Fifty years ago, in 1967, I came from the United States to teach art at the University of Alberta. On arrival, I was amazed to find that despite its being Canada’s Centennial Year, the history of Canadian art was not taught there, or indeed at many universities across Canada. Happily, this is no longer the case.

At the time, however, I was shocked. Surely Canada had an art history, something with which Canadian art students, whether in studio or academic classes, should be familiar. I made it a point to find out, and went on to present courses on the subject throughout my 37-year teaching career. I was not alone. Encouraged by the new spirit of nationalism following the Centennial, others took up the cause as well. 

I state this as a preamble to this exhibition  Canadian Mosaic: Celebrating 150 Years of Art from the Permanent Collection, now at Fredericton’s Beaverbrook Art Gallery. Not only because an understanding of the history of our art is a relatively recent phenomenon, but without that understanding we would be poorer for it. That is why exhibitions like this are so important.

The gallery has a rich collection of Canadian art, in keeping with the mandate conceived by its founder, Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, in 1959. The responsibility for selecting the most appropriate works for the current exhibition fell to senior curator Jeffrey Spalding. The nearly 250 works that he chose fill all but two of the gallery’s available exhibition spaces. Considering that he had to choose from among over seven thousand works, the result cannot avoid reflecting his personal taste. In all likelihood I or any other curator might well have chosen differently, but there would undoubtedly have been significant overlap, as many works in the gallery’s Canadian collection are iconic masterpieces.

Some of Spalding’s choices predate 1867 by a wide margin. This is entirely appropriate, as a rich artistic tradition existed in Canada long before Confederation. The earliest work in this exhibition is The Intendant’s Palace, Quebec,  painted in 1760 by a little-known French artist, Dominic Serres. This is a full century before Confederation. In contrast, the most recent is Françoise Sullivan’s large (152.4 x 182.8 cm) painting, Only Red, completed in 2016. Probably the most important pre-Confederation painting in the exhibition is Cornelius Krieghoff’s  Merrymaking, a work painted in 1860 that rapidly became an iconic stereotype of rural life in Lower Canada.

Canada’s art history is a history of regionalism, and Spalding has successfully covered all the bases, from British Columbia to the Prairies, Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic provinces. Nevertheless, geography has not been his sole consideration. Until relatively recently, works by women, indigenous artists, and folk artists tended to be overlooked or ignored. Spalding has taken pains to ensure that this exhibition is inclusive.

In keeping with the frontier reality of 18th and 19th century Canada, where there was very little formal art education, many of our early artists were self-taught or amateurs. Military officers, wives of officials, priests, and others, many with the most rudimentary of training and experience, did their best to record the scenes and events of their day. However, the presence of such works in The Canadian Mosaic does not reflect mere dedication to completing a checklist. Spalding has a long history as a gallery director, curator, and teacher, and the breadth and balance of his curatorial taste is evident throughout the exhibition.

Certain touchstones had to be showcased. For many, the Group of Seven represents the essence of Canadian painting. And indeed, several fine examples of that school have been included. But there was art in Canada before the Group and art after the Group. It would be far too simplistic to equate Canadian art with nature and landscape, despite the strong suspicion that Canadian artists have traditionally seemed more comfortable with trees than with nudes. 

The Group of Seven and their contemporaries were trying to give a voice to a uniquely Canadian art based more on subject matter than on advanced techniques. They were heavily influenced by traditional European styles learned through study abroad, or learning from those that did, in places like England, France, and the Netherlands. In time, Harris and Varley would prove to be exceptions to this generalization. But when abstraction hit Canadian art, the breakthrough came first in Quebec and it arrived with a vengeance, influenced by the Automatists and the leadership of Paul-Emile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle. Abstraction came later to the west, with the Regina Five, and to Ontario with the Painters Eleven. All these are well represented in the present selection. 

A similar diversity is evident in artists from Atlantic Canada who are represented in The Canadian Mosaic. Alongside well known realists — Alex Colville, Christopher and Mary Pratt, and Tom Forrestall — it features works by leading Acadian artists: Romeo Savoie, Hermenegilde Chiasson, and Yvon Gallant and, from Halifax, Gerald Ferguson and Garry Neill Kennedy. This section of the exhibition is an eye-opener for those who think that outstanding Maritime art is limited to realism. 

In such a vast country as ours, it should come as no surprise that there are many voices and many styles of art, matching the mosaic that is Canada and hence the name of the exhibition. In its diversity of style, vision, and subject matter, this exhibition tells a story — our story.

Canadian Mosaic Celebrating 150 Years of Art From the Permanent Collection
The Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton
April 29—September 10, 2017