In ‘Affinities: Canadian Artists and France,’ Visuals of the Past Demand Relevance to the Modern Age

Saturday 09th, February 2019 / 16:01
by Jamila Pomeroy

Photo by Rodney Graham

Drawn from the Vancouver Art Gallery’s permanent collection, Affinities: Canadian Artists and France explores the significance of French modernism, cultural theory, and the impact these cultural and visual revolutions have had on Canadian art. Tracing a century of avant-garde art making, the exhibition displays art informed by French intellectuals of the mid-to-late 20th century.

“The exhibition looks at the affinities: the Canadian artist’s [connection to] France, in terms of the art that was produced there, but also in terms of the philosophy and thinking that has come out of France over the last 120 years,” says curator Grant Arnold.

Broken into three sections, viewers explore impressionism, post-impressionism, the art of 1950s Montreal, and both French and French-Canadian surrealism. “The first section focuses on artists who studied in France in the late 19th or early 20th century who were influenced by impressionism and post-impressionism,” explains Arnold.

This visual exposé of French art touches on Montreal’s relationship with France: in this, we discover these artists of true innovation were merely inspired by their French forefathers, far from the misconceptions that they were only replications and transplants of the revolutionary scene. Featuring the likes of James Wilson Morrice, Maurice Cullen, A. Y. Jackson, and Emily Carr, we are able to see the direct impact French culture has had on Canadian technique and the statements these works superimpose.

The second section of the exhibit explores the abstract: in response to the French surrealist poet André Breton, Paul-Émile Borduas and Jean-Paul Mousseau undertake visual revolutions based on automatic writing.

“It looks at painting in Montreal in the ‘40s and ‘50s,” says Arnold, who sees the France-to-Montreal exodus as paramount to current Canadian artistic culture. “At that time, the discussions of art-making in Montreal were probably the most advanced in the country, or at least the most up to date in terms of modernism. There were a number of artists, Alfred Pellan being one of them, who had been in France for quite a long time. Alfred Pellan came back to Montreal at the beginning of the Second World War, after living in Paris for 14 years. He was very familiar with cubism and surrealism and recent developments of French painting.”

With more recent works of the exhibit largely informed by French theorists, and aligned deeply with the post-modernist feminism of that time, viewers obtain a deeper understanding of just how interdependent these visual movements were with the voice of the people, and further, statements reacting on the societal and political states of the time. With artists such as Mary Scott and Lucy Hogg, we are given visual waves of French theorists such as Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva.

Affinities: Canadian Artists and France runs from February 16-May 20 at the Vancouver Art Gallery.