The Winnipeg Art Gallery in 1912 and 1987: An Historical Assessment
by Angela E. Davis
The seventy-fifth anniversary of the Winnipeg Art Gallery took place in 1987. It was celebrated with good films, internationally known speakers and some excellent exhibitions. Among the exhibitions were 1912: Break Up of Tradition and 1987: Contemporary Art in Manitoba, the “official” Gallery productions; two smaller shows of works from the private collections of local art scholars Ferdinand Eckhardt and George Swinton; and a final historical exhibition, Vistas of Promise: Manitoba 1874-1919, curated by Virginia Berry. All of these were reviewed and discussed by local and national art critics with varying degrees of appreciation. What is interesting to an historian, however, is what these exhibitions (or perhaps choice of exhibitions) tell us about the development of art and art understanding in Winnipeg and Manitoba. Have attitudes towards the visual arts changed greatly since the Art Gallery was established in 1912 or can a continuity with the past be seen in the choices made and the decisions taken? This brief discussion of the 1987 exhibitions will suggest that local ideas concerning the place of art in Manitoba society are more closely connected to the ideas of the founding fathers of the Winnipeg Art Gallery than is generally recognized.
On December 16, 1912, the Winnipeg Museum of Fine Arts, housed in the Exposition Building of the Winnipeg Industrial Bureau and commonly referred to as “The Gallery,” was opened with considerable fanfare by the Lieutenant-Governor, D. C. Cameron. In attendance were the Mayor of Winnipeg and the President and members of the Industrial Bureau. The opening exhibition consisted of 275 works of art lent by the Royal Canadian Academy and hopes were expressed that the Gallery would proceed to be “a capital acquisition, both from the aesthetic and educational standpoint.” 
The Gallery had been promoted, funded and brought to fruition by a group of citizens which included artists and businessmen. It was the businessmen members of the Industrial Bureau, however, who organized themselves into an Art Committee. They appointed Donald Macquarrie, a Scottish artist who had opened a studio in Winnipeg in 1910, as the first curator, but retained control of Gallery policy.  From the beginning, these men had definite ideas on the purpose of the Gallery and its relationship to the general public. In his opening address, for example, W. J. Bulman, President of the Industrial Bureau, expressed the opinion that “Art and manufacture are so closely allied that an institution such as this, has become an absolute necessity if we are to become efficient as an industrial centre.”  Art, he felt, offered the citizens of Winnipeg “a new line of development,” one which could only reflect positively on a growing western city. When, however, a “certain section of the public” requested Sunday opening of the Gallery, as was customary in other cities at the time, the Committee’s response was that “for the present it must be understood that the public has no vested rights in the institution and the bureau will be guided by proper consideration of its own interest as well as that of the public.” 
Although, as Marilyn Baker has recorded, the members of the Committee stressed the value of art as a “counter to the materialistic and commercial character of the city” and hoped that out of their activities a “genuine western Canadian art” would emerge,  their concern for the public interest was qualified. For example, their appreciation of art did not extend to local or western artists. Instead, they looked outside Manitoba for the content of their first major exhibition and thus precipitated the combined sense of inferiority and self-satisfaction which seems to have existed ever since. On the one hand, they seemed to believe that because Winnipeg was isolated geographically it had to look elsewhere for “real” artistic quality, while on the other this same isolation was said to produce an art unique to the prairies. Both of these assumptions were false; but perhaps it made more sense to hold them in 1912 than in 1987.
As Virginia Berry has shown,  there were a number of professional artists already living and working in Winnipeg in 1912. Yet the works chosen to open the Gallery were by artists resident in Montreal and Toronto and were on loan from the Royal Canadian Academy. They were predominantly landscape paintings and included work by such eastern academic painters as George Reid, William Brymner, Homer Watson and Laura Muntz. Many Winnipeggers, including the organizing committee, no doubt considered it an honour that these paintings should travel west for the opening of a new major gallery. The works were not, however, particularly Canadian in content. Vandyke Brown, writing in the Winnipeg Free Press of 21 December 1912, said, “There is very little here as far as I am able to judge which serves to remind one that one is looking at a specially national collection ... It does ... seem a little remarkable that we can see no painting of a purely Canadian crowd, or of a national game, or of Canadian wild animals expressed in a special fashion.” But, he added, “The fact is that these things have not, so far, made their appeal sufficiently strongly as to be impressive.”  He noted at an earlier date that “a certain number of pictures by western artists will be numbered among the exhibits,”  but these were not mentioned in the Free Press article so presumably they were overshadowed by the illustrious work of the Academicians.
While recognizing the possibility of local artistic appreciation and awareness, what seems to have been accepted by those who made the first curatorial choices was that geographical isolation produced cultural isolation.  It is difficult to agree with this assumption, however. Artists who migrated to and settled in Winnipeg around the turn of the century were obviously well aware of international art movements. The English watercolour tradition, the Pre-Raphaelites, Whistler, Impressionism, the Barbizan School and Art Nouveau are all influences seen in the works of local artists of the 1910s.  That Winnipeg artists were not on the cutting-edge of modernism did not automatically mean, therefore, that they were unaware of a wider context or that they were cut off from new ideas. In consequence, an art created in a purely “local” style was impossible. Certainly, a local or topical content prevailed, one inspired by a different light and landscape and by the necessity of earning a living, but the impact of international influences was not excluded.
The notion of cultural isolation would seem to have even less relevance in the 1980s, in an era of instant mass communication, when no one in the western part of the “Global Village” can be thought of as cut off from anyone else. Ideas and artistic styles are transmitted via print and film and television as soon as they are created in New York, London, Paris or elsewhere. And yet, in the two major exhibitions of the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s seventy-fifth anniversary celebrations, the premise of cultural isolation remained. From 1912: Break Up of Tradition it could be inferred that because Winnipeg was geographically isolated in 1912 its artists and interested citizens were unaware of the more adventurous works of art being created in Europe. And from 1987: Contemporary Art in Manitoba the inference could be drawn that, in 1987, Winnipeg remained isolated and therefore a regional uniqueness was present in its contemporary art. Both of these excellent exhibitions provided a great deal of enjoyment for their viewers. As has been suggested, however, they were based on questionable assumptions.
Without doubt, 1912 was a pivotal year in the development of universal “modernism” in art. Whether it broke with tradition is another matter. Some art historians and critics have looked upon modernism as the be-all and end-all of art; they have argued that audiences for new works of art needed to be educated in an understanding of a work’s underlying meaning. Indeed, for Roger Fry and Clive Bell, the most influential art critics of the 1910s, appreciation of modernism was only possible for an educated elite.  But there has been, in recent years, a move away from a concentration on the modern and the avant-garde in art to a recognition of the diverse artistic styles and ideas produced in any particular historical period.  It needs to be remembered, for example, that the impressionists were not as alienated from their academic masters as has so often been asserted,  and that the realist tradition continued parallel to the new developments. 
From the introduction to the catalogue of 1912: Break Up of Tradition, a reader could be justified in assuming that he or she was to view an all-inclusive presentation of art of the era. The aim of the exhibition, the curator, Louise d’Agencourt, wrote, was “to show all the different forces at play at the time ...” She cited as illustration the fact that Girodon’s “Oedipus Crying Over the Bodies of his Sons” was included in the show.  But her attitude towards this second-rate example of academic painting was obvious by the lack of information provided in the catalogue. Girodon was given four lines of biographical information compared with a full page for most artists. The fact that, in the early years of the twentieth century, Girodon’s work would be readily understood by a public accustomed to academic style and classical content in works of art, while the avant-garde would be confusing, is not discussed as an interesting issue. This is unfortunate because one of the major difficulties contemporary society has in accepting “modern art” results from the loss of contact between art and the general public.  Art critics and art historians have concentrated so heavily on the development of the avant-garde that modernism is now the “tradition” and is, therefore, espoused by the “official” art establishment. Ordinary people, or the “general public,” as Tom Oleson noted in the Winnipeg Free Press,  have been forgotten in the assessments of art put forth by an “illuminati” of art curators and art educators. This does not mean that it was not a marvelous experience for the Winnipeggers of 1987 to see such original works as Juan Gris’ “Man in Cafe” or Brancusi’s “Golden Bird”; rather, it implies only that between 1912 and 1987 Winnipeg Art Committees changed very little in their attitudes towards art and the viewing public.
A continuity with attitudes of the past was also evident in the exhibition 1987: Contemporary Art in Manitoba. This show was described by its curator, Shirley Jayne-Raven Madill, as demonstrating the importance of regionalism in the development of Canadian culture. She was, however, somewhat confusing on this subject. She recognized Winnipeg as “a metropolis that possesses a combination of commerce and culture” and noted that “its distance from other metropolitan areas seems to have given it a unique personality, with a definite sense of community.” And she suggested that Manitoba’s harsh environment and central location have been conducive to “feelings of alienation and isolation,” and have provided a “vortex for an array of artistic talent.”  As with the 1912 show, the inference was that geographical isolation could be equated with cultural isolation and that, as a result, Manitoba artists have acquired a “definitive” identity. In the biographical data at the end of the catalogue, however, a different interpretation emerged, one which revealed that the work produced by many of the artists exhibited had been influenced by far more than a local or regional environment. These artists had lived, trained and worked in France, Hungary, Spain, Turkey, Britain, Denmark and the United States: they had not led isolated lives. Consequently, when the Toronto art critic, John Bentley Mays, criticized the exhibition for being imitative of other artists,  he was merely recognizing the cosmopolitan nature of the Winnipeg art community. Artists have always been influenced by the ideas and styles of other artists and certainly, in 1987, as in 1912, those who lived and worked in Manitoba were not cut off from the international art scene.
When it comes to the Eckhardt and Swinton exhibitions, although different criteria are brought into play, they too represent a continuity with attitudes of the past. Just as the businessmen James McDiarmid and Arnold Brigden ignored “official” gallery ideas and collected what they personally liked and what they felt to be worthwhile in the early years of the century,  so did Ferdinand Eckhardt and George Swinton later. Eckhardt, a distinguished scholar with access to the works of major German expressionist artists, had accumulated an extraordinary private collection which acted as an historical survey of its period and style. Swinton, an artist and art teacher by profession, was able through his travels in the Canadian north, to begin a definitive collection of Inuit art and become the recognized authority in the field. What was obvious to the public viewing these exhibitions, The Eckhardts in Winnipeg: A Cultural Legacy and The Swinton Collection of Inuit Art, was that although the collections were those of acknowledged experts, the choices reflected personal taste and affection. There was no explicit effort to educate or influence an audience. The public, instead, was privileged to view an individual’s private passion and was, in the process, informed and aesthetically gratified.
Finally, in considering Vistas of Promise: Manitoba 1874-1919, we reach what was probably the definitive show of the seventy-fifth anniversary celebrations. This was not an exhibition of the innovators or the “modernists” of 1912, but an historical record of those artists who visited or resided in Manitoba during the formative years 1874 to 1919 and who worked in the styles they had inherited from Europe. For this reason there was no sense of isolation from the outside world. The wood-engravings for the Canadian Illustrated News or for Picturesque Canada were in the same style as those created for the Illustrated London News; the water-colours continued the English water-colour tradition; and the oils reflected a variety of European styles of the time. The works included in the exhibition were by amateur artists recording their travels,  by art teachers who had trained in Europe and had opened studios in Winnipeg,  by artists working independently,  and by cartoonists and illustrators working for Winnipeg commercial art firms.  All were created, as Virginia Berry says, “in the European tradition.”  Some, like the paintings of Edmund Morris, were obviously influenced by “modernist” ideas,  but the majority remained within the accepted representational styles of the time. It was an exhibition which cannot be judged according to an aesthetic criterion which places “modernism” as the yardstick. Instead, it was a collection which allowed us to see the type of art produced by those artists living and working in Winnipeg around the time of the opening of the Art Gallery. It demonstrated artists’ awareness of a wider art world and also offered insight into the public’s growing interest in and awareness of artistic movements. In the catalogue to this exhibition, Virginia Berry did not attempt to theorize, to explain “hidden meanings” or to describe a uniqueness of local expression. Rather, she presented a straightforward account of the artists working in Manitoba at the turn of the century and the art they produced. For those of us who wish to understand the place and cultural heritage within which we live, this was perhaps the most valuable of all the exhibitions celebrating the Gallery’s anniversary.
In brief, then, continuity over the seventy-five years of the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s existence is clearly discernable. In 1987, the art educators decided that “modernism” was the most important element to be celebrated in much the same way that the businessmen of the Industrial Bureau’s Art Committee decided, in 1912, that art from eastern Canada was the most suitable to open a Civic Art Gallery in western Canada. Moreover, the educators accepted the premise that Manitoba and Winnipeg artists were culturally isolated and that they had, therefore, a unique regional approach to art. If, however, one looked closely at the influences present in the works shown in Vistas of Promise; considered the personal tastes of Dr. Eckhardt and Dr. Swinton; and noted the biographical data of the artists in the 1987 exhibition, it would appear that isolation in terms of ideas and influences was never a problem for Winnipeg artists or for Winnipeg audiences. Perhaps, instead, historical continuity was most clearly reflected in the continuing division between those who decided what the public should be educated to appreciate and what the public actually enjoyed.
Despite this bothersome element of condescension, however, the Winnipeg Art Gallery should be congratulated on having made its seventy-fifth year exhibitions both interesting and provocative.
2. Marilyn Baker, The Winnipeg School of Art: The Early Years (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1984), p. 26 and Ferdinand Eckhardt, 150 Years of Art in Manitoba (Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1970), p. 14.
6. For examples, see Virginia Berry, Vistas of Promise: Manitoba 1874-1919 (Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1987).
9. See W. L. Morton, Manitoba: A History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979), p. 322 and 417 for emphasis on this issue. Also see Angela E. Davis, “Laying the Ground: the establishment of an artistic milieu in Winnipeg: 1890-1913,” Manitoba History 4 (Autumn, 1982) pp. 10-15, for an alternative point of view.
10. See reproductions of works in Berry, Vistas of Promise.
11. Frances Spalding, British Art Since 1900 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986), pp. 61-63. See Clive Bell, Art. First Published 1914 (Reprint ed. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1958) and Roger Fry, Vision and Design First Published 1920. (Reprint ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961).
12. The policy of the curators of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris is a good example of this new outlook. Extended discussion on new approaches to art history are to be found in Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, eds., Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), and A. L. Rees and F. Bordello, The New Art History (New York: Humanities Press International, Inc., 1988).
16. There is interesting discussion of this issue in Alan Gowans, The Unchanging Arts: New Forms for the Traditional Functions of Art in Society (New York: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1970), and Bruno Munari, Design as Art (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971).
21. Berry, Vistas of Promise, pp. 9-11.
Page revised: 1 November 2012Back to top of page