Alberta Foundation for the Arts, Bates: Art Gallery of Alberta Collection
Dorothy Henzell "Children in the Wood," date unknown
Dorothy Henzell Willis, "Children in the Wood", date unknown, oil on paper, 28” x 35.5”
ALBERTA: Rough Country: The Strangely Familiar in Mid-20th Century Alberta Art, Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton, Oct. 3 to Jan. 31
Expressionism gripped Alberta artists in the 20th century. This show focuses on five of them – Maxwell Bates, William Leroy Stevenson, John Snow, Dorothy Henzell Willis and Laura Evans Reid – with some 50 works that place Alberta within the context of a larger art history.
Expressionism freed artists’ subjective ideas, emotions and feelings through vibrant non-naturalistic colours, distorted forms, shallow space and bold patterns. These Alberta Expressionists also expressed empathy for humanity and formed close bonds amongst themselves.
Bates said he and Stevenson, a fellow Calgarian, were an “enormous help to each other.” The two found confirmation for the direction of their work during a 1929 trip to the Art Institute of Chicago, where they were exposed to Post-Impressionist paintings from Europe.
Snow took evening classes from Bates in Calgary for two years after the Second World War. Influenced by British artist Henry Moore and the vibrant colours he saw in India during his wartime service, Snow created luminous lithographs. His figurative work and still lifes have a timeless quality.
Maxwell Bates, "Eroded Land," date unknown
Maxwell Bates, Eroded Land, date unknown, oil on canvas, 14” x 30”
One of the most important colour lithographers in Western Canada from 1953 until at least 1986, Snow created 450 lithograph editions, often of five colours each, on a hand press. He also printed Bates’ and Stevenson’s lithographs in his basement studio. The show’s title, Rough Country, comes from a 1964 lithograph by Snow that shows a country road juxtaposed against a glowing red sky.
Driven by social compassion, Willis often worked figuratively, conveying a sense of anxiety in her closely packed compositions. Children in the Wood, for instance, alludes to youngsters displaced by war. Munch’s The Scream made a formative impression on Willis as a teen; its influence comes through in some of her work.
Reid also took an expressive approach in paintings that reflected on the horrors of war and the hard lives of the Ukrainian diaspora in Alberta, among other themes.
Besides creating painterly landscapes, the Alberta Expressionists – all born before 1918 – responded with empathy to social issues that affected families, workers, refugees, casualties of the Depression and other marginalized people.
Their images are less a depiction of objective reality and more an expression of their subjective feelings.
“They didn’t have a very sunny view of Alberta,” says Mary-Beth Laviolette, who curated the show with Ruth Burns. “They saw it through a much darker lens.”