Wilderness has had a deep and abiding effect on this country’s ideas of northernness, the land, and national and cultural identity. For much of the 20th century, this connection was exemplified in the work of the Group of Seven, who helped cement the relationship between landscape and national identity, as they aimed to provide Canadians with “a shared image of their communion,” to quote Benedict Anderson’s well-known epithet. Viewers found reaffirmation of this collective sense of identity in paintings such as Tom Thomson’s Jack Pine, F.H. Varley’s Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay and Lawren Harris’s Maligne Lake, Jasper Park. In 1916, Saturday Night magazine published an article jocularly recounting how the typical Canadian artist was a “husky beggar” who pulled on a pair of Strathcona boots and set off into the woods with a rifle, a paddle and enough baked beans for three months.
We have only recently begun to see that this equation of landscape painting with Canadian identity came at the expense of other subject matter. In the early 20th century, artists who focused on urban themes and on the human figure, and the nude in particular, saw their artworks not just ignored, but in some instances censured and suppressed. In 1913, the Montreal painter John Lyman, recently returned from Paris, saw his Post-Impressionist nude paintings described by a critic as “travesties, abortions, sexual and hideous malformations.” And nudes by Toronto-based Bertram Brooker and Lilias Torrance Newton, a Montreal painter, were barred from the Art Gallery of Ontario and a Canadian Group of Painters exhibition respectively. Not all such works fared as badly. In the same period, Prudence Heward’s Girl Under a Tree—a large-scale painting of a recumbent nude, rendered in brilliant Fauves colour and set in a Cubist-inspired landscape—was described as “the best nude ever painted in Canada,” by Group of Seven member Arthur Lismer. How one experimented with the nude genre clearly mattered. Critics praised Edwin Holgate’s nudes from the 1930s, perhaps because they more seamlessly integrate the figures into Group of Seven-esque landscapes.
The argument that Canadians were prudish and affronted by the female nude does not quite hold true; the reality is much more complex. John Lyman’s nudes were not criticized, as one might think, because of the artist’s choice of subject matter; rather, many critics were dumbfounded by his contravention of academic and artistic convention. The nude was a means for Canadians to grapple with social and cultural anxieties about women’s bodies and sexuality, but it also became the focus for artistic debates about the place and development of modernity and the visual arts in Canada more broadly.
Few practitioners were more engaged in these debates—or penalized for it—than the Beaver Hall Group. Until somewhat recently, the members of the Beaver Hall Group, a group of artists who came together in Montreal in 1920, the same year the Group of Seven formed, were marginalized in Canadian art history precisely because its members took up portraiture, the figure and the nude with gusto—not to mention the struggles of its women artists in a male-centric art milieu.
Named after their shared studio space at 305 Beaver Hall Hill, the Beaver Hall Hill Group (as they were initially known) was composed of both men and women—in fact, half the members were women—a major distinction from the Group of Seven. It was not the only distinction. The Group of Seven’s paintings became aligned with a virile, backwoodsman, coureur-de-bois type frontiersman who carried his sketch box on his back into the wilderness. The Beaver Hall Group, though, was less concerned with nationalism. Its members turned brush and palette to the people around them and asserted the human presence in local landscapes in Quebec. As with the Group of Seven, artworks by the Beaver Hall Group are characterized by a modernist aesthetic that also explored avant-garde techniques using unnatural colour, bold lines and flattened space. The groups did overlap: A.Y. Jackson, for a time, was also the Beaver Hall Group’s leader. However, the Beaver Hall artists’ choice of portraits, still lifes, landscapes and images of Montreal’s urban cityscape set them well apart from their Toronto colleagues. As Jackson put it in an article about their 1921 Montreal exhibition, “individual expression, then, is the aim of this group.”
The Beaver Hall Group was short-lived, lasting for just two years between 1920 and 1922, but its 25 members included some of Canada’s most celebrated artists, including Heward, Holgate and Torrance Newton, and produced a large and influential body of work. Kathleen Morris, another member, had parents who were strong advocates of women’s rights, and her success as an artist is all the more astounding given that she had cerebral palsy. Morris executed stunning artworks such as Nuns, Quebec and After “Grand Mass,” Berthier-en-Haut, a rich tableau of congregants and horses as they leave church on a snowy winter morning. Anne Savage was as much an art educator as she was an accomplished artist herself. At a young age, she moved with her family to a farm in Dorval; her love of nature is borne out in The Plough, with its sinuous lines, undulating hills and rhythmic composition and its placement of the farm implement at its centre with a kind of monumentality.
The group’s significant female presence and “loud, brilliant, glaring colours,” as they were described by critic Albert Laberge at the time, set them apart in the art scene. Yet for more than half a century their work was overshadowed by the empty landscape idiom of their Toronto counterparts. This is changing. In fact, there is no question that the Beaver Hall Group is having something of a moment. Their jazzy modernist paintings, exceptional portraits and arresting scenes of urban Montreal were finally given their due in the 2015 exhibition 1920s Modernism in Montreal: The Beaver Hall Group, which began at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and headed west, making stops in Ontario and Alberta.
The revival is happening thanks in part to the efforts of writers such as Evelyn Walters, whose new book is another welcome addition to the recent literature on the Beaver Hall Group. The Beaver Hall and Its Legacy is a well-written overview of the Beaver Hall Group’s emergence and subsequent legacy that includes thoroughly researched biographies of the 25 members of the group. Walters’s latest effort includes more than 75 high-quality reproductions from public and private collections. Readers and researchers will also appreciate the reprinting of the major reviews of the Beaver Hall Group’s exhibitions.
The book builds on Walters’s previous exploration of the group, The Women of Beaver Hall: Canadian Modernist Painters, a groundbreaking examination of the ten female members of the group and one of the first books to give them their due as trailblazers in modern Canadian art. The women of Beaver Hall, who had all studied at the Art Association of Montreal, winning numerous awards, persevered after the original group disbanded. They received continued support from the likes of A.Y. Jackson and Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery of Canada at the time, who purchased their works and mentored many of the women. But they struggled through two world wars and the Depression, and against normative codes of behaviour for women. Torrance Newton was the only one to gain real financial success, primarily by painting official portraits (she was the first Canadian artist to paint the Queen and Prince Philip). Although they were praised during their lifetimes and had their work purchased, the women of Beaver Hall never did achieve anything like the recognition of their male peers. Like the writing of art history more generally, the exceptional contributions of these avant-garde women were disregarded for decades, although feminist art historians have worked diligently to correct this oversight and, more importantly, to understand their marginalization.
Few Canadians are aware of the vibrancy of their output, but the group’s artists—both male and female—dazzlingly reinterpreted the rolling hills of the Laurentians and Eastern Townships, the intimate urbanscapes of Quebec villages and industrial Montreal, as well as the people who humanized these landscapes. Ethel Seath brings the vitality of Montreal’s street life, its lively commotion and smells, to life in Bonsecours Market, a charming gouache painting executed in shades of acid yellow and green. Edwin Holgate and Sarah Robertson used the latest European modern painting techniques to paint traditional rural themes—such as Robertson’s The Blue Sleigh—and portraits, including Holgate’s series of Canadian “types” like The Lumberjack and The Fire Ranger. Adrien Hébert’s more formalized and realist aesthetic gave life to the sights, sounds and smells of the bustling activity in Montreal’s port, including the architecture of the wharf, grain silos and harbour—urban themes that West Coast photographer John Vanderpant would try to assert as distinctly Canadian about a decade later. Meanwhile, Adrien’s brother, Henri Hébert, turned his talents as a sculptor to the body of the nude modern dancer in The Flapper and The Charleston, true embodiments of Montreal’s jazz age. Walters’s inclusion of A.Y. Jackson’s Elevators, Pincher Creek, Alberta reminds readers that Jackson travelled from sea to sea, painting a great many corners of this country we now call Canada; he ventured far beyond the scenery north of Toronto.
The Beaver Hall Group would not win the battle that raged over what kind of art could embody Canadian nationalism, a debate that played out in newspapers and magazines such as Canadian Forum and Saturday Night throughout the 1920s and into the ’30s with landscape painting and the figure vying for equal stature. As Canadian artists and art history continue to move “beyond wilderness” (to borrow the title of John O’Brian and Peter White’s 2007 book on the legacy of the Group of Seven), the progressive vision of the Beaver Hall Group seems all the more relevant. They challenged what Canadian modern art could be and argued for the place of women as important contributors to artistic modernity in this country, issues that continue to resonate.
Walters is right to assert that the friendships and support fostered by the Beaver Hall Group were particularly important for the careers and successes of the women members. As she notes, women’s artistic pursuits were still often regarded as a hobby or mere pastime rather than a viable career choice. Women were also barred from membership from many of the important early art clubs, including the Pen and Pencil Club in Montreal and the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto, where the Group of Seven often met to discuss their ideas. For this reason the friendships among the ten female members were vital to their careers and livelihoods; the artists critiqued and pushed each other further in their art practices. To marry often signalled the death knell of a woman’s art career, and Torrance Newton was the only member to have married, and for only a short time.
In the wake of renewed interest in the 1960s and the support of feminist art historians from the 1970s onward, the women of Beaver Hall came to personify the essence of the group for an informed public, as Jacques Des Rochers has pointed out, even though they constituted only half of the Beaver Hall’s membership. As art historian Kristina Huneault has recently noted about the history of the Beaver Hall Group, categorical separations based on gender lines form the kind of oppositional thinking that does a disservice to Canadian art history more generally by disregarding the complex character of the cultural arena in which both men and women were working. The Beaver Hall Group and Its Legacy does redress some of the unlikely imbalance that has contributed to the association of this group only with its female membership; however, Walters does not acknowledge that this association has until recently effectively erased the involvement of the male artists, an idea that the curators of 1920s Modernism in Montreal very thoughtfully addressed in their exhibition and accompanying exhibition catalogue.
Nonetheless, The Beaver Hall Group and Its Legacy is an accessible and very readable text, presenting a good introduction to the Beaver Hall Group for art lovers or those interested in learning more about modern art during this period of incredible artistic growth in Canada. Although academic scholars will find theory and analysis lacking, Walter’s latest is, for students and readers of art history, a welcome introduction to—and valuable resource on—a hitherto under-recognized movement in Canadian modern art and the people who made it happen.