A SLICE OF MOD­ERN LIFE

Montreal Gazette - - Cul­ture - john.o.pohl@gmail.com

The Mu­seum of Fine Arts has rewrit­ten the nar­ra­tive of art in Montreal with its newly opened ex­hi­bi­tion 1920s Mod­ernism in Montreal: The Beaver Hall Group.

Seen in iso­la­tion, many of the group’ paint­ings seem less than mod­ern, their of­ten-tra­di­tional sub­ject mat­ter ob­scur­ing the modernist tech­niques used to cre­ate them. The group took its name from the lo­ca­tion of the mem­bers’ stu­dios on Beaver Hall Hill, be­low then-Dorch­ester St.

It can be seen in the work of Kather­ine Mor­ris, one of the Beaver Hall artists who treated tra­di­tional sub­ject mat­ter with a modernist vis­ual treat­ment.

But in this ex­pan­sive ex­hi­bi­tion, the paint­ings rule the space, trum­pet­ing the es­thetic qual­i­ties that de­fine the modernist sen­si­bil­ity – bril­liant colours broadly ap­plied, less at­ten­tion to de­tail and tonal con­trast in place of at­mo­spheric per­spec­tive.

The Euro­pean mod­ernism that the Beaver Hall artists brought back from their trav­els abroad didn’t in­clude the ideas of cu­bism, fu­tur­ism or Dada. That’s why Cana­dian art, as ex­em­pli­fied by the Group of Seven and its na­tion­al­ist spirit, is some­times seen as an off­shoot of 19th-cen­tury French im­pres­sion­ism and post-im­pres­sion­ism. What the Beaver Hall artists took in­spi­ra­tion in was the post­war re­turn to clas­si­cism and or­der, said Jac­ques Des Rochers, co-cu­ra­tor of the ex­hi­bi­tion.

Es­ther Tré­panier, writer of one of seven es­says in a cat­a­logue with 333 images, notes that moder­nity is not de­fined by sub­ject mat­ter, but is “grounded in the no­tion of the paint­ing’s au­ton­omy in re­la­tion to re­al­ity. … The artists of moder­nity would de­con­struct the or­der im­posed by the rules of aca­demic paint­ing and de­fend their right to ar­range colours and forms as they saw fit.”

The Beaver Hall artists were the first Cana­dian group of pro­fes­sional artists that in­cluded women, Des Rochers said. Half the artists in the group were women work­ing to­gether with male artists, mak­ing them even more mod­ern, he said.

Montreal was the most ex­cit­ing place in Canada at the time, cocu­ra­tor Brian Foss said. “Ev­ery­thing was here — it was Canada’s ma­jor cul­tural and eco­nomic cen­tre. “The Beaver Hall artists made the first con­certed ef­fort to put mod­ernism be­fore the pub­lic: ‘Here is mod­ern life.’”

The ex­hi­bi­tion’s de­sign evokes the Montreal of the 1920s, with art deco ty­pog­ra­phy, films of port ac­tiv­ity and gal­leries that de­pict the am­bi­ence of a jazz cabaret and even the res­tau­rant on the ninth floor of Ea­ton’s.

Adrien Hébert, one of three fran­co­phone mem­bers of the group of about 20 (no mem­ber­ship lists have been found), comes clos­est to Amer­i­can mod­ernism — which cel­e­brated the in­dus­trial age — with his de­pic­tions of the busy Port of Montreal. But his mag­nif­i­cent scene of stylish men and women on St-Denis St. also cor­re­sponds to the in­ter­est in street life that marked the Beaver Hall pain­ters.

What dif­fer­en­ti­ates the Group of Seven from the Beaver Hall Group, both of them founded in 1920, is not that one group ide­al­ized the Cana­dian North and the other fol­lowed the Que­bec tra­di­tion of pop­u­lat­ing the ru­ral land­scape, thus em­pha­siz­ing a con­nec­tion to land al­ready in­hab­ited for more than three cen­turies.

The dif­fer­ence is that the Beaver Hall artists ex­plored their im­me­di­ate sur­round­ings, Tré­panier writes. That in­cludes por­traits of peo­ple they knew, many of which are on dis­play.

Pru­dence He­ward is a star of the por­trait, de­pict­ing the con­tem­po­rary woman as ath­letic and ut­terly con­fi­dent in her boldly painted can­vases.

On the other side is Emily Coo­nan, whose Girl and Cat is a re­cently re­dis­cov­ered work that hasn’t been ex­hib­ited since the 1920s.

Coo­nan painted her sub­jects, of­ten young women in their home en­vi­ron­ments, with a tremu­lous, sen­si­tive brush. She also used con­trast­ing colours, but they are sub­dued — her women are younger and much less con­fi­dent.

“Her paint­ings are psy­cho­log­i­cal stud­ies,” Foss said.

She was unique in the group com­prised mostly of Protes­tant women from es­tab­lished fam­i­lies. Coo­nan was an Ir­ish Catholic from Pointe St-Charles. But she be­came more reclu­sive and re­li­gious over time, and drifted away from art. It’s tragic in the

sense that her tal­ent wasn’t fully re­al­ized over time, Foss said.

Coo­nan and He­ward are the two real stars of the ex­hi­bi­tion, he added.

Even though this ex­hi­bi­tion punc­tures the myth of the Beaver Hall Group be­ing an all-fe­male group, the fo­cus of an as­so­ci­ated ex­hi­bi­tion at the MMFA — Her Story To­day: Six Pain­ters from Que­bec and Canada — cel­e­brates the work of con­tem­po­rary women.

The group in­cludes Marie-Claude Bouthillier’s painted lines on tex­tiles — they would be op art if the lines weren’t so un­even and the tex­tures so soft. Bouthillier’s pat­terns wel­come you. She makes op art that doesn’t hurt your eyes to look at.

Marie-Eve Beaupré, cu­ra­tor of Her Story To­day, ex­plains Janet Werner’s psy­cho­log­i­cally com­plex por­traits of women by quot­ing the artist: “I think of the char­ac­ter as a per­former … caught in the mid­dle of an ac­tion, be­tween two worlds vis­i­ble and in­vis­i­ble at the same time.”

Dur­ing re­search to pre­pare for the ex­hi­bi­tion, Des Rochers dis­cov­ered doc­u­ments dat­ing back to 1977 in the MMFA archives about plans for a “Beaver Hall Hill Group” show sched­uled for 1979. Why that plan never came to be re­mains un­ex­plained but Des Rochers cred­its mu­seum di­rec­tor Nathalie Bondil for bring­ing to­day’s ex­hi­bi­tion to fruition.

Let’s hope the se­quel, if there is one, isn’t 38 years in the mak­ing. This ex­hi­bi­tion whet­ted my ap­petite to see the story of mod­ern art in Montreal con­tin­ued into the 1930s.

The next chap­ter would in­clude artists like Mar­ian Scott and Stan­ley Cos­grove. It would trace John Ly­man’s found­ing of the Con­tem­po­rary Arts So­ci­ety and his friend­ship and col­lab­o­ra­tion with Paul-Émile Bor­d­uas, whose in­ter­est in sur­re­al­ism led to the Au­toma­tistes, which brought Que­bec art onto the world stage. As some have ar­gued, Que­be­cers in­vented ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism be­fore New York did.

That would be a won­der­ful ex­hi­bi­tion, but the Beaver Hall Group is the one that’s on now, and it is won­der­ful it­self and shouldn’t be missed.

NA­TIONAL GALLERY OF CANADA

In Girl on a Hill, a can­vas cre­ated in 1928, Pru­dence He­ward shows her mas­tery of the por­trait, de­pict­ing the con­tem­po­rary woman as ath­letic and ut­terly con­fi­dent.

NA­TIONAL GALLERY OF CANADA

Emily Coo­nan’s Girl and Cat from 1920.

CHRISTINE GUEST/MMFA

Carey, by Janet Werner from 2014.

JOHN POHL

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