150 years of B.C. art offer plenty to celebrate
Free Spirit: You, Me and B.C. is on show at the Royal British Columbia Museum until Jan. 11, 2009. For information call 3567226. The Royal British Columbia Museum is doing its bit to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the province. In the best “nation’s attic” style it shows a broad sample of things that say “British Columbia.”
What is B.C.? A flag, a coat of arms, the dogwood, a Steller’s jay? Don’t forget those B.C. tartan sports jackets that liquor store employees used to wear. Residential schools, drive-in movie theatres, bhangra dance costumes — they are all tumbled together here.
The show is delightfully full of stuff, with no story line at all. The centrepiece is a tower of Sgt. Pepper-style cutouts. I recognized Vancouver Town Fool Kim Foikis (1935-2007) and David Suzuki (naked, with Sasquatch’s paw on his shoulder) among them. The show is more Trivial Pursuit than a history course. I am sure the museum knows its audience.
Browse past a travelling salesman’s bow-tie display, former lieutenant-governor Iona Campagnolo’s uniform and the shiny brass Standard Weights and Measures (both Imperial and metric). All by himself sits a 1908 Steiff teddy bear named Theodore who was given to the museum in 2002 by Eleanor Stewart (née Goddard), then aged 100 years old. It’s hard to decide what is truly important.
My taste is for paintings, and I was drawn to this show to see some of the riches from Provincial Archives. In keeping with the “cabinet of curiosities” theme, see Emily Carr’s portrait of Woo, her monkey. In Sophie Pemberton’s large oil painting an Edwardian maiden stoops to retrieve some daffodils, suggesting Victoria’s history as a floral exporter.
Thirty-seven paintings from the archives are grouped on a wall as they might be by an auctioneer — there is no internal logic that I could make out. Railings and stanchions kept me too far back to focus on the detail of a meticulous early rendering of Field, by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1919). (The people you meet in Field!) And the lighting ranges from gloom to glaring. But forgive my cavils. The paintings are on show, and for that I am grateful.
Here’s a short list of my picks:
E.P. Bedwell, Nanaimo, ca. 1860;
Sarah Crease, Government Street, Oct. 8, 1860; W.G.R. Hind, Gold Digger, 1864; T. Mower Martin, Beacon Hill Park, 1890;
Statira Frame, Pitt Meadows, 1913-20; A.Y. Jackson, Kitwanga, 1926; J.W.G. Macdonald, Black Tusk Garibaldi, 1934;
Saseenos Church, 1935;
Emily Carr, Forest Clearing, 1938 or 1939;
E.J. Hughes, Above Okanagan Lake, 1960.
Those few of us with a taste for the art history of our own province will delight in the reappearance of the small version of a mural by E.J. Hughes, Paul Goranson and Orville Fisher. Painted in canvas, it was the prototype for their installation at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco in 1939.
Above the centre circle of the Free Spirit show hang 36 mural panels by artist Carol Christianson. The brilliance of her designs deserves to be studied closely, and the reproductions of some of them are good reason to buy the catalogue.
Fittingly, First Nations artwork is a constant and profound presence. Mungo Martin’s huge ceremonial curtain, painted on a tarpaulin in 1955, hangs behind his bee mask, and another bee mask by his protégé Tony Hunt. The ethnology department also created a tiny and compelling display centering on the legendary carving by Captain Carpenter, who was lighthouse keeper at Dryad Point near Bella Bella in the late 1880s.
A large and finely carved panel by Douglas Cranmer (19272006) provides a prelude to two abstract paintings (1976) by the same artist. These are visionary artworks which offer a tantalizing view of a road not taken.
This is a great show for oldfashioned browsing.
Upstairs is the War Brides exhibit, a creation of Calgary artist Bev Tosh.
Tosh has formed a compelling interest in some women of her mother’s generation. War brides were European women who fell in love with Canadian men serving overseas. About 44,000 women immigrated in 66 ships to be with their men.
Tosh has met more than 1,000 war brides, corresponded with and interviewed nearly 500, painted their portraits, and created photos and arty installations. Neatly, she manages to bridge the gap between the museum public and the art gallery public with a show at once informing and inspiring. (War Brides: One Way Passage continues until Sept. 1).