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Looking at the Not-too-distant Past Through Art

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--November 5, 2015.

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The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is presently featuring an unusual exhibition, entitled "1920s Modernism in Montreal, the Beaver Hall Group," that will conclude January 31, 2016. These Montreal-based artists were concurrent with the very much better known Group of Seven, along with Tom Thompson, and Emily Carr – all of whom concentrated on landscape, mostly featuring a wild nature that excluded a human presence, in particular the European cultural presence and most indications of twentieth century industrialism or development.

The Beaver Halls, however, were comparatively more urban and more interested in individuals in society. Also, well over half of the Beaver Hall Group were women. This was still exceptional in the art world which had traditionally been overwhelmingly male with only a few notable exceptions. such as Carr. Even in the early twentieth century, art was not considered a respectable milieu for women, especially middle and upper class women who also were socially pressured not to work (in any sphere) outside the home. This was more oppressive for married women in particular. Only one of the female artists of the Beaver Hall Group married – Lilas Torrance Newton (1896-¬1980), and she was independently wealthy. Anne Savage ( 1896¬1971), one of the best of this group, was a career high school art teacher at Baron Byng and (here's the gossip...) had an over-fifty-year romantic friendship with A.Y. Jackson who could never persuade her to marry him.

Like most creative arts, painting requires long sessions of quiet concentration and independence, unbroken by someone else wanting dinner and other minutiae of domestic life. Although the publicity and publications of the Museum, as well as the extensive newspaper reviews of this exhibit, credit these artists with a modern sensibility and an essentially optimistic reflection of their times in Montreal, there are a few aspects of these works which contradict this somewhat.

The techniques and styles of the paintings are very early twentieth century of course, showing influences from the Post-Impressionists and early modern European art movements, but the themes in most of the Beaver Hall works are quite traditional. For example, the outstanding painting by Sarah Robinson (1891¬1948), In the Nuns' Garden, May 1933, is just one of several works by many of the Beaver Halls, using local religious institutions and buildings around Montreal as subject matter. We also see the iconic winter scenes with horse and sleigh – these vehicles have been immortalized in Quebec art since the time of Kreighoff. There is an excellent one, again by Robinson, The Blue Sleigh, 1924. She also has a Red Sleigh, and so on. Robinson is definitely one of the better artists of the exhibit, but her work has unfortunately been relatively unknown.

Some of the most truly modern and urban works are by Adrien Hébert (1890¬1967) whose paintings of Montreal's streets and harbour are remarkably detailed insights into our past. His work gives a much more realistic view of how Montreal looked in the 1920s. St. Catherine Street, 1926, actually shows the movement of people and vehicles on a snowy city morning, complete with streetcar. His many paintings of the port, back when it bustled and grain elevators loomed, have the same dynamic sense that is representative of both realistic and abstract twentieth century art.

Another element that is at play with most of the Beaver Hall Group is the influence of non-Western art that characterized their period. In many of the paintings, the noticeable flatness, and also the lack of containment of, for example, all of a body, within the picture plane, are directly attributed to Japanese prints – a very popular “discovery” and influence upon European art since the 1880s. This trend is very evident with some of the portraits¬ -- some times heads are not completely in the frame. One by the very accomplished Edwin Holgate (1892¬-1977) comes to mind. Holgate had a lengthy career in art, was a noted Canadian war artist, and almost a member of the Group of Seven. His works covered all the genres – landscapes, portraits and buildings.

Go see this exhibition as it's a visual time travel to another time and another Montreal, different from our time and our city, yet very much the same. Like the wintery slush of downtown streets, creativity is a Montreal perennial.