Guild – still, at this time, the Home Arts and Handicrafts Committee of the Montreal branch of the Women’s Art Association of Canada (WAAC) – received a substantial grant from the Canadian Department of Agriculture.
In the Toronto holdings of the Archives of the United Church of Canada can be found an arresting photographic image of a tiny woman who, though surrounded by heavy carved furniture and a march of posters along one wall, seems to dominate the room through the thin pen that firmly anchors her hand to a neatly organized, productive desktop. The function and name of the sitter – “Press artist Mrs. Kitchen” – is provided on the back of the photograph. Its location in the Foreign Missions Photograph Collection quickly leads researchers to a fuller identification. Pictured is Beatrice Irene McDowell Kitchen (1887–1947), a Canadian woman who worked as the principal artist for the Canadian (Methodist) Mission Press in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China from ca. 1922 until her death.