Rupert Lee, "Canadian Pictures at Wembley", The Canadian Forum, Aug. 1924

The London press has already commented favourably on the Canadian pictures at the Palace of Arts, Wembley. The present article by Mr. Rupert Lee, art critic of the Educational Outlook goes further. It is an analysis, not a mere appreciation. It is also, so far as we know, the first critical examination of Canadian painting by an outside judge. Mr. Lee writes with previous acquaintance with Canadian pictures. He differs from our local critics in having no personal friends or enemies among the artists he is discussing.

One’s first impression of the Canadian paintings at Wembley depends to a great extent on which room one enters first. Should you enter by the door nearest the turnstiles, you are likely to feel an apathy of disappointment, but should you enter by the other room you are almost certain to utter some mental ejaculation, or, if you are a less careful person, even to say out loud, ‘Hullo!’

In the first room, you will find principally paintings similar to those which find their way in such great numbers into our own Royal Academy. Many skillfully executed canvases which, however pleasing and decorous they may appear to the uninterested, have the least possible relation to painting as an art. In the second room, you will find hung not only most of the best works of the living Canadian painters but also two works by the late James W. Morrice, an artist known and esteemed by certain critics in this country; and in this room one has the feeling that Canadian art, whatever the level of its achievement measured against the world’s production, is very much alive. Moreover, it seems as if the new leaven was working from inside rather than being, as is so evident in English art, an influence borrowed elsewhere. That is the only comparison I make, nor do I suggest the superiority of one sort of impetus over the other; for not only are influences difficult to weigh, but their importance is not calculable. The young Canadian artist would probably assert that his aim was to get away from all influences – foreign ones at least – and this is to a great extent true; for, despite a certain affinity with Scandinavian painting which may be partly accidental and owing to the similarity of all snow scenery, his prime interest is to express in his own way what he himself has seen – the aspects of his own country.

Particularizing, one finds many reasons for considering Tom Thomson’s work as the type of this new spirit which has come into Canadian art. For one thing, we have, in this exhibition, a greater opportunity of seeing him as it were at work than we have with any of the other artists. A set of twelve studies from nature shows us his method for the accumulation and aborption of material, while a more considered canvas, The Jack Pine, expresses a constructive mood. His creed is a simple one. He makes of his picture a decoration, and its main beauty lies in the delicate adjustment of its component silhouettes. I imagine that the idea of a picture as a decoration, an idea long lost sight of amidst the evils of ‘literary’ art, has taken a strong hold upon the young Canadian painter and that it is this road which is opening up for him the idea of the picture as an absolute emotional value. [...] In the pictures under discussion one is aware of an oriental view-point in that the third dimension is of importance only so far as it affects and enriches the silhouette. This may seem a split hair, but its influence on the design is considerable. Instead of an insistence on weights and volumes we have an arrangement of shapes. There is a recession of planes, but more from a sense that the silhouettes lie one behind the other, and the sensation of perspective is intellectual rather than physical. This stylization of the third dimension is one of the oldest affections of conscious art and goes hand in hand with a disinclination to disturb the picture surface. It is the heart of the decorative idea.


Source: Rupert Lee, "Canadian Pictures at Wembley," The Canadian Forum 14 (August 31, 1924): 338-9

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