The Vancouver Art Gallery’s major new exhibition Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Movement showcases an immense array of female artistic production and creativity.
The “modern movement” refers to the 1920s-1940s and the artistic movement that arose during this period of transformation. Traditionally, our understanding of this movement includes artists such as the Group of Seven, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and has suffered from a lack of sexual and racial representation. Uninvited begins to change that.
I was immediately surprised by the first room’s display of emotionally intense and vibrant portraits. In particular, Lilias Torrance Newton’s portrayal of Elise Kingman mesmerized me. The artist’s friend is painted in elegant, restrained clothes on a gray background. As she gazes to her right, her features are illuminated by a soft, warm light that highlights her calm, caring expression. The two women had served together in the First World War, and the portrait is painted with all the affection and tenderness of a long-standing friendship.
Portraits of women painted by men, which have been canonized by Western art history, are rarely imbued with the same agency that Newton gives to his subject and friend. This idea of a talent agency followed me through rooms of landscape paintings, botanical studies, sculpture, clothing, baskets and photography.
To walk through rooms of such a variety of expressions of female creativity was a special experience – a rare experience, as female artists have been so emphatically ignored by art historians until relatively recently. It was inspiring to see such attention to the intentions of the artists in the curating of the exhibition by Sarah Milroy, with museum labels detailing the context in which the pieces were made.
Many of the artists featured have often been discussed in relation to their male counterparts: the Group of Seven who produced what has become the epitome of Canadian landscape paintings. The exhibition wishes to acknowledge the divergence of many female artists from the subject matter of their male counterparts’ “wildscape”.
The exhibit featured settler, native and immigrant artists whose works addressed the dramatic, and often painful, changes taking place at the time. These women addressed the themes of industrialization, environmental change, psychology, indigenous cultures and immigration experiences.
I fear, however, that by condensing such a wide range of mediums, subjects, subjects, artists, and styles into one exhibition, we risk ironing out the nuance of the work and intentions of each of these artists. Museum captions do not seem to be adequate markers of the amount of artistic variance within such a large exhibit.
I had hoped to leave the exhibition with a clearer understanding of the “modern movement” that consolidates these works. I found myself remembering the range of works I had seen, searching for the guiding thread that tied the works together, which contained the answers to questions such as “What were the main themes of the modern movement?” and “Who is the job?” included and excluded from our discourse around the movement?
I will definitely return to the exhibition. There are too many amazing works to fully experience in one visit. I have found the time spent admiring, questioning and analyzing these hitherto understudied works of female creativity to be encouraging and important as we continue to rewrite tired and patriarchal understandings of art movements.