Even Americans have heard of the Group of Seven. Canada’s greatest contribution to visual arts worldwide seems to be a collective of seven landscape painters who took to the wilds and painted not pretty postcards but otherworldly martian landscapes. Working simultaneously, though, was another group of artists, the Beaver Hall Group. Its members turned their canvases on their friends, on rural Quebec, and the city of Montreal around them to produce an impressive collection of paintings and drawings. While less well-known than the seven, make no mistake, the Beaver Hall Group produced equally commendable works. Now’s your chance to find out the best kept secret in Canadian Art history. The Beaver Hall Group is on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts at a fine exhibition called Colours of Jazz. 1920s Modernism in Montreal: The Beaver Hall Group.
This is conjecture, but I’m pretty sure the main reason we know about the Group of Seven and know less about the Beaver Hall group is gender. Most of its members were women. They were prolific. Lilias Torrance Newton produced nearly 300 portraits during her career. They received praise in the Montreal Gazette and La Presse and exhibited internationally with the Group of Seven. However, they seem to have faded from public consciousness as an art movement. I can only think gender is the key factor. In fact, the MFA exhibition makes a point of showing how some major arts organizations in Montreal in the ’20s, like the Pen and Pencil Club, were closed to women.
The works by the Beaver Hall Group are modern, an art-history term that describes a period of art in which the artists rejected tradition and got all experimental. It began in the 1870s and lasted through the ’60s (though in this exhibition, we’re looking at 1920-1933). In broad terms, in modern art, realism, narratives, and typical artistic subjects are rejected. In their place, bold colors, misshapen figures, and symbolic imagery are used instead. The Beaver Hall Group very much adopts the bold use of colour, simplification of forms, rejection of the optical image for one more inspired by emotion, new subject matter. They were very au courant.
The exhibition is broken into a series of thematic rooms. The first includes portraits and self-portraits of women. Each one is in striking jewel tones, the faces ranging from a gaussian blur of haze to an almost cartoon-like clarity. The backgrounds are de-emphasized, spotted with a range of colours to bring out the sitter. Hawton’s images stick with me the most, large portraits of short haired girls with grumpy faces and tan arms, the transition of colors looking more like contour lines of a map of the Laurentians than a gradual fade.
I was especially drawn to an image of two sisters who sit on a porch together, each face full of expression.
These portraits continue into a second room that includes landscape paintings. The landscapes are generally of rural places, with people in them. A large nude hangs on one wall. The Beaver Hall Group picked up on the new 1920s image of female beauty: slim, tanned, oiled, toned. The effect is a body that is less soft, perhaps even plastic.Well, not quite as plastic as a Barbie, but marked with lines and strange patches of fleshy tones underlit with an ugly green.
The third room has the works of Adrien Hébert, one of the male artists, painted Montreal. I recognized the concrete structures of the old port in a few of his paintings, and enjoyed his creative viewpoints. He tackled subjects like city streets and concrete behemoths, celebrating man’s architectural works.
Also in this room are some small works by different artists, arranged in a tidy row along the wall.
The fourth room has jazz playing and the central cases support statuettes. Painted in green, the room tries to recreate something known as the “jazz wall.” An exhibition held in 1922 by the Art Associationfeatured a wall with brightly colored paintings that was nicknamed “the jazz wall.” On this wall is Hewton’s striking image of a ice-blue eyed woman in an enormous fur, her necklace hanging to one side, silk white gloves on her hands. She is the very essence of 1920s glam.
The last room features nudes. Again, the “new” ideal body is on display.
What I like about this exhibition is that it exposes me to a new group of artists who I did not know about prior (not to claim I am an expert on Canadian art, of course. If anything, I know little). Seeing their works collectively allows for an appreciation and admiration of how their styles are both similar and different, and how they really are a movement. What I like most, though, is the sense that this group deserves recognition. In holding this exhibition, the museum itself is elevating the importance of an art group from mere footnote to something more significant. Bringing together pieces from so many diverse sources in Canada, from private collections to Ottawa’s Canadian collection, makes it clear that these are not one-off successes, but a wave of them. Their “charm” is not just pretty folly (and a label that I suspect is often fobbed onto things done by women), but a component. The paintings beckon to the Nabobs, the Fauves, Matisse, the Italian futurists, all different movements in art. It’s intriguing to see how the Beaver Hall Group is attuned to worldwide trends and participates and shapes them.
Beaver Hall Group, you have your day at last! Although modern art does have its detractors, those who enjoy the freedom and vigor of this period in art will be delighted to discover that some talented women (and a few men) did great things here in Montreal.
The exhibition on The Beaver Hall Group is at the Museum of Fine Arts until January 31, 2016.