A Q&A with the curator of the National Gallery’s surprising show

A conversation with Charles Hill and his exhibit looking at Canadian art from 1890 to 1918, an ‘era of optimism’

In this week’s issue of Maclean’s, I write about the National Gallery of Canada’s current major exhibition, Artists, Architects and Artisans: Canadian Art 1890 – 1918, a sprawling show of not only painting and sculpture, but also furniture and weaving, blueprints and photography, and more. For Charles Hill, the gallery’s curator of Canadian art, the show is a capping achievement of a four-decade career with the Ottawa art institution. I interviewed Hill after he walked me through it; here is that conversation, edited and condensed.

Q For a lot of us, real Canadian art more or less started when Tom Thomson paddled out into a lake in Algonquin Park with his paint box in 1912. What does your show tell us about the work that was being done just before Thomson and the Group of Seven rose to prominence?

A This generation really laid the groundwork to create an art culture in Canada, to create spaces and a validation of art in daily life. It’s not so much a Canadian art they were talking about but art in Canada. But without that I don’t think the Group would have been able to do what they did, which was to transform that debate. They were both part of and a catalyst for national sentiment that grew out of the First World War. But this previous generation created a system in which the Group of Seven would operate, both the institutions and a level of production.

Q We tend to think about fine art when we come to the National Gallery of Canada. Your show is equally about architecture and artisanship. What are you driving at?

A The whole integration of the arts in this period was international. In Canada it came from two predominant sources. There was the French Beaux-Arts tradition, where architecture is the mother of all arts and all the other arts grow out of it and complement it. And then also the [English] Arts and Crafts movement, which wanted to see the validation of handicraft as well as the integration of art in daily life. This was so widespread and there were so many examples about which the new generation could get information through the large growth of illustrated periodicals at this time. That was really the stimulus.

Q There are objects in your show that say so much about that approach. I’m thinking, for instance, of  that Arthur Lismer painting, which he reworked as a design for a screen—a practical, though beautiful, household object.

A Already there’s a very decorative aesthetic in that painting, a very high horizon, the placing of a tree in the foreground against the blue of the water. A very Japanese arrangement, and certainly Japanese art was a huge influence at this time. But then what’s interesting is that Lismer sees its utilitarian potential as a folding screen. Decorative and utilitarian. This integration of fine arts and applied arts is very much a common part of thinking at this time.

Q We need to know a bit about the economic and political context of the 1890-1918 period to get the show. How would you describe the time in which these artists, architects and artisans were working?

A It’s an era of immense growth, an era of optimism. The Prairies were largely developed at this point, following the completion of the CPR. Huge immigration. It’s a largely prosperous period. New buildings are going up, which provided opportunities, as you see in the exhibition. It was also an era of reform, attempts to change how people saw their homes, their public spaces, their cities.

Q Is there a lesson about the foundations of Canadian identity hidden in the show?

A There’s a great diversity. Yes, it’s definitely Canadian history, people trying to articulate their ideals of the nation, whether it’s George Reid designing murals about early Ontario history for the new Toronto City Hall, or the Canadian Handicrafts Guild and Women’s Art Association’s support of the Doukhobor immigrants, or how artisanship serves architecture for all these new public buildings that were being built. It’s a dynamic that happens at all of the levels. They are all interlinked. They all share a common basis in their ideals.

Q And what is that common basis?

A Essentially to bring the arts into daily life—whether it’s through the preservation of handicraft skills, the integration of handicraft skills into architecture, or the reform of the city—to make life better.

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