It is interesting the way stories about art are told.
In fact, I will just wallow in my obtuseness for a moment and say that, while I like to look at pretty things (and sometimes not-so-pretty-but-sort-of-interesting things), the stories are what interest me the most. My tendency at exhibits is to ogle the writing on the wall rather than the art itself.
And I really wish that the writing on the wall was written for people like me. Some kind of discernible plot. Stronger narrative voice (because obviously a curator is a form of narrator). Etc.
That describes my general train of thought while browsing the current exhibit at Montreal’s Musée des Beaux Arts: “Colours of Jazz” featuring works of the Beaver Hall Group.
Never heard of them? Not a surprise. They existed officially for all of two years and most of their work has not been exhibited anywhere since the 1940’s (except for a few permanent pieces in the national gallery).
Here’s a blurb from Evelyn Walters’s The Women of Beaver Hall:
Named after their studio location at 305 Beaver Hall Hill in Montreal, the official Beaver Hall Group was organized in 1920 with A. Y. Jackson as president. Largely overlooked at the time, it emerged as Quebec’s counterpart to Ontario’s Group of Seven established in the same year. Unlike the Group of Seven, the Beaver Hall Group was open to both men and women.
I’m sort of interested in this phrasing: “emerged as Quebec’s counterpart” to the Group of Seven, because besides the link of A. Y. Jackson, they don’t really seem to have much to do with each other. Ideologically at least.
But it goes to show how reliant the history of art can be on a single moment. That’s how the tale is told – before and after the Group of Seven. They’re the plot twist.
(Don’t know who they are? That’s okay, you might not be Canadian. Me neither. Here’s a link…)
It is perhaps convenient to think of the Beaver Hall Group in terms of the Group of Seven, but to my mind that slights them somewhat, particularly since it is made to sound like the former is (simply) a female version of the latter. But, the BHG had many male members, and the supposed overall femaleness doesn’t seem to have been purposeful, or reactionary against the Go7.
The main occupation of this group seems to have been portraiture. You would think, walking through the exhibit, that they exclusively sat around painting one another. But they also painted other people, sometimes in rugged or agricultural landscapes. And, differently than most (all?) Canadian art at the time, they also focused on the urbanizing scenes of Montreal.
One of my favorite pieces was Prudence Heward’s Immigrants. You can’t see the rest of the gallery wall here, but it’s filled with fancy ladies going to the theater, wearing their “jazzy” 1920’s garb/expensive jewelry.
If there’s one thing the BHG did not shy away from, it was the affirmation of their essentially uppercrust background. (Except for Emily Coonan who came from the historically working class Catholic neighborhood of Pointe Saint Charles, aka, my current neighborhood.)
So this image lends a much truer sense to post-WWI Montreal. It was not all fancy anglophones going to the theater.
(That sounds like I’m opposing fancy to immigrant or even fancy to francophone, neither of which were necessarily the case, but I believe in the context of this painting we’re meant to understand that these are women arriving right off the ship with nothing but each other, so to speak. Not fancy.)
As I’m not too familiar with this period in Montreal’s history, I was curious to see who these immigrants were, where they would have come from. Turns out, Canada wrote very specific immigration policies from year to year, discussing the favorability of various peoples. I found this from the early 1920’s:
“Immigration, which was at a low ebb during the war period, is again increasing and becoming a chief means of reinforcing our population and filling up the vast waste spaces of Canada. But where any considerable immigration into a democratic country occurs, the racial and linguistic composition of that immigration becomes of paramount importance. Canadians generally prefer that settlers should be of a readily assimilable type, already identified by race or language with one or the other of the two great races now inhabitating this country and thus prepared for the assumption of the duties of democratic Canadian citizenship. Since the French are not to any great extent an emigrating people, this means in practice that the great bulk of the preferable settlers are those who speak the English language – those coming from the United Kingdom or the United States. Next in order of readiness of assimilation are the Scandinavians and the Dutch, who readily learn English and are already acquainted with the workings of free democratic institutions. Settlers from Southern and Eastern Europe, however desirable from a purely economic point of view, are less readily assimilated, and the Canadianizing of the people from these regions who have come to Canada in the present century is a problem both in the agricultural Prairies Provinces and in the cities of the East. Less assimilable still, according to the general opinion of Canadians, are those who come to Canada from the Orient. On the whole the great bulk of Canadian immigration of the past generation has been drawn from the English-speaking countries and from those Continental European countries where the population is ethnically nearly related to the British, though in recent years there has been an increasing immigration of Slavs.”
I’m just gonna let that sit there, because in the context of immigration today, it’s useful to piece together a history of thought that comes into play. This text is still very much alive, at least in a “collective cultural memory” kind of way.
And it would have been something fairly interesting to include in the exhibit notes…
A last word…one of the most well-known members of the BHG was Lilias Torrance Newton, and I mention her because she famously painted a nude woman in her studio. Not only was the model’s angular form accentuated (that was new), but Newton painted her wearing strappy green shoes. The painting was well received in Montreal, but censored in Toronto, for it was felt that the presence of shoes upon the model rendered her “merely in a state of undress” rather than “artistically nude”…
Oh, art people…