A SLICE OF MODERN LIFE
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.
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.
Emily Coonan’s Girl and Cat from 1920.
Carey, by Janet Werner from 2014.