Vancouver Art Gallery
French Moderns: Monet to Matisse 1850-1950
Affinities: Canadian Artists and France
On until May 20, 2019
Before New York, it was France that held the highest status as the birthplace of the latest art movements in the Western world. The exhibit, French Moderns: Monet to Matisse (1850-1950) at the Vancouver Art Gallery touches on a number of movements including Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Fauvism, Cubism and Surrealism. These movements were the groundwork for modern art as we know it today and indeed, continue to have a visible presence in the art world.
The exhibit, Affinities: Canadian Artists and France continues the dialogue around French influence on the art world, but brings it home to Canada. It was inevitable that Canadian art would show an influence from France, in part because of the strong ties between Quebec and France. Some Canadian artists would have even studied in France and then returned to Canada to interpret those influences in a Canadian context and with Canadian landscapes.
The Group of Seven and their contemporaries had a huge influence on what was considered a Canadian landscape. Art that spoke to the vast wilderness of Canada became important to Canadians and, although it presented an idealistic and in some ways unrealistic portrayal of Canada, it served to create a sense of nationalism and a distinct identity for Canadian art.
In the photos of art work by Emily Carr (above), the influence of art movements in France can be seen right away, and coincide with her time spent studying there. The first image is a very traditional study of a girl. Four years later she painted two woman having tea where her colours are darker and more dramatic, showing a French Modernist influence. In the third paintings – about a decade later – we can see her now famous style of painting emerging. France influenced her style, but Canada helped define her content.
But not all Canadian artists were painting landscapes. Possibly my favourite piece in these two exhibits is Afred Pellan’s Le bucheron, which shows Surrealist influences, but with strong figurative elements. His subject matter here, although not a landscape, is very Canadian. “Le bucheron” in English translates as “The Lumberjack”.
This exhibit continues on to show later works by Canadian artists who have been influenced by France, including Mary Scott and Genevieve Cadieux. This neatly ties 19th and 20th century movements in France to the modern art world in Canada.
These are two exhibits that are well worth seeing, but it’s not something to rush through – even though they are conveniently displayed together on the first floor. The art movements in France from 1850-1950 were complex and intertwined. The history of art is often represented on a fixed timeline, with movements neatly arriving and leaving on a schedule, each one making room for the next one. But this isn’t the reality of how they evolved. How these movements made their way around the world was just as varied, with conflict and sometimes opposing views on how they should be interpreted in a new environment.
As you walk through these two exhibits, take the time to read about the history and appreciate the complexity that came with the emergence of new ways of defining art during this time period. Understanding the complexity in our history gives us insight and perhaps even some peace about the complexity we inevitably face in our present. I love that art can help us do that.