Eric Brown, "Canadian art in Paris", Canadian Forum, Sept. 1927

The recent exhibition of Canadian art in Paris came at an opportune moment. There had been rumours there that the most original and interesting phase of modern art at the two British Empire Exhibitions was the Canadian, and these rumours had been translated into convictions by those of the French Ministry of Fine Arts, who had seen it either in being or in reproduction. The invitation to Canada to exhibit at the Jeu de Paume, which came as a result of this, was therefore an opportunity not to be missed. Paris is the most critical and capricious art audience in the world and there are few who present art of any kind to its verdict without a good deal of trepidation. To do so at the Jeu de Paume is even more of a venture. The galleries of the foreign section of the Luxembourg are the Mecca of most artistically aspiring nations and their gates are not easily captured. The honour, therefore, to Canadian art was all the greater.

The Wembley Exhibition, strengthened by retrospective groups of the work of J. W. Morrice and Tom Thomson was duly installed and the critical verdict not unnaturally awaited with some anxiety. This verdict, while it contained a modicum of the inevitable effort to be funny for the sake of the tabloid addict, was generally uniform, and greatly generous in its appreciation.

Morrice, who seems inextricably enshrined in the Parisian tradition as a Frenchman, was obviously expected to run away with the honours, if not to monopolize them. Interest, however, was quickly divided with the more thorough-going, if less sophisticated, Canadianism. The Thomson group became one of the most popular spots in the galleries and every epithet implying interest, originality, nationality, individuality, not to mention Úpatant, was rife.

It is, needless to say, the firm French belief that all good artistic roads start straight from Paris wherever they may happen to lead, but before the work of Thomson and the movement of his time, such a fountain and origin was difficult to maintain.

Another difficulty for the critic was his ignorance of Canada as a country, which seemed far more complete than anything encountered in London, and if it did nothing else, the exhibition conveyed the Canadian idea and country more vividly than has probably ever been done since Jacques Cartier attempted to describe the St. Lawrence. One critic expressed this rather aptly when he said that any landscape ever painted in France made you feel the presence of man, but that in the Canadian landscapes you feel his absence.

There is no doubt that the hard brilliance of light, the sharp contrasts of colour and the immensity of forms was something of a shock. The sincerity and vitality of their treatment at the same time convinced the open-minded of their truth and the criticisms uniformly acknowledged them with great generosity. Many painters wanted to take the first boat to Quebec, and it will be surprising if there are not visits from a number of them at least.

The situation was summed up at the close of the exhibition by several of the Ministry officials, who declared that the Canadian exhibition had received the best press that any foreign exhibition had received for many years.

A small group of West Coast Indian sculpture in agilite, stone, and wood, lent by the national Museum at Ottawa, was included in the exhibition and produced so much interest from both sculptors and critics that it will be surprising if totem poles and mask motives do not appear in subsequent Salons. One of the most distinguished and discerning of the critics, Mr. Thiebault-Sisson of Le Tempts, went so far as to discern in the decorative treatment of some of the modern landscapes the same indigenous impulse which had produced the highly stylized and decorative motives of the B. C. Indians. It is an interesting point and one that may be made a future battleground in the studios and round the club fires during the coming winter.

Canadian art is on the foreign maps. It is accepted as a vigorous natural expression, partaking as all art should of national characteristics, both mental and physical. With such honour received in England, France, and America, it is conceivable that it may shortly receive the appreciation due to it in its own country. There are signs of a growing interest on every side, and if the pains of recognition are sometimes rather acute, this is one of the most certain signs of its value, as such has been the history of all art, ancient and modern.

Source: Eric Brown, "Canadian art in Paris," The Canadian Forum 8 (September 31, 1927): 360-1

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