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BriefsReportTable of ContentReport IndexRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and SciencesRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and SciencesRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences

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1. We have already observed in several earlier chapters the keen interest of Canadians in the arts, particularly in painting. We have, however, hitherto referred rather to the interest of the amateur or the consumer. We now turn to the producers, the painters themselves, who have shown us that Canadian painting is now "on the march", as was said in the course of our Montreal hearings. We found it of great interest to hear the views of those painters who undertook to tell us about this forward movement and of the way in which they are trying, through their art, to express the intangible qualities of our landscape and of our society.

2. Canadian painters individually and in groups have given us generous co-operation. We have heard from the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts, from the Canadian Group of Painters, from the Canadian Arts Council and from the Federation of Canadian Artists. We have also heard from groups of young artists and amateur painters who have discussed not only contemporary tendencies in Canadian painting but the various problems which confront the Canadian artist. Finally, we have received Special Studies on Canadian painting from two leading authorities, one in French and one in English-speaking Canada. Of these we make free use in the observations which follow.


3. We heard, from eminent authorities on the subject, views on the past and present development of Canadian painting, the influences both native and foreign which have been brought to bear on it, its present quality and its probable development in the future. We were struck by the fact that our informants, although they come from different parts of the country, and although they did not all belong to the same school of criticism, were in general agreement.

4. The first truly Canadian school of painting was the Group of Seven; it was in the work of this group that Canadian painters began to find their own style. In their paintings it is possible to observe a sincere effort at originality combined with attention to technique, characteristics of Canadian painters in general, whatever their school.

5. The significance of The Group of Seven can perhaps be appreciated most clearly through an examination of the work of the distinguished


Canadian painters which preceded it. Morrice, Suzor-Coté, and earlier, Kreighoff and Paul Kane were great Canadian painters, but they worked in isolation and their personal reputations created no recognition for Canadian painting as such. Morrice, in his training, in his manner of life, and even in his paintings, belonged more to the world at large than to Canada. He died in Tunis. It is perhaps symbolic that Tom Thomson, whose work is so closely associated with the Group of Seven, and who contributed so much to the development of that new Canadian spirit in painting which has been referred to as romantic naturalism, should have met his death in one of the northern lakes which his paintings had made famous.

6. We were privileged to hear not only about the Group of Seven but from it in listening to one of its original members, Mr. Arthur Lismer. In explaining and estimating the importance of the work of this Group, Mr. Lismer said:

"If there was any value in the work of the Group of Seven, it was because the group represented the desire of men, coming together from many different places and occupations immediately after the War, to portray to the Canadian people in a new and striking way, the country they had been fighting for. I think we felt at that time that our job was to make people see what the land looked like and to make them understand that it was not just a place to be exploited industrially. Men like Thomson, Jackson and Harris, going up to the North Country, were trail-blazers in a new sense."1

7. The Group of Seven embodied what has been called a descriptive and romantic tradition. That is to say, while restricting themselves to the essentials of the object depicted, they undertook to suggest through, but beyond the immediate object, the whole grandeur and wildness of the Canadian landscape. Some modern painters, noting unfortunate imitations of this style, point out the danger that it may give rise to a kind of static and passive observation of external objects. This is not to deny its profound significance in the development of a distinct Canadian school of painting. At first this school was confined to the English-speaking members which constituted the original Group of Seven. Later, as the Canadian Group of Painters, it included French-speaking painters who, like their English-speaking colleagues, were primarily interested in expressing the Canadian atmosphere through Canadian scenery.

8. However, the typical contribution of French-speaking painters to Canadian painting has not been in the style of the Group of Seven. French work is represented rather by a group of young Montreal painters. About 1940 those young painters were profoundly influenced by certain artists from abroad. Numerous exhibitions of their work were held and these, through their novelty, provoked animated and even passionate discussions which interested not only the expert but the general public. Then,


Alfred Pellan returned to Canada. During the dozen years or so of his absence in Paris, he had acquired a considerable reputation for his fresh and audacious work. Almost before his first Canadian exhibition was finished, he was attracting students and experimenting with fresh techniques.

9. The tendency of this new school is to move away from romantic naturalism to the abstract painting which is international in vogue. The death in 1942 of Clarence Gagnon, who represented romantic naturalism in its most cultivated form may, perhaps, mark the end of an age. Mr. Lismer himself, whom we have already quoted as a member of the Group of Seven, directed our attention to the members of the new school. He pointed out that the Group of Seven, the pioneers, as we have heard, of a truly Canadian school of painting, had felt the need to get away from the cities. Their great contribution was that they had seen and shown a pattern in Canadian landscape. Their modern counterparts on the other hand, while carrying on their work in design, are coming back to society and through their work are associating the arts more closely with Canadian life. They show a lack of self-consciousness about Canadian art; what is important to them is that there should be art in Canada. "Their paintings are designed to express a new Canadian spirit and are not merely a consequence of looking at the Canadian landscape."2

10. This remarkable and disinterested appreciation by one of Canada's senior painters who has used his talents in quite a different direction seemed to us both interesting and significant. In this we find evidence of a continuity in Canadian painting which rises above differences between various schools of interpretation. The author of one of our special studies agrees with Mr. Lismer in his appreciation of the work of the new school and remarks that international influences have not been inimical to a vigorous Canadianism; on the contrary, new developments, international as well as national, have helped to create a new Canadian art. This point was confirmed by the remark of one of the younger painters who appeared before us at Montreal:

"Canadian painting is Canadian only by reason of being first of all painting; that is to say, it discloses a spirit which is superior to and transcends the subject matter. The work of art will have its principal value in the impression it creates upon the mind and not through its subject matter."3

This new school contains both English and French-speaking painters, although artists recognize certain differences between them. The former, we are told, convey more clearly in their painting their intellectual experiences and their sense of the uncertainty of the times in which we live. Their French colleagues express more joyously their delight in life, in thought and in emotion. Both are equally remote from romantic naturalism.


Canadian painting no longer seeks to express itself through the Canadian landscape but for all that, it is maintained, it is nonetheless Canadian.

11. We were naturally interested to learn of the appreciation abroad of Canadian painting. Canada's earlier reputation in this field was achieved by the original work of the romantic naturalists which aroused the admiration of critics at the Wembley Exhibition in 1924-25 and at the Exposition of the Jeu de Paume in Paris in 1927. Modern Canadian painting can no longer exploit the novelty of the Canadian landscape. Our young abstract painters are being judged on exactly the same footing as are the abstract painters of other countries; that they are able to hold their own may be judged from the success of Pellan's exhibition in Paris before the war and of recent exhibitions of Robert LaPalme in Rome and in Paris. Canada's reputation in the arts, both at home and abroad, is based mainly on her painting. All those who came before us recognized the importance of Canadian painting both as an art and as an expression of Canadianism.


12. In spite of this, the Canadian painter faces very serious problems. Painting in Canada is not yet fully accepted as a necessary part of the general culture of the country, to the detriment both of the painters and of other Canadians. Canadian painting does not receive sufficient recognition from either official or private sources. The result is that in spite of the great enthusiasm of the painters and of important groups of amateurs, they are still somewhat isolated from the rest of the population. Art galleries, as we have said, do all they can to bridge the gulf, but they have not sufficient means to allow them to encourage Canadian painting by regular purchases of Canadian pictures. The result is that, although there is Canadian painting of very high quality, the Canadian public needs more Canadian painters and more Canadian paintings. The Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts, for example, spoke to us of "the quantity production which we so badly need in this country of quality work".4

13. Yet our small group of Canadian painters in more ways than one makes a notable contribution to the cultural life of our country. We heard of an art centre founded partly through the generosity of Canadian painters who helped to raise the necessary funds through the gift of their paintings. Our painters, as they themselves have told us, constantly lend their work without fee to exhibitions of all kinds, although they not infrequently receive it back in a somewhat damaged state. We heard from the Northern Ontario Art Association of the generosity with which painters of wide reputation helped to organize beginners' courses in the fine arts without any remuneration to themselves. We had a similar expression


of appreciation from the West Vancouver Sketch Club. We cannot but admire the restraint and discretion with which Canadian painters have spoken of their material problems and of their needs.

14. We have also noticed their strong sense of the freedom and integrity of the artist. The brief of the Federation of Canadian Artists states:

"The arts must not be dominated, regimented or exploited to serve special or narrow ends; they are an unfolding and evolving expression of the inner consciousness of the individual or society. . . . The arts can be stimulated, encouraged, fostered, assisted, and they may have new horizons opened to them, with nothing but advantage. But if their natural development is interfered with, no matter what the immediate results may be, the final consequences will be destructive both to the arts and to the power that has undertaken to dictate to them."5

Speaking further on the question of an organization for the co-ordination of the arts, the representative of this Federation said:

". . . This organization, however it is set up, must avoid impinging upon the freedom and independence of the artists. The artist must not be left in the position of being subject to direction as to the nature of his work."6

This does not mean that our painters wish to work in isolation or that they hold themselves aloof from society. They have, on the contrary, expressed both their national and their international interests. They are conscious, as we have suggested, of the importance of making painting a force in Canadian society. The Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts pointed out that the Academy wanted to be regarded as a working organization, existing to serve the public rather than the particular group which it represented. Canadian painters insist at once on their liberty and on their necessary function in society. They are, however, no narrow nationalists. The Canadian Group of Painters urged an increase in invitations to painters abroad to hold exhibitions in Canada.

15. At the same time, Canadian painters, as we have shown, feel that they could serve their country better if there was in Canada a more general recognition of the worth and dignity of the artist; and, in particular, if there were more opportunities for the artist to live by his art without resorting to other pursuits. Asked by the Commission whether economic conditions were favourable to the practice of art, Mr. Pellan replied, "We are compelled to perform certain types of work which are irrelevant to our interests as artists; we are quite unable to live from our art alone."7 A young amateur from Chicoutimi, that part of the province of Quebec where so many Canadian painters, abstractionists and naturalists alike, go frequently for inspiration, was more outspoken:


"Just as much as workmen, artists have the right to eat, to live in a house, and even to sleep without too much worry. There should not be men who have the right to live and others who have the duty to die of starvation. To continue the suffering of a great company of talented artists under the absurd pretext that the work of an artist is not productive is part of the coarseness which dishonours a nation."8

16. The Federation of Canadian Artists urged that to provide the artist with the means of a livelihood was for the nation a good investment from every point of view:

"The cultivation of the arts is not a luxury but an essential prerequisite to the development of a stable national culture; and for this reason justifies the expenditure of very considerable effort and money. Just as language is necessary to the development of reason, so is the more fundamental language of the arts essential to the development of the basic emotional and imaginative nature that underlies reason and dominates action. Without an adequate development of this submerged seven-eighths of man's nature, any society that he creates must lack inner integrity, self-reliance, cohesion, and awareness of itself as an entity; . . ."9

17. We have received with interest a number of suggestions on the means of making possible for our painters a greater degree of material independence and, as a consequence, greater liberty and action, and more time for creative work. Various associations interested in the arts, such as the Northern Ontario Art Association, the Canadian Federation of Home and School and the Canadian Arts Council, suggested that established painters be given bursaries or awards which would permit them to devote, for longer or shorter periods, their entire time to their art. The Federation of Canadian Artists even recommends a title for these bursaries or awards: "Dominion of Canada Art Scholarships". These would be in Canada the equivalent of the pensions which certain other countries grant to their poets and to their artists.

18. This same Association adds to the first proposal for grants a series of recommendations for the initiation of a national scheme in the arts similar to the War Artists Project of the United States. This project, which would be supported by the state, would inspire our painters to produce works of which the best would be included in the collections of the National Gallery. Other works more purely pictorial or descriptive in nature would form the nucleus of collections intended to depict certain areas or certain aspects of Canadian life; for example, a series of such paintings would be commissioned to decorate our public buildings at home and our diplomatic missions abroad. Finally, through the co-operation of an appropriate agency, the sale of works of art of all kinds to important Canadian institutions, whether public or private, would be encouraged.


The Federation of Canadian Artists includes also in its proposal the commissioning of representative works of art, demonstrating different techniques and varying achievements in Canadian painting, intended for sale to local museums. An important part of this ambitious project, which has also been recommended by the Calgary Allied Arts Centre, is that in addition to providing our best painters with rewarding commissions, it would create currents of curiosity about Canadian painting which are as necessary to the vitality of art as the circulation of the blood is to the life of the body.

19. Although such schemes as have been suggested are desirable and necessary for the encouragement of Canadian painting, the Canadian Arts Council reminds us that what the artist really wants and needs is an increase in regular purchases and commissions. In Canada, it is very difficult for an artist to live by these means. The National Gallery is the most important institution to make a regular practice of purchasing Canadian works of art; it was suggested to us that the average sum of $32,000 which the Gallery has been able to devote to its entire annual purchases during the last ten years is far from adequate and that the proportion which can be devoted to the acquisition of Canadian paintings is quite insufficient. Voluntary societies are in agreement in recommending purchases on a much more generous scale. They urge also, however, the importance of organizing throughout the country more numerous and representative exhibitions of painting in order to educate the public taste. In the long run, these exhibitions, by making people everywhere more interested in and familiar with Canadian painting, would encourage private purchases. These exhibitions would therefore not only educate the Canadian public but would help to support the artist.

20. That the education of the Canadian public is a matter of first importance has been stated to this Commission on numerous occasions. The Director of the National Gallery did good service to the cause of painting in Canada by pointing out that exhibitions held in Canada do not produce such satisfactory results as exhibitions of Canadian painting held abroad. Canadian painting has been exhibited in England, France, South Africa, Australia, the United States, Italy and Belgium. These exhibitions not only brought to the artist an increased prestige, but also gave him an opportunity to sell abroad certain of his works; art exhibitions which are held in Canada do not produce the same happy results. The Société Canadienne d'Enseignement Post-Scolaire recommended that exhibitions abroad should be increased but that at the same time everything should be done to obtain greater practical results from exhibitions of painting in Canada.

21. A number of other suggestions have been made to us for increasing the interest of the Canadian public in Canadian art. For example, the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Northern Ontario Art Association believe


that a campaign to increase the circulation of Canadian Art, of which there are now published six thousand copies, would arouse a helpful interest in Canadian painting. Other associations propose that the government assist financially the publication of articles on Canadian art and of albums of Canadian painting. The reproduction of paintings in the National Gallery has also inspired proposals which would give help to our painters. The Saskatchewan Arts Board states that reproductions of Canadian works should be exhibited in our schools so that Canadian art would become a daily reality for the pupils. At present, unfortunately, the public appreciation is so limited that the Art Gallery of Toronto, having begun the experiment of publishing each year a large scale reproduction of the work of one Canadian painter, was forced to discontinue the venture for want of public interest and financial support. We recall, however, that the Sculptors' Society of Canada, commenting on "piratical" activities which extend even to federal agencies, maintained that artists should receive a commission on all reproductions.

22. Another suggestion that was made to us for the assistance, or rather for the proper support of painters, was the payment of a fee to artists who lend their paintings for exhibitions. As we have mentioned, they now lend their work without charge and often receive back after a considerable interval a damaged painting which they might have been able to sell privately. In the United States it may happen that all paintings exhibited in an official exhibition are purchased by the sponsors, but more commonly there is an agreement that a certain proportion of them will be thus acquired. It was proposed to us that some such practice should be followed in Canada.

23. We have already mentioned a number of other suggestions for increasing in Canada an understanding and appreciation of the work of Canadian painters. It is generally agreed that the educational work of the National Gallery could be extended; and that more might be done through the C.B.C. and the National Film Board to stimulate public interest which has already responded warmly to efforts made in the past.

24. Canadian painting, through its honesty and its artistic value, has become above all the other arts the great means of giving expression to the Canadian spirit. Canadian painting has become one of the elements of our national unity, and it has the particular advantage of being able to express its message unimpeded by the barriers imposed by differences of language. But in order to perform his civilizing function, both within and without our country, the Canadian painter must receive appropriate encouragement. The problem facing Canadians is to find a practical means of giving to the painter a place in our national life as important as the place which he himself in his art gives to the moral and material aspects of our way of living.

* From: Canada. Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences. Report. Ottawa : King's Printer, 1951. By permission of the Privy Council Office.

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