Sunday, December 13, 2015

Gender and the Beaver Hall Group

Recently I attended an engaging lecture by art historian and Concordia professor Kristina Huneault on "Gender and the Beaver Hall Group." This is one of the many events that complement the current retrospective at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. She noted that the BHG was roughly half women, but is often thought of as being a women's group. (Check out the group's Wikipedia entry if you have any doubt.) The thrust of her talk was “Why do we think of the BHG as a women’s group?” and “What happens if we add the male members back into the group?”

Why this concentration on the women? Several reasons, as Huneault explained.

Country Scene, Anne Savage,
member of BHG, painted (mostly) stylized landscape
First, in 1966 Nora McCullough of the National Gallery organized a show about the BHG that focused on the women. Charged with putting together a traveling show that would introduce Eastern artists to Western Canada, she contacted Anne Savage, one of the few group members active at the time, to inquire about individual painters. It was only when Savage began to talk about the BHG and the ongoing friendships among the female members that McCullough grasped onto the “hook” of the BHG, and put together a show focused on its women. Until the current show at the MMFA, there has not been any other retrospective of the Beaver Hall Group.

One film was made about the BHG, "By Woman’s Hand", and it profiled three of the women painters. Two books have been published about the women members, “Painting Friends: The Beaver Hall Woman Painters” by Barbara Meadowcraft, 1998 and “The Women of Beaver Hall: Canadian Modernist Painters” by Evelyn Walters, 2005. (I have read the first of these books and it is rather dry.) So we see that the women of the group have had more exposure than have the men.

Baie-St-Paul, A.Y. Jackson,
member of BHG and Group of Seven, painted wilderness and towns 
Secondly, the group was more important to its women members because they had few other options. The male members could join other groups, like the Pen and Pencil Club, that were closed to women. The best-known male members, A.Y Jackson and Edwin Holgate, also belonged to the Group of Seven, and they are remembered for their membership in the Toronto group, not for their membership in the BHG. Likewise Adrien Hébert, who is well-known in Quebec but not as a member of the BHG.

Self-Portrait, Edwin Holgate,
member of BHG and Group of Seven, painted landscape, nudes, portraits
Third, there has been some backlash to the primacy of the Group of Seven in Canadian art history that has caused some to have another look at the BHG, its contemporary. Huneault made the point that people love to think in binary terms. Group of Seven: painters of wilderness, monolithic, Toronto-based, establishment, all-male. Beaver Hall Group: painters of the city, diverse, Montreal-based, working in obscurity, all-female. Not all factual, but sometimes the nuances get lost in binary thinking.

Corner Peel and Ste-Catherine, Adrien Hébert,
member of the BHG, painted urban landscape
Fourth, Huneault pointed out that Janson’s iconic “History of Art” published in 1962, did not mention a single female artist. It is understandable that feminist art historians, beginning in the 1960’s, tried to correct this situation, and were happy to highlight the BHG women.

Self-Portrait, Lilias Torrance Newton,
member of the BHG, portraitist
Huneault didn’t really answer her second question. But she was pleased that the current exhibition celebrates the men of the group alongside the women, and would like to see more research done on those men who are less well-known.

This current retrospective of the BHG, which has been very well-attended, raises questions about many dualities: male/female, Montreal/Toronto, cityscape/wilderness, English/French. But, as so often in life, the reality is more complicated than easy.


Dianne Robinson said...

The Women's Art Society of Montreal was formed to do for women what the Pen and Pencil Club did for men. It's unfortunate that there is no mention of it at the MMFA exhibit. This might interest you - and I'm wondering if it's a relative of our high school math teacher.

Heather Dubreuil said...

I believe our teacher Mary Craze did have a sister, though I don't remember her name. Thanks for the link to a very interesting document. To me, it shows that the WASM began with more serious intentions than is evident in its current form.