Collection of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts
Alberta Mistresses of the Modern: 1935 - 1975
Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton
March 10 to June 3, 2012
by Ross Bradley
The challenge for curators and art historians when dealing with art of the 20th century lies in defining what exactly modern art is and when it replaced the European Academy or even French Impressionism as the art of its time. Icons of Modernism from the National Gallery of Canada, on view at the same time as the Alberta Mistresses of the Modern; 1935 - 1975 starts its look at modern art with the Fauvists in 1905 and traces its development through Cubism, Surrealism, Futurism, and Dadaism to name just a few of the faces of modern art in the early part of the 20th century.
In Alberta, these changes came somewhat later and took on a distinctive regional flavor coloured by the unique sense of the landscape and independent spirit of the artists, as articulated in curator Mary-Beth Laviolette’s focused look at the introduction of modernism in the province – Alberta Mistresses of the Modern: 1935 - 1975. Though academic landscape traditions had already shifted with the Group of Seven prior to World War I, even this was not fully embraced until well into the middle part of the 20th century in Alberta.
The work of the ten women in the Alberta exhibition traces the changes taking place in the studios throughout North America at this time. In the work of Annora Brown, we see the progression from the academic approach to landscape and still life to a vibrant cubist interpretation of rural Alberta in Foothills Village. Marion Nicoll, one of the most influential artists in Alberta in the 20th century, also started with a traditional approach but soon began to reduce her subjects to graphic abstract forms such as her 1963 canvas Morley Reserve. Nicoll would continue to explore emotional expression through her automatic drawings which took her later work into the realm of the non-objective.
Two artists, Dorothy Henzell Willis and Laura Evans Reid, bring a decidedly European expressionist approach to the prairie landscape. Their dark brooding colours and dynamic brushwork are in stark contrast to the work of Margaret Shelton whose paintings and prints carry on the Canadian landscape traditions of the Group of Seven. Also bringing a European flavor to the scene is Sibyl Budde Laubental, whose mostly traditional clay work seems somewhat out of place in this collection.
Reid also introduced an element of social commentary into her work as seen in the 1937 work Social Credit Meeting. Ella May Walker and Helen Stadelbauer also capture, in their work, the challenges of the urbanization of society. In her Edmonton Oil Refinery of 1954-55, Walker’s massive industrial landscape towers over the small human figure trudging to his daily grind. Stadelbauer’s Rooftops, New York from 1948-49 also depicts an impersonal over crowded cityscape devoid of human presence. It is Stadelbauer, who takes the largest step away from the traditional art forms with her 1976 op‑art Stacking Cubes.
Always difficult to categorize are the whimsical images of Janet Mitchell. This self-taught artist was an important part of the Calgary art scene for many years and her magical compositions such as Proportional Representation from 1973 explore the use of colour and shape in a spontaneous yet beautifully controlled composition. In Edmonton, the central figure in the change to a modern approach was Thelma Manarey. Although always rooted in nature, her canvases and prints became more and more abstract as seen in Sun Rise, Sun Set with its fractured forms adrift on a snow white ground.
The one thing that cannot be denied is the important place these ten women held in the history of Alberta’s visual arts community. Just as Alberta’s Famous Five secured a voice for women in a male-dominated political system, these women challenged the old boys’ club that was the norm in the visual arts world for centuries.