Anne Kahane: Dualités Dualities
I wonder how many of those reading this review are familiar with the work of Anne Kahane; I hope to be proven wrong but expect that it will be precious few. As an art historian interested particularly in the history of modernism in Canada and with a special interest in the representation of women artists in the history of Canadian art, I read Joyce Millar’s impressive bilingual monograph, the first overview of Kahane’s work, with great interest.
In the late 1940s and ’50s, Anne Kahane was one of a few women sculptors in Canada. Her work was exhibited nationally and internationally, attracting significant attention at home and abroad, and winning major public art competitions, yet it has been addressed only cursorily, if at all, in the histories of Canadian art, almost always with reference to her success in the 1953 worldwide sculpture competition organized by London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) as a tribute to those who had been imprisoned or lost their lives in the cause of freedom during WW II.
The competition culminated in “The Unknown Political Prisoner” exhibition at the Tate Gallery in the spring of 1953. There were over 3,500 entries from around the world. In the first round of the competition, Canadian submissions were juried by the National Gallery of Canada, where Kahane’s winning maquette was selected as one of three to be entered in the international competition in London. It was exhibited at the Tate, received honourable mention and was recognized internationally.
Recognition came early in Kahane’s career. Her first solo exhibition was held in Montreal in 1950. Ten of her sculptures were included in the1951 MMFA exhibition “Kennedy, Kahane & Archambault: Works by Three Montreal Sculptors,” which also featured the work of established artists Louis Archambault and Sybil Kennedy. Two years later, her work won a prize in the first official Winnipeg Show, dubbed “The Great Winnipeg Controversy,” given the jury’s “shift to more abstract and professional works rather than promoting local artists.” In 1955, her sculpture Queue was selected by Alan Jarvis for inclusion in the NGC collection. And, in 1956, her sculpture Ball Game won first prize in the Quebec provincial competition and was acquired for the Musée de Quebec.
Five of her works were included in the 1958 Venice Biennale (the year in which Canada constructed its own pavilion). That inaugural exhibition also featured painter Jacques de Tonnancour and engraver Jack Nichols. That same year her work was included in an international UN-sponsored exhibition in New York; in the Bicentennial International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture at the Carnegie Institute; in the Canadian Pavilion of the Brussels World Fair; and in the NGC’s international travelling exhibition “Contemporary Canadian Art.” In 1959, her work Rain entered the Winnipeg Art Gallery collection.
In the 1950s and ’60s, she exhibited with Agnès Lefort and, later, Mira Godard in Montreal. In Toronto, she showed regularly with Av Isaacs. Dorothy Cameron—a champion of the art of sculpture— included Kahane’s work in her public sculpture exhibitions and in exhibitions in her gallery. But, as Cameron noted, sculpture is a challenging medium. It is expensive to produce (and to purchase) and challenging to transport, and requires conducive conditions for exhibition (and for storage).
Though Kahane’s career as an artist spanned over half a century, to date it is almost always the work of the first decade that has been noted in those histories of Canadian art that have included sculpture. Most recently her early work is included in Maria Tippett’s important Sculpture in Canada: A History, 2017, and The Visual Arts in Canada: The Twentieth Century, 2010 (editors: Anne Whitelaw, Brian Foss and Sandra Paikowsky). But while both volumes illustrate and discuss “The Unknown Political Prisoner,” it is only Millar who has documented the extent of Kahane’s work and her influence.
Millar, who wrote her 1991 thesis on the “Sculptor’s Society of Montreal,” began meeting regularly with Kahane in 1997, recording her conversations with the artist in preparation for a 1999 exhibition of Kahane’s work that she curated for the Concordia University art gallery. In the process, she determined that the full extent of Kahane’s work—the artist would be celebrating her 100th birthday in 2024—should be properly documented. Millar rigorously traces Kahane’s stylistic evolution, her exhibitions and her teaching experience, as she shifted her practice, after her New York studies at Cooper Union, from commercial art to painting and ultimately to sculpture and printmaking. Now, 25 years later, Millar has completed that monumental task. In her text, she documents the evolution of Kahane’s practice, its reception and the artist’s place in the history of art in Canada. The book offers a comprehensive overview of Kahane’s work, situating it fully in the context of the national Canadian scene.
Despite the fact that her sculpture was collected by major Canadian institutions and recognized nationally and internationally in its time, Kahane did not make it into the canon. Was it because she was a woman? Was it because she worked independently? (Other than her affiliation with the Sculpture Society of Quebec and her associate memberships in the Royal Academy, she was not part of any major collective or movement.)
We are indebted to Millar for bringing Kahane’s work back into the history of Canadian sculpture. The book includes a detailed timeline, a thorough and well-illustrated list of Kahane’s work and a fulsome overview of the artist’s career. This engaging, comprehensive and well-illustrated book allows us to understand the environment in which Kahane worked and her place in the history of Canadian art.
Postscript: Anne Kahane passed away on September 29, 2023, in her 100th year. ❚
Anne Kahane: Dualités Dualities by Joyce Millar, Joyce Millar Art Consultants Inc, 2023, 260 pages, paperback, $48.00.
Joyce Zemans, CM, is an art historian, curator, author and administrator. She taught at OCADU (1966 to 1975) and York University (1975 to 2020) and, from 1988 to 1992, served as director of the Canada Council for the Arts.