Three Women’s Takes on The McMichael Collection’s Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment

Olinda Casimiro, Executive Director of the Art Gallery of Northumberland, Cynthia Reyes, author, former journalist and producer-director with the CBC, and Kim Aubrey, writer and art enthusiast, share their reactions to Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment, curated by Sarah Milroy and currently on exhibit at the McMichael Collection.

Emily Carr (1871–1945), Logger’s Culls, 1935, oil on canvas, 36 x 112.2 cm, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of Miss I. Parkyn, photo from the McMichael Collection’s website

Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment considers women artists during a time when a certain style and identity for “Canadian art” was being developed. So broadly speaking, what is Canadian art?

Olinda: Landscapes! However, this would be challenged by many. I remember many visits to the Art Gallery of Ontario that included a close look at the brush strokes and colours by Group of Seven (G7) members – think A.Y. Jackson’s pink snow. The G7 ascendancy and eventual popularity was a significant element of Canada’s story, developing out of and beyond the old colonial and American influences. However, it is only part of the story, and the story, of course, is not finished. Many artists, particularly women, were left somewhat behind and barely considered in modernism’s fast forward movement. The exhibition takes a fresh look at women artists during this period and addresses their unique place in Canadian art.

Paraskeva Clark (1898–1986) Self-Portrait, 1931–32 oil on cardboard 41 x 31 cm Collection of Museum London, Ontario 
Purchased 1994 94.A.36 © Estate of Paraskeva Clark, Photo from McMichael Collection 

Cynthia: Today’s Canadian art is not easily defined, and I certainly would not accept what the “gatekeepers” say it is. Not now, and not in the 1900’s.

As Uninvited proves, Canadian art of the early 1900’s went far beyond how the gatekeepers of the day defined it. Canadian women artists, even those who sometimes painted landscapes, were often creating more intimate works. Paintings of women as seen by women. Paintings of people, neighbourhoods, city life.

I love Russian-born artist Paraskeva Clark’s remark to the Group of Seven in an essay she wrote: “You, whose soul and mind understands the secret life of the forms of trees and rocks and skies, and is moved to tears by them. Why do the people and their struggles and their dreams not interest you?”

Uninvited also presents artistic works by Indigenous women of that period – stunningly beautiful beadwork and basketry. These were even more intimate works, most made to be worn, carried or used in the home.

Cynthia Reyes

Kim: My impression of early twentieth century Canadian art is mostly embodied by the Group of Seven. The artist was typically an outdoors-man (sometimes an outdoors-woman) sketching in the wilderness, then returning to his studio to paint. Now Canadian art feels so much more inclusive, diverse, and urban, and has more of a sense of humour. I think of Kent Monkman’s subversive narrative paintings and Shary Boyle’s delicate and grotesque figurines. Also the politically charged work of Denyse Thomasos, and Margaux Williamson’s extraordinary interiors, both on display during Uninvited’s run at the McMichael this fall.

Having seen the paintings by female Canadian artists during the period when most “Canadian art” was created by male painters, what are your thoughts about who is “invited” and who isn’t?

Cynthia:  There are levels of invitation and inclusion, aren’t there?

As a woman, I was overwhelmed and gratified by the wealth of art by women. But many of these women came from wealthy families or those who at least had the means to give them an arts education in other cities or countries. Most Canadian women of the era didn’t have those privileges.

I was delighted to see Indigenous women’s works included in what was really a show of White Canadian women’s art. As a Black woman, I soon realized that there were no other works by women of colour. In this setting, Prudence Heward’s portraits of Black women (Dark Girl, Young Girl with Rose and Girl in the Window) offered me a small point of connection. They were bold, unusual and went well beyond polite portraiture.

Yvonne McKague Housser (1898–1996)Marguerite Pilot of Deep River (Girl with Mulleins), c. 1936–40
oil on canvas 76.2 x 61 cm McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Gift of the Founders, Robert and Signe McMichael
1966.16.13 © Estate of Yvonne McKague Housser

Olinda: This is an extensive exhibition that looks at 34 early Canadian women artists, who changed the face of Canadian art. Uninvited takes us on a visual journey, and the curator, Sarah Milroy, invited Indigenous contemporaries to be part of the exhibition. For me, this begins to tell a more fulsome story of the role of early Canadian women artists and their rightful place in Canadian art history.

Uninvited helps to contextualize a period when men dominated the industry and a period that saw the emergence for the first time in Canada of a significant number of professionally trained women artists. Members of the G7 were friends and supporters of these artists, but alas never invited them to be part of the group.

Olinda Casimiro

Kim: Who was “invited” was certainly not about the quality of the work, since the female artists included in this exhibit made some powerful, skillful, and engaging work. Being “invited” depended on what the dominant culture of the time considered worthy themes for art and their idea of who could be an artist, which for the most part did not include women, indigenous artists or immigrants from cultures considered “foreign.” It also did not include beadwork, basketry and other textile work, which would have been dismissed as “craftwork” at the time.

Arthur Lismer (1885–1969) Emily Carr and the Group of Seven c. 1927 conté crayon on paper 9.6 x 15.8 cm 
Gift of The Robert and Signe McMichael Trust 

Does the difference between men and women affect the creative process?

Kim: The differences in how men and women were socialized and expectations around male and female roles have typically meant that women had less time and space to paint and were more likely to paint domestic scenes or interiors. On the other hand, artists like Emily Carr and Doris McCarthy seemed to follow the G7’s approach in their painting process, although Carr focused more on communities in the landscape and the effects of human activity on the land. 

Kim Aubrey

Olinda: Early Canadian women artists, like men, worked within their immediate spaces, allowing the viewer to be familiar with the surroundings but not so familiar. Upon close examination of their artwork, we see that they often succeeded in breaking loose from what was considered appropriate to a women’s expression for example in Isabel McLaughlin’s Tree and Prudence Heward’s, Dark Girl. They paid attention to themes of the importance of life – often painting children, young women, mothers and children, and other domestic activities – perhaps knowing what their audiences were expecting from women artists.

Cynthia: Writers often write about what they know or yearn for. Perhaps Uninvited’s women artists did the same. Many of their works either stayed close to home or revealed a longing for life outside the home. Though stereotypes existed (that women mainly painted pictures of pretty flowers). I hope today’s women can make art about whatever they darned well please.

Pegi Nicol MacLeod (1904–1949) Head of a Woman, c. 1930 oil on plywood 30.6 × 25 cm 
The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa Purchase, 1981 1981MP34, Photo from the McMichael Collection 

As a woman in the arts, what were your physical and emotional reactions to this extensive exhibit by women artists? Which artworks affected you most, and Why?

Cynthia: Joy. Sadness. Wonder.

Joy at being able to see this wealth of truly remarkable art by Canadian women of a hundred years ago. I knew about some of them and had seen their works, but who was to know that such outstanding work was being created by Canadian women at that time?

Sadness that many were not invited into the premier art spaces of the time. Even the Group of Seven, most of whom taught/mentored women artists, preferred to keep their group all-male.

Wonder at the range, depth and breadth of the works I saw. It made me also wonder what other works were overlooked or uninvited by yesterday’s gatekeepers. And today’s.

I was intrigued or moved by most of Paraskeva Clark’s paintings, all of Prudence Heward’s portraits and Florence Wyle’s and Frances Loring’s sculptures. But that’s just to start! The Cradleboard and Moss Bag by Elizabeth Katt Petrant (Anishinaabe) and Dress by Mrs. Walking Sun, were just two works by Indigenous artists that held me spellbound.

Elizabeth Katt Petrant (1891?–1922) Cradleboard and moss bag, 1919–1938 wood, cotton cloth, glass beads, metal  
65 × 27.5 × 25 cm  Royal Ontario Museum Collection, Toronto Gift of Madeline Katt Theriault 998.134.3.1 
With permission of the Royal Ontario Museum © ROM, Photo from the McMichael Collection

Kim: I felt a larger sense of ease in this space occupied by women’s art work, free to take up more space, like I belonged. I also felt some grief at not having seen many of these works sooner, and at glimpses into the lives of these women, their frustrations and struggles. The intricate and gorgeous beading on Elizabeth Katt Petrant’s moss-bag covering was particularly striking. Her colours and designs, and the bag’s purpose of carrying a baby, brought the piece to life for me.

And, although I’d seen Emily Carr’s paintings before, those showing the land after deforestation with one or two trees standing alone, struck me harder this time, maybe because I’ve been reading about forests, how the trees work together and rely on one another.

Emily Carr (1871–1945) Edge of the Forest c. 1935 oil on paper 86.7 x 58.4 cm Gift of Mrs. Doris H. Speirs,
Photo from the McMichael Collection 

Olinda: Well, I knew for sure I needed to experience this show – the title alone makes me curious – Uninvited. Sarah Milroy gave us a snapshot of women artists’ contributions during the modernist movement, and wonderful to see 200 works of art – paintings, photography, sculptures, drawings and film, alongside works by Indigenous female contemporaries.

I am very fond of Kathleen Munn’s work, Kathleen Munn (1887-1974) was one of the first Canadian women artists to embrace abstraction, a pioneer of modern art in Canada. I was struck by her cubist painting, Untitled (Two Figures in a Landscape) c. 1925. Munn was a devoted modernist – the technique is highly skilled – the figures are relaxed, leaning into one another, it’s intimate and personal. Fast forward three weeks, I am still thinking about it – but that’s what good art does. It stays with you.

Suzanne Duquet (1916–2000)   Group, 1941 oil on canvas 127 × 149.8 cm 
Collection of the Musée national des beaux arts du Québec Gift of the artist 1996.94
Photo: MNBAQ, Jean-Guy Kerouac © Estate of the artist , Photo from the McMichael Collection

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Diane Taylor says:

    Wow, amazing post that makes me feel I must go and experience this new show, “Uninvited” at the the McMichael Gallery. I was especially moved by Kim’s comment that she felt she felt more at ease among the women’s artwork, that she belonged here. Also, Olinda’s comment that this begins (begins!) to tell the story of women’s contribution to Canadian art. And Cynthia’s quote of the Russian-born artist’s preceptive comment to the Group of Seven … Loved this discussion of Canadian art.

    1. kimaubrey says:

      Thanks, Diane! Do try to see the show if you can. I think it’s on until mid-January.

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