“Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment”
With its ambitious reach and worthy intentions, “Uninvited” both invites and eludes critique and analysis. Subtitled “Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment,” the exhibition was organized by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and curated by Sarah Milroy. As described by director Ian Dejardin in the introduction to the big, multiauthored book that accompanies the show, “Uninvited” was inspired by an awareness of the conspicuous gender gap in the McMichael’s male-dominated collections. This awareness occurred, it seems, at a time when the gallery was planning its exhibition celebrating the Group of Seven’s 100th anniversary. As such, “Uninvited” serves as an alternative history of a time (1920 to 1945) and a place (this country called Canada) for too long defined by the all-male and hugely influential Group. Framing itself as a survey of the women artists who were not “invited” to join that supposedly nation-defining, wilderness-tromping, moderniststyling fellowship, the show brings together some 200 works by 31 of the Group’s female peers, from both settler and Indigenous cultures and “from coast to coast to coast.”
On the West Coast for a few months this past fall, “Uninvited” was installed across the first floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG). I walked through it quickly a couple of times to get a sense of its scope, then later spent an afternoon making notes for this review, a process that was, I admit, tiring and a bit overwhelming. While there were some remarkable and illuminating works on view, there also seemed to be too many artists and genres to comprehend as a coherent whole. Still, despite the too-wide curatorial net, some overarching impr ess ions and par t i cular observations presented themselves. First and obviously, although highly accomplished Indigenous basketry and beadwork were represented along with a few sculptures, drawings and photographs by settler women, the show is dominated by paintings—again, by settler women. Of those paintings, more stylistic conservatism than modernist innovation seems to prevail. In many cases, the artists adhered to a kind of tamped-down impressionism or post-impressionism, long after those movements emerged in Europe. At the same time, portrait and figure painters, such as Lilias Torrance Newton, appear to have aligned themselves with British modern realism (as observed in the catalogue by Gerta Moray). Georgia O’Keeffe’s influence could be seen in Marian Dale Scott’s up-close and sensual floral paintings, Milkweed, Crocus and Tulip, and in Isabel McLaughlin’s 1935 upwardly towering Tree. With its angst-ridden female figure executed in swirling greens, blues and pinks, McLaughlin’s Nude Study looks like an anomalous nod to Edvard Munch.
In a phone conversation with me, Milroy suggested that what sets a number of women artists of the period apart from the Group of Seven are both the variety of their subjects and the socially or psychologically nuanced understanding they brought to them—as if they could see things the men could not. And, yes, the widely surveyed artists in “Untitled” took on far more than forests, lakes and rivers, their works ranging across cityscapes, industrial scenes, still life studies, nudes, portraits and selfportraits. In a curious relegation, well-known landscapes by Emily Carr and Anne Savage were installed at the tail end of the show (at least in the VAG’s installation). Milroy noted Savage’s attention to an Indigenous presence in her Skeena River scenes, in marked opposition to the Group’s tendency to paint—and thus lay settler claim to—seemingly uninhabited “wilderness.” (Except for Carr’s 1914 portrait of her friend, Squamish basket-maker Sewinchelwet Sophie Frank, her early visits with and depictions of the Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast function mainly as a subtext here.)
A few of the other galleries were also installed thematically, the first of them filled with portraits and figure paintings, ranging from Groupe, Suzanne Duquet’s expressionistic and unsettling representation of herself and her three sisters—one of the strongest and most memorable works in the entire show—to The Riverman, Frenchy Renaud, Yulia Biriukova’s cheesy depiction of a musclebound, movie-star-handsome outdoorsman. Backgrounded by a landscape borrowed from JEH MacDonald rather than directly observed by Biriukova, the alleged riverman rests the fingers of his right hand on the, ahem, erect shaft of a canoe paddle (or perhaps it’s an axe handle, as Dejardin suggests), strategically placed between his legs. In Biriukova’s defence, I suppose we can grant her the nerve to flip the objectified and eroticized figure of Western art history from female to male, an iconoclastic act that would find some traction decades later, during feminism’s second wave. Other inversions of art historical tropes, as Milroy pointed out, include Prudence Heward’s solid and uncompromising The Bather and Regina Seiden Goldberg’s selfassured A Pierrette. As for Duquet’s brilliant Groupe, executed with astonishing skill and vision in 1941, when she was still a student at l’École des beaux-arts de Montréal, its dramatically tilted perspective, severe facial expressions and exaggerated depictions of its subjects’ hands constitute a piercing examination of gender roles. Duquet was, as Anne-Marie Bouchard writes in the catalogue, years ahead of her peers.
An entire thesis, however, could be written about the persistence of the female nude subject among women artists of the period, as depicted by Heward, Torrance Newton, Regina Seiden Goldberg and sculptor Florence Wyle. I’m not buying arguments that these artists either confronted or subverted the masculine gaze. Heward doubles viewer discomfort at such apparent objectification in Dark Girl, her 1935 painting of a naked and cowedlooking Black woman—a woman, not a girl!—who may have been a family servant. (This troubling work is well addressed in the catalogue by Michelle Jacques.)
At the VAG, there were also thematically linked displays of Indigenous and settler art: for instance, Winifred Petchey Marsh’s depictions of Padlirmiut (Caribou Inuit) camp life and garments in the 1930s, deftly executed in the English watercolour tradition, shown alongside an extraordinary Padlirmiut amauti by Anne Maria Kiger’lerk. Petchey Marsh’s scenes express a visitor’s wonder at the Padlirmiut’s adaptation to their northern environment, and her brilliantly coloured and extraordinarily detailed images of Kiger’lerk’s traditional beaded clothing constitute a documentary record that no photograph of that era could have accomplished. Still, it is difficult to separate Petchey Marsh’s respectfully observed images from the essentially colonizing reason she was in the Arctic in the 1930s, as the wife of an Anglican minister. Her very presence suggests the beginning of the erosion of traditional Inuit culture and belief.
Also clustered somewhat reductively together were Kathleen Daly Pepper’s 1940s drawings and watercolours of Nakoda (Stoney) teepees, families and individuals, and a number of beaded items from Plains First Nations. Especially notable among them was a magnificent dress created by Mrs. Walking Sun, a Nakoda (Assiniboine) woman who lived on the Carry the Kettle reserve in southern Saskatchewan. Unfortunately, although not surprisingly, Daly Pepper’s art is characterized by an exoticizing and sentimentalizing attitude towards her subjects. The fact that many of her works were executed while she attended the highly touristic Banff Indian Days—at a time when Indigenous people needed Ottawa’s permission to wear their traditional clothing—amplifies the underlying settler belief. Gerald McMaster writes in the catalogue that “the Stoney, like all First Nations communities, were part of a ‘vanishing race.’” Daly Pepper was, he adds, “just one in a long line of painters and photographers who wanted to ‘capture’ them while they could.”
Other galleries tended toward a kind of grab bag approach to installation. In one exhibition space, Margaret Watkins’s still life photographs of formally arranged household items, such as dish towels, pot lids and a serrated bread knife, were displayed adjacent to Elizabeth Wyn Wood’s gleaming Art Deco-esque sculptures of northern Ontario scenes and Kathleen Munn’s (unexplained) religious drawings, whose highly faceted style suggests a kind of Cubo-Futurism. (In the catalogue, Georgiana Uhlyarik writes that Munn adhered to a “compositional system” advocated by art historian Jay Hambidge.) Mary Wrinch’s small but wondrously modern landscapes and Marion Long’s beautifully observed and executed little cityscapes were hung in the same gallery with Frances Loring and Florence Wyle’s decorative and dated relief panels. Still, loving attention and technical know-how inform the bronze portrait busts “the Girls” (who never seem to be considered as separate and distinct individuals) created of each other.
There are plenty of happy revelations on view in “Uninvited” and there are also, from the viewpoint of those of us lodged in “the regions,” conspicuous omissions. As art historian Maria Tippett has observed, most of the artists represented were based in central Canada, specifically, Toronto and Montreal. Vancouver’s Vera Weatherbie is here, along with convincing evidence of the impact she had on Frederick Varley’s art, but sadly absent are Weatherbie’s fellow graduates from the first class of the Vancouver School of Decorative & Applied Arts: Lilias Farley, Beatrice Lennie and Irene Hoffar Reid. Yes, you would have to cherry-pick to find stellar works from each of these three, but a commitment to the stellar did not prevent the inclusion in “Uninvited” of Bess Larkin Housser Harris’s mushy attempt at abstraction, Untitled (Cubist Landscape). Neither did it preclude the display of Pegi Nicol MacLeod’s A Descent of Lilies, a hot mess of bucking horses and genitalic flowers.
Douglas Hunter has written that many of the women artists represented here were not so much uninvited (a number of them exhibited regularly and some were asked to show alongside the Group) as uncollected and undervalued— conditions that persist to this day. Still, as Marilyn French remarked in a public lecture she delivered in Vancouver many years ago, despite all the achievements of feminism’s second wave, millennia of patriarchy cannot be undone in a few decades. In the meantime, we need shows like “Uninvited” to redress historical oversights, introduce us to both Indigenous and settler artists and artworks we hadn’t encountered previously—and illuminate the unfolding of creative visions across the narrow bridge and vast abyss of time, place and gender. ❚
“Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment” was exhibited at Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, from June 11, 2022, to January 8, 2023. It is scheduled to open at the National Gallery of Canada in March 2023.
Robin Laurence is an independent writer, critic and curator, based in Vancouver. She has written essays, reviews and feature articles for local, national and international publications, and is a long-time contributing editor to Border Crossings. She is the 2021 winner of the Max Wyman Award for Critical Writing.