Thursday, 17 July 2014



Robert Ford Gagen Rocky Mountain River Valley 1910 watercolour (Masters Gallery, Vancouver)

Kathleen Munn Untitled circa 1926-28 oil on canvas (National Gallery of Canada)

It is hard to believe that only 15 years separate the dates of creation between the Robert Ford Gagen painting and the Kathleen Munn painting above. Given the far slower pace of global trends in the history of Western art up until around 1900, it is even still unbelievable that only 60 years separates the well honed abstract paintings of Jean-Paul Riopelle in the 1950s and other romantic realist landscapes done by artists in the same manner as Gagen in the late 19th century.

The avant-garde and young genre of abstract art arose in the beginning of the 20th century and in just a few decades the popularity of highly realistic landscapes was being replaced by the popularity of non-representational art. Even today one might deem the realistic landscapes of Canada’s academic painters as being traditional and composed versus abstract painting as avant-garde and edgy.

Jean-Paul Riopelle Printemps 1952 oil on canvas 13.5 x 9 in. (Past highlight at Masters Gallery, Calgary)

Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith View from Second Beach, Stanley Park 1889 watercolour (Masters Gallery, Vancouver)

In late 19th century Canada, the artists who rose to prominence typically held membership with the Royal Canadian Academy of Art and were stylistically conservative and technically proficient. Artists such as Frederic Bell-Smith, Thomas Fripp, Mower Martin, Frederick Verner, Marmaduke Matthews and Lucius O'Brien followed landscape romanticism, painting in a realistic manner not unlike that which had been most prevalent in academic art circles in Europe earlier in that same century.

Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith (RCA) Westminster Abbey, Evening after the Rain watercolour (Past highlight, Masters Gallery, Calgary)

John Robert Cozens (British) View in the Isle of Elba 1780-89 watercolour (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Hans Gude (Norwegian) Vinterettemiddag 1847

Caspar David Friedrich (German) Der Watzmann circa 1825 oil on canvas (Alte Nationalgalerie)

The Royal Academic artists at the closing of the 19th and opening of the 20th centuries were ideal for participating in journeys on the Canadian Pacific Railway to promote the west through painting. Many academic artists came to the Prairies, the Rockies and eventually to the West Coast to sketch and paint artistic renditions of the landscape. These paintings were popular at annual Royal Canadian Academy exhibitions and other exhibitions of importance, and remained so into the first few decades of the 20th century. This popularity was steadfast enough that shades of this academic landscape tradition were still lingering when abstract art came to Canada.

Lucius O'Brien (RCA) Portaging in the Rockies watercolour (Past highlight, Masters Gallery, Calgary)

Thomas Mower Martin (RCA)Marion Lake on Mount Abbott watercolour (Past highlight at Masters Gallery, Calgary)

Frederick Verner Indians, Fog Bound 1905 (Masters Gallery, Vancouver)

Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith Alert Bay, British Columbia 1907 oil on panel (Past highlight at Masters Gallery, Vancouver)

Frederick Verner Sunset, Sioux Indians Encampment at Red River 1904

The representational art of the Academicians was still popular and the Group of Seven was still relatively innovative when artist Kathleen Munn began experimenting with abstraction in circa 1926-28. The art scholar Roald Nasgaard wrote:

It was essentially to [Munn’s] lone credit that modernist-inspired works had a presence on the Toronto art scene during the 1920s in the group exhibitions of the Royal Academy and the Ontario Society of Artists and at the CNE, which were the most important venues of the time in Toronto.

Kathleen Munn The Dance circa 1923 (Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto)

JEH MacDonald Near Mount Goodsir, circa 1927 oil on panel (Past highlight of Masters Gallery, Calgary)

Thomas Mower Martin Autumn Birch 1926

Nasgaard commented that Munn's attempts were evident in her time too, because a contemporary review of an RCA exhibition in the Toronto Mail and Empire read that, “Miss Munn has made the first Canadian attempt, so far as local exhibitions are concerned at futuristic painting, with a cubist suggestion.” There are a selection of other artists whom engaged in sporadic experimentation with abstraction around this time, such as Henrietta Shore and Bertram Brooker.

Bertram Brooker Ascending Forms circa 1929 oil on canvas (National Gallery of Canada)

Another often-overlooked pioneer in the genre in Canada was Lowrie Warrener. Warrener was also a sophisticated representational artist working in an innovative neo-impressionistic style of his own, contemporaneous to the Group of Seven. He experimented with flat patterned heavily abstracted scenes; such as The Bumble Bee. I believe Warrener was a talented artist for his time in Canada.

Lowrie Warrener Heat, Skeena River Valley 1931 oil on panel (Past highlight, Masters Gallery, Vancouver)

Lowrie Warrener The Bumble Bee 1925 oil on board (The National Gallery of Canada)

After this initial phase of abstraction, amongst the next prominent artists to try their hands at it were Lawren Harris and Jock MacDonald in the 1930s. They produced orderly geometric abstract work that owed much to a combination of influences, such as cubism, constructivism, futurism and art deco principles.

Jock MacDonald began to experiment with abstract art in the mid 1930s after pondering what the importance of representational art was in current times. He credits tutelage under Frederick Varley in the late 1920s and early 1930s for imaginative inspiration, and himself was interested in spirituality not unlike Varley’s Group of Seven comrade, Lawren Harris.

Lawren Harris Painting no. 4 circa 1939 oil on canvas (Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto)

JWG (Jock) MacDonald Fall (Modality 16) 1937 oil on canvas (Vancouver Art Gallery)

Thus when Harris moved to Vancouver in 1940, he and Jock acquainted and became fast friends with similar ideas about non-representational art. They were not the only artists to venture into abstract painting at this time, but they typically come up for comment more often.

Next of course come Quebec’s Les Automatistes late in the 1940s. Canada went from being behind in avant-garde painting to suddenly having a group of World leaders at the forefront of the evolution of abstract painting by mid-century. Quebec stays in the limelight for the next stage of abstract painting a decade later with Les Plasticiens and their contemporaries.

Jean-Paul Riopelle Folatre 1957 oil on canvas (Past highlight at Masters Gallery, Calgary)

Paul-Emile Borduas Composition in Black and White 1956 oil on canvas (Past highlight of Masters Gallery, Calgary)

The daredevil quality of many lyrical and hard edge geometric abstract art isn’t always just visual in nature, as often abstract art movements are accompanied by vehemently edgy rhetoric of beliefs about their painting goals (such as Les Automatistes “Refus Global” and “the Manifeste des Plasticiens”)

All of these characteristics provide early abstract painting with an audacious aura. Synonyms for "audacious" that might be equally fitting for describing any number of early abstract art movements are: gutsy, nervy, brave, foreword, bold, cheeky, adventurous, and as seen above daredevil and edgy.

Words that might instead be linked to the more traditional appearing realist landscapes, such as alpine scenes of the Rocky Mountains or Indian camps at sunset might be: serene, delicate, romantic, refined, traditional, classical, conventional, or much more.

However, when I thought about Canadian artists who were “audacious,” I personally felt that I had to consider most of the academic romantic artists discussed earlier also as “audacious.” There audacity may not be evident in the appearance of the paintings, but through the artists' adventurous personalities. These artists were not painting scenes of towering snow-covered alpines, glaciers, dense forests, and native Indian encampments from the comfort of their living rooms. It was necessary to trek out into the wilderness (sans cell phone, bug repellent and mountain resorts) in all conditions in order to capture the essence of the subject. Wandering into the formidable Canadian wilderness on foot at the turn of the century burdened with all the painting equipment in a rather amenity-free era seems sufficiently daredevil and brave to me.

Thomas Fripp (RCA) The Wenkchemna Glacier 1925 watercolour (Past highlight at Masters Gallery, Calgary)

Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith Selkirk Mountains (Past highlight at Masters Gallery)

Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith In the Rockies (Past highlight of Masters Gallery, Calgary)

Despite the vast stylistic differences between romantic academicians and abstract artists, in my opinion both share something in common: they are bold, edgy and gutsy minded souls in one-way or another. From the alpine views of the Rocky Mountains to the painterly non-representational work in Quebec, Canada has its fair share of "audacious" artists of an excellent calibre.


Note: Masters Gallery Vancouver is seeking Canadian romanticist landscape paintings for an upcoming exhibition in the fall of 2014. If you have a painting that you think might be suitable and are interested in having it included in the exhibition and sale please do not hesitate to contact us. Examples of artists we are looking to include are Lucius O'Brien, Thomas Fripp, Robert F. Gagen, T. Mower Martin, Marmaduke Matthews, Frederic Bell-Smith, Frederick Verner, Otto Jacobi, and their contemporaries. or