MMFA, purchase, Horsley and Annie Townsend Bequest, Photo: MMFA, Christine Guest
Prudence Heward, "At the Theatre," 1928
Prudence Heward, "At the Theatre," 1928, oil on canvas, 40” x 40”
It’s taken almost a century, but some of Montreal’s best-known Jazz Age paintings are finally travelling west this fall as the Glenbow Museum in Calgary exhibits the touring show 1920s Modernism in Montreal: The Beaver Hall Group.
The exhibition of 140 works, mainly paintings and some sculptures, was nicknamed The Colours of Jazz when it opened last year at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. These modernist urban-oriented works were compared to jazz by both supporters and critics in the 1920s. The style and colours of the cityscapes and portraits were bold, in your face and far sassier than Quebec’s traditional scenes and values. The paintings were also different from those of the contemporaneous Group of Seven in Toronto.
“The aim is not harmonious tones but colours that dazzle like the screech of a trumpet,” art critic Albert Laberge wrote in the Montreal daily newspaper La Presse in reviewing Beaver Hall paintings in a 1922 exhibition. “The impression these colours create is similar to the feeling when a certain kind of jazz, transported, furiously flings out the most resounding, noisy piercing notes.”
Meanwhile, the critic for the Montreal Daily Star, Samuel Morgan-Powell, dismissed the same paintings as creating a “jazz wall.” Vivid pigments, he fumed, could not “excuse or cover up bad draughtsmanship.”
This diverse reaction is reminiscent of the way the bold landscapes of the Group of Seven were first reviewed. Both groups formed in 1920. The Group of Seven became immortal nationalistic icons while the Beaver Hall Group, quickly faded from view despite such talents as A.Y. Jackson and Edwin Holgate, also in the Group of Seven, and some of the highest profile women in Canadian art history: Anne Savage, Lilias Torrance Newton and Prudence Heward. A 1966 exhibition of the Beaver Hall Group at the National Gallery of Canada was originally intended to tour the West but, in the end, stayed in Ontario.
The original group included 20 artists sharing studio and exhibition space at 305 Beaver Hall Hill in downtown Montreal from 1920 to 1923. But another 10 artists are often associated with the group because of certain exhibitions and friendships that extended past those years. Half the group were women. This was unusual for the time and, according to a catalogue essay by Concordia University art historian Kristina Huneault, was “a turning point in the history of Canadian art.” However, this “turning point” was not really seen as a big deal until the 1960s, when feminist art scholars lauded the Beaver Hall Group as a mainly female enterprise. This show gives the men equal prominence. Call it a post-feminist resurrection.
Brian Foss, the exhibition’s co-curator, says it’s hard to ascertain the extent to which the group set out to promote women artists, as opposed to promoting modernist styles. “That said, we know from surviving documentation that many of the women of Beaver Hall were deeply appreciative of the chance that the group gave them to obtain criticism, advice and support from other artists,” he says. “And I have to assume that those feelings of support and nurturing – all of which were a product of the group dynamic – were important resources when it came to building careers as practicing artists.”
The Group of Seven’s membership was strictly male although some women did exhibit with them. Its artists deliberately stirred nationalism with landscapes devoid of people, buildings, farmland or other signs of human activity. The Beaver Hall Group, with no other agenda than modernism, specialized in urban scenes and portraits of stylish people who rarely got dirty hands. Rural scenes depicted a tamed landscape.
Storrs and Ann McCall, Estate of Lilias Torrance Newton © NGC
Lilias Torrance Newton, "Frances McCall," circa 1931
Lilias Torrance Newton, "Frances McCall," circa 1931, oil on canvas, 32” x 26”
Some of the Beaver Hall portraits – and the portraits are the highlight – are set against rural landscapes. But it’s clear most of the sitters are on their way to the theatre rather than to milk the cows. Examples include a pensive Frances McCall by Newton and Miss Audrey Buller by Randolph S. Hewton.
A signature painting in the exhibition is Heward’s At The Theatre, an unusual composition showing, from the rear, two seated women at the theatre. When exhibited in 1929, Laberge from La Presse loved it; the Star’s Morgan-Powell dismissed it.
Collection A. K. Prakash, Estate of Lilias Torrance Newton © NGC Photo Thomas Moore
Lilias Torrance Newton (1896-1980), "Nude in the Studio," 1933
Lilias Torrance Newton (1896-1980), "Nude in the Studio," 1933, oil on canvas, 203.2 x 91.5 cm
The most shocking picture, for a 1920s audience, is Newton’s Nude at the Studio, showing a lean, confident woman in green, high-heeled sandals, scarlet nail polish and nothing else. In a break from tradition, the model’s pubic hair is very visible. We don’t know the name of the model. But the bets are she loved jazz.
1920s Modernism in Montreal: The Beaver Hall Group runs Oct. 22 to Jan. 29 at the Glenbow Museum.
130 9 Ave SE, Calgary, Alberta T2G 0P3 View Map
Mon Closed (September - June); Tues to Sat 9 am – 5 pm; Sun noon - 5 pm. Adult $14, Seniors $10, Students $9, Family $32; Members and under 6, free. Glenbow Shop open Mon to Sat 11 am – 6 pm; Sun noon - 5:30 pm.