Manitoba History: Review Essay: Can You Trust It: The View From Here and the WAG Canadian Collection as Historical Documents
by Gerald Friesen
As a student of history, I have been asked to think about The View From Here in the terms of my discipline. To assess its historical meaning, however, requires a slightly different approach than would be used if one was inquiring about art market or aesthetic values. Instead, one must seek to understand the exhibit’s content, its construction, and the collection from which it has been drawn. Such matters can be established by means of three questions. Who is doing the looking? What is the vantage point from which the viewing takes place? And what is the viewer looking at? In short, whose view? From where? Looking at what? These three queries, taken together, permit the viewer to inquire into the social context in which the art work is situated. They also provide a foundation from which to consider a fourth question: how does the entire exhibit, a selection intended to represent the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s “historical collection,” fit within our understanding of Canada’s past? So, fourth, as a history of the view from here, can you trust it?
In shows such as this one, the curator faces an impossible task. The assignment probably read something like this: prove the relevance of the collection by demonstrating that the gallery holds many nationally-significant works; showcase the Manitoba strengths of the collection; provide some insights into Canadian history. And, by the way, work within very tight limits on space and budget. The result, despite these onerous demands, is a carefully-crafted and stimulating exhibit.
Outsiders to the art world may appreciate few of the exhibit’s subtleties when they first wander through it. I confess to being an outsider and to have spent a number of visits pondering its construction. How is the show organized and what is it saying? The View From Here is a thematic hanging. As such, it is a distinctive beast belonging to a genre that has become prominent in the art world in recent decades. The genre has won practitioners because of two departures in art historical fashion, both reactions against the thinking that prevailed in art circles in the middle decades of the twentieth century. This reaction against the then-dominant view, Modernism, criticized, first, its “great faith in the idea of evolution in art”—the notion that each school arises, phoenix-like, from its predecessor and represents an advance in concept. It also criticized, second, Modernism’s assumption “that a work of art must affirm its existence as an object and that subject-matter was incidental to its proper purpose.” To quote one of the exponents of this view, Maurice Denis, “a picture, before being a representation of something, is a flat surface covered by colours arranged in a certain order” and, thus, what matters in art is “the concrete reality, the thingness.” The high point of such thinking was reached by the Minimalism of the 1950s and 1960s. At that moment, critics began to complain (one thinks of the books by Tom Wolfe, for example), that art was ignoring subject matter. Curators then began to turn in the direction of the thematic shows that have becoming increasingly prominent in this generation. 
A thematic show relies on selection and juxtaposition to convey new and challenging ways of seeing works of art.  David Sylvester, the English art critic, has written that “unexpected juxtaposition is one of the great artistic devices of the twentieth century.” Its technique is to “bring together artefacts from a variety of times and places in encounters meant to surprise at first and then look inevitable.” Thus, to put together such a show is not, as an inexperienced gallery-goer might suppose, merely a matter of creating a harmonious and beautiful exhibit that sets each of the art works, its components, at its ease. Rather, juxtaposition should have an “educational value”—what might be described as a museum type of purpose—“helping us to think we understand art rather than helping us to respond to it viscerally.” 
What is the right way to construct a thematic exhibit that is both enjoyable and challenging? To quote David Sylvester: “If a display is to be visually legible and conceptually interesting it needs to include some element analogous to the ‘subjects’ in a piece of music (fugue, sonata-form movement, Wagner opera), motifs the recurrence of which in various forms gives the whole thing a shape. In visual arts it can be a particular colour or texture, or it can be an abstract configuration such as a circle or an Ionic capital, or it can be an image that is especially telling and unmissable, such as the Crucifixion or the Nativity or Leda and the swan or Europa and the bull. A thematic installation can work, then, if the themes present really clear images—provided, of course, that their shapes or colours don’t jar physically ...” This notion of themes must be kept in mind as one reflects on “the view from here.” 
The show contains 130 works by 85 named and several unnamed artists and fits within a specific chronological boundary: all the work was completed between the early 1820s and the mid-1950s. There is nothing here from the early fur trade or from pre-contact Aboriginal societies. Note, too, the limits on the types of media. Though the show includes three or four sculptures, it does not contain ceramics, silver, or furniture, which would have presented display and space problems, or, obviously, monumentalitems such as works of architecture. Film, photographs, and Aboriginal material culture are not usually within the Gallery’s purview, these collecting responsibilities having been left to the Provincial Archives and to the Manitoba Museum. Thus, the exhibit presents (with the exception of the sculptures) only painting and its close relatives in the main visual arts media—painting in oils, of course, but also woodcuts, etchings, watercolours, and drypoint or graphite or ink or chalk pastel on paper. Even naive or innocent art has been excluded. 
There is a coherence to the feel of the entire exhibit that owes much to the accustomed feel of an art gallery and to the qualities one associates with art-market art. Almost all the works were created by trained, skilled people. These artists may not have been professional producers of art but they were people who knew and could work within the conventions of the visual arts in their day. Though the gallery does not discuss the money value of its collections—its function is to collect, to display, and to conserve—a newspaper story several months ago put a market value of over a million dollars on just one of the canvases in this show, Tom Thomson’s “Early Snow,” and an evaluation of all the works in the show would presumably result in a very high figure. This is fine art of fine quality. None of this should make us think more of the artworks or, in terms of their merit as historical documents, less. But it should make us pause to think about, not the market value, but the community values that are expressed in such a show.
One might expect to encounter only the famous names in Canadian art in the exhibit. Such is not the case. While there are a great many works by recognizable artists, it is noteworthy that there are many works by the unsung as well. One might expect to find paintings only by men. In fact, a significant number, nearly a quarter of all the works in the show, are by women. One might expect to encounter very few local representatives. To the contrary, nearly a third of the works selected are by residents of Manitoba. And these facts offer insights into the Gallery’s holdings. The show contains only a fraction of the 3000 works in its historical collection but it is wide-ranging in its selection and representative of local, women, and unsung artists as well as the celebrated stars of the art world.
“Whose view?” Painters of training, skill, and application, many of whom were Manitobans, and who worked within the contemporary conventions of the visual arts between the 1820s and the 1950s.
Where is the creator of the work situated? That is, from the available evidence, what can we discern about the artist’s vantage point? Though there are eleven different chapters in the show, ranging from nineteenth century paintings of exploration to 1950s abstracts, it really has three major sections, or organizing themes. Of these three units, the largest fraction is dedicated to a kind of history of art familiar to everyone as a Canadian version of international “schools”—that is, of trends in the “art capitals” of London, Paris and New York between the late nineteenth century and the early 1950s. With these works, one travels down the decades as if the years were parceled in neat groups and marked by signposts established by histories of international art. One picks out particular fashions in painting as if they were noteworthy historical watersheds. Thus, there is a section in the exhibit devoted to works that reflect the French Academic style and international influences around the turn of the twentieth century. Next, there is a group of works linked by the theme of “The Search for a National Style,” a search launched by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven in the wake of their exposure to developments in Scandinavian art. Then, one encounters the movement known as “modernism” wherein representative works are grouped in three categories labeled early, middle, and late modernism. The first displays the work of such artists as James Wilson Morrice (who died in 1925); the second that of David Milne and A. Y. Jackson and Bertram Brooker during the 1930s; and the third—post-1945—the artists who signed Paul Emile Borduas’ Quebec manifesto, Le Refus Globale, as well as English Canadian groups such as Toronto’s Painters Eleven and the so-called Regina Five. This impressive tour through Canada’s version of international art occupies five of the eleven chapters of the show and well over half the canvases.
The second section or organizing theme in The View from Here is Manitoba painting. The Gallery sees itself as the major collector of Manitoba art, and though the Brandon gallery and other smaller institutions are also active in the field, the claim is undoubtedly justified. The works in this section offer a wide variety of images drawn from many places and types of activity and cultural group, but all are rooted in this province. The curator has been concerned to reflect the community as inclusively as possible. The subject matter of the painting and the place of residence of the artist determined which works were selected.
That the exhibit contains three sections is evident in its catalogue. There, Mary Jo Hughes suggests that the show reveals “major Canadian artistic trends,” and a “view from Manitoba distinct from other regions,” and then adds that the exhibit’s “images speak of the shifting social, political and aesthetic issues and events of the times.” This is carefully phrased. Indeed, the key to coming to terms with the exhibit is to understand that it has not just the two themes, Canada in international art, and Manitoba art, but also this third objective, which represents a gesture toward other topics in Canadian history. Four of the chapters in the show, two featuring portraiture, one on labour, and one on Manitoba paintings of war, might be placed under this rubric. Each acts as a counterpoint to works in the major sections. These history chapters demonstrate the strengths of a thematic hanging strategy by consistently reminding the viewer of other important aspects of the Canadian past. The location of the portrait of Chief William Berens, for example, enables that canvas, and its subject, to dominate the entire middle section of the show.  And the decision to concentrate on two such disparate themes as war and labour appears to be aimed at mollifying the two fractious camps—political/military and social/feminist historians—whose disagreements have spilled into the press in recent months. Of such compromises is the world made.
In sum, the answer to the second question—what can one say about the artists’ vantage point?—lies in three broad statements: some of the finest Canadian artists followed the international language of art, a perspective pioneered by leaders of the genres dominant in Paris, London, and New York; second, there is a Manitoba vantage point in the world of art; and, third, artists were interested in a wide range of subjects and approaches drawn from episodes and themes in Canadian history, including gender, classes, the war effort, and labour.
What are the artists looking at when they paint? All is rural and landscape-centred in the opening rooms. One cannot escape the impression that Canada consists of an agricultural world of barns and cows and hay lofts and quiet manual labour.  The subject changes—but the feeling evoked in the visitor does not—when one leaves the settled rural parts of the country and travels to the Shield, especially as depicted by the works of Tom Thomson, the Group of Seven, and their associates. This chapter, the largest in the show, contains twenty works. And they, above all others, are concerned with the land itself—with tree and rock and lake and with the pivotal role of the Shield in the nation’s geography. “Pioneers of Modernism” offers another rural vision but in this section, which dates from the 1920s, there a few signs of a new age, as in the radio waves hinted at in Bertram Brooker’s “Sounds Assembling” (1928). “Various Modernist Directions” offers another step in this new direction by depicting shapes and objects that are closer to abstractions, though any uninstructed outsider would say that, despite the appearance of more abstract figures, an unpeopled and rural land remained the dominant impression conveyed by them.  The last category of paintings in this sequence, “Approaches to Modernism,” presents paintings of the decade after 1945. This room represents a culmination and a transition. It is more abstract, certainly, than any of the earlier groups of images, but it is also more urban in tone and feel. One is struck by the difference in colours as well as shapes—the reds and whites and blacks—as opposed to the subdued greens and yellows and browns of the nineteenth century works.
What is the visitor to make of the apparent message that Canada’s national history consists of a rural idyll? It is reminiscent of the Canadian artist who waxed eloquent about “the poetry of farm life” and the “tranquil peaceful life of the habitant” that he wished to capture on canvas.  Surely the plain people of rural Canada, eastern or western, were not living a merely tranquil life. Raymond Williams, the British critic, once wrote that a working country was hardly ever a landscape. This was more true in rural Canada than in rural England and Wales. Yet the pre-1945 paintings seem to introduce a distance between the viewer and the work, between the image and what we call real life. 
If the paintings before the 1930s seemed to have the purpose of sustaining and encouraging the viewer, the paintings of the 1950s still confront and challenge and provoke.  The contrast is interesting. It is as if the very function of the artist changed. Instead of establishing a sense of belonging, creating an object of beauty, and communicating an image of the physical setting in which Canadians lived, the artist increasingly seemed determined to convey a sense of the rapidity of change and its profound impact. As Claude Toussignant explained, he wished to “objectify the painting, so that only painting remains, only feeling is on the canvas.”  His vista was internal, and was not situated in the physical landscape at all.
The answers to the three introductory questions (whose view,? from where? looking at what?) comprise an introduction to the exhibit. One is dealing with the work of artists who have been trained in the western tradition of the visual arts, many of them within the international currents of expression that dominated the art world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They were Canadian by residence and often Manitoban. They sought to present a message of beauty and belonging, though this objective changed in the works produced after 1930. They were interested in a range of other subjects—work, portraits, war—that can be called a Canadian historical survey.
How well does the exhibit represent Canada’s past?
Can the exhibit be trusted as a reasonable version of Canadian history? The easy answer is no—the show cannot be trusted as history. The paintings leave out far too much. But there is a more interesting response: while recognizing the inevitable shortcomings in a Winnipeg collection and in any historical survey based on paintings, it says that there are good reasons to trust the exhibit and that they are more important than its sins of omission.
Rather than ask, who are the artists, one might ask whose perspective is missing? There is not a single work of art by an Aboriginal person in this exhibit. Since this is a survey of pre-1955 works, the many popular Aboriginal artists of later decades—Morrisseau, Beardy, Janvier, Odjig—are ruled out. But are there no eligible works in any genre by an Aboriginal person in the preceding 130 years? There are paintings of Aboriginal people by white artists—including several famous ones—and there is one careful sketch by Paul Kane of a wampum belt, but that is all. As the Gallery places this type of exhibition on a more permanent basis, it should reflect on the difference between showing its historical collection and reflecting the historical community. A more representative show would draw upon the Inuit art already in the Gallery and also upon the Museum and archives holdings within the province. Aboriginal viewpoints should not be absent in the permanent hanging.
This is not the only bias in the collection. The show reflects a little but not all the regional, ethnic, and racial diversity of pre-1955 Canada. The works are by British Canadians, French-speaking Canadians, and by residents of Canada from Quebec west. Atlantic Canada is not well represented. Nor are artists of African or Asian origin. There are a few works by Canadian artists of European ethnic origin, including Eric Bergman, Fritz Brandtner, and Paraskeva Clark, not to mention Krieghoff and Rindisbacher in an earlier era. But the other ethnic groups of the prairies are not present. They, too, should be represented in a permanent hanging.
As for the vista—the “looking at what” question—one is struck by the absence of political imagery. The show does not contain images that resonate as statements about our public and civic roles. A recent poll about Canada’s important historical events picked out, among others, the battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, the War of 1812, Confederation, building the CPR, the battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917, and the 1929 Persons case.  And if, instead of a national history approach, one focused on the history of Manitoba and the prairies, one might add the confrontation at Seven Oaks in 1816, the Métis Resistance of 1869-70, the business boom of 1880-82 and 1900-1912, the general strike of 1919, the farm protest movement of the 1920s, the drought and depression of the 1930s, and the 1950 flood. This baker’s dozen represents the most important, the best known, the most often referred to historical stories that underlie Canadian and Manitoban public identities—the events most likely to be converted into community myths. Not one is represented on a canvas in this exhibit. Nor are the individuals who took part in these stories depicted here. No John A, no Riel, no Nellie McClung or Emily Murphy, no Lord Selkirk or Helen Armstrong, no sports celebrity from curling or hockey or track and field.
Still another bias is the failure to come to terms with the lives of the less privileged among Canadians. Poverty and insecurity were a part of early Canada’s history and there were many, many conflicts—on the canals, in the streets, in factories and on picket lines—in the context of what we now call “industrial relations.” Yet one’s dominant impression as one walks through these rooms is of beauty and serenity. Only in one or two areas of the exhibit—those dedicated to portraits, to war and to labour—does one begin to feel that this range of experience is being touched. A proper history would not imply that life was never fun for earlier generations, or that no one ever saw and appreciated beauty, or that most Canadians lived miserable lives, but it would suggest—and so should some of the pictures in a permanent exhibit—that such perspectives are part of the vista lying before the artist. In this “first draft” of a permanent show, one does not feel the chill of racism, the drudgery of hoe or paddle, the stress of homemaking in a hovel but, rather, tranquility, warmth and security. While this may provide an encouraging and positive message for yesterday’s viewers and today’s visitors, it is not the sole message of Canadian history.
These omissions—the Aboriginal absence, the regional and ethnic under-representation, the dearth of national and regional political “defining images”, and the bias against the less secure and less privileged—sustain the view that one should not trust this exhibit as a synthesis of Canadian history. But no one ever claimed that it was. If historians leave out vast amounts in their hundreds of fat books, what can one ask of 130 works of art?
There is one further omission that is puzzling. The show’s thematic approach illustrates two themes well: many of these paintings were constructed within an international language of art and many others convey a vivid impression of Canadian social history. But the third theme, Manitoba’s distinct view, is not communicated with equal force or clarity. Why?
Let’s begin by thinking about our images of Manitoba and its symbols. The provincial crest contains a buffalo. One might argue that Frederick Verner’s portrait, “Buffalo” (1910), looks sufficiently like the telephone system’s current advertising campaign to suggest that there has been a longstanding consensus on a public image. However, one could also argue that MTS’s use of this symbol is nostalgic rather than innovative. Indeed, the advertising company’s decision to depict only one or two beasts rather than a herd of thousands attests to the passing of an age as much as to the assertion of a meaningful community representation.
Another possible avenue toward provincial representation is Lionel Lemoine Fitzgerald’s “Peace Celebrations after 1914-18 War in Front of City Hall, Winnipeg” (1918). The picture conveys an impression of an important public space, an excited throng, and a vital civic moment. Viewers cannot help but be aware that, one year later, crowds gathered in the same space, this time facing social crisis, even potential revolution, during the general strike. This painting, more than the buffalo portrait, conveys a sense of the vigour and turbulence and authenticity in the twentieth century city. However, it stands almost alone in the exhibit as a place-based expression of a shared experience.
There may be such a thing as a prairie vision in painting but, to my knowledge, no one has established such a synthesis.  This show does not change that circumstance. The number of works on display here is too small (fewer than forty), and their diversity in time and form too great to convey such distinctiveness. They are united only by their vista and the location of the author: both are Manitoban.
I do think there is something Manitoban, and even more precisely, Winnipeg, about The View From Here. It lies in the existence of the exhibit, not the actual content of the canvases. The very collection constitutes a statement about city and province. Consider what accidents of fate determined that such a fabulous, representative national collection ended up in the gallery of Canada’s eighth largest city. The answer must draw on our awareness of local history—of the local collectors, of the arts community, and of the system of patronage. Winnipeg was a rich and powerful city between 1900 and the 1940s when, it should be underlined, painting was an important vehicle of public expression in Canada. It was the home of some influential art-reliant industries in these same decades, notably the print and design firms that hired literally dozens of artists for a few weeks to a few months each year to prepare the catalogues that eventually flooded farm homes and country towns with news of the wares of the metropolis. The city also sustained some important art institutions, trained a large community of interested lay supporters of the arts, and inspired benefactors.  Look at the credit lines beneath the paintings in this show. They embrace an alphabet full of donors—Alloway, Brigden, Cohen, Dobush, deFehr, Fraser, Gort, Heaps, Lightcap, MacAulay, Purves, Reid, and Tritschler. This list could be multiplied many times if one added the names of committee members and of supporters of the Winnipeg Foundation which, in turn, has contributed to the Gallery collection. Finally, art in Manitoba has been sustained by the citizens of Manitoba through tax dollars: every year, about half of the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s operating budget is provided by provincial government grants. The history of economic development and the choices made by individuals and legislative majorities underlie this unusually rich collection.
Winnipeg and Manitoba have existed on the periphery of the great historical forces that reshaped nation and continent during the second half of the twentieth century. Still, they have retained a strong sense of community. That is, the residents of city and province have possessed firm convictions about their shared history. These convictions do not emerge out of thin air. Rather, they are nourished by images and expressions that encapsulate group identity. Works of art, especially painting, once served that very purpose and, to a significant degree, they still do.
The issue that is addressed by such thoughts is one of communication. It may seem very difficult, in our age of movie and television and computer screens, to recover any connections with the past. One may wonder whether it is possible to appreciate exactly where a society has been and, thus, to doubt whether the community can use the past as a marker by which to establish its location in the present. Art bridges the gap.
By definition, a vital communication is conducted between an artist and a viewer through an original work. Because works of art are original documents, we know that we can trust them, that the artist is speaking directly to us, and that we can make as immediate a connection with the artist’s vision as it is possible to achieve. We are able to experience the “overarching discipline, creative economy and communicative breadth” that are the hallmarks of art.  Most of all, through the display of such powerful images, we discover that it is possible for the “past to speak to the present.” As was written about a similar exercise in another community: “More than an expression of society—although they are always partly that—works of art are a force which create a people’s way of life, of feeling and thinking. Art...is the principal means by which [a community] ... is ‘invented’ and created.”  Thus, we recognize intuitively that, in earlier days, art interpreted the community to the people.
Can this show be trusted? As a work of history, only in part. But as a document that embodies the past, yes, definitely. When seen in the original, the brush strokes and colours and shapes transcend distance and time. A painting speaks directly. It is the most vivid of all historical documents. And this remarkable collection of artworks, in all its range and splendour, resides in this city and province. Manitobans are fortunate to possess such a vital link between present and past. Schoolchildren and adults alike are able to visit these rooms and to learn as a matter of daily discourse what their predecessors saw and how they communicated their visions. The View from Here is a crucial means of understanding these distinctive locations in the world community.
1. David Sylvester “Mayhem at Millbank” London Review of Books 22, 10 (18 May 2000) 19-20. Sylvester gives the example of a thematic show on art between 1880 and 1920 from which, he concluded, “a lot was learned about familiar works from seeing them in new contexts....the whole hang buzzed with the atmosphere of the period.” He then provides an extended critique of a recent example, the organization of the new Tate Gallery at Millbank in London. There, the curators’ selection and display of themes—city life, Gainsborough, war—has been received bitterly by art critics but, in general, enthusiastically by lay visitors. One illustration of the professionals’ anger is the view expressed by Waldemar Januszczak in the Sunday Times Magazine: “Tate Britain has decided that British art has no history worth recounting....That British art needs jazzing up ... Laughably, this exercise in arrogance and whimsy masquerading as a new national hanging policy has resulted in the Tate being divided into ‘themes’...themes are easy. You don’t have to construct a narrative. You don’t have to sustain an argument. You don’t even have to follow your own theme, because the supreme attraction of themes is that they are so excellently open-ended. Themes are a way of not saying something definite about anything.” David Sylvester calls the curatorial decision a debacle, wonders if the Tate is addressing only “schoolchildren and tourists,” and proposes that the Gallery should rehang its entire collection “so that those who care seriously for British art can enjoy the world’s finest collection of it.”
6. Marion Nelson Hooker “William Berens, Chief of the Saulteaux” (1932). Similarly, two portraits evoke differences in wealth and privilege. One depicts a prosperous woman in Ontario just before Confederation, the second a young and less secure woman on a farm near the close of the Depression. The two portraits are Joseph Dynes “Portrait of a Lady” 1856, and Prudence Heward “Farmer’s Daughter” 1938.
10. Consider these four illustrations: Cornelius Krieghoff “Bilking the Toll” 1860; William Creswell “The Building of Fort William” 1871; Frances Beechy Hopkins “Voyageurs Resting at the Portage” circa 1860s-70s; and LL Fitzgerald “Potato Patch, Snowflake” 1925.
11. I recognize that the Group of Seven caused a sensation with their painting methods (every student hears about popular criticism of their “hot mush” approach), but did their subject matter, as opposed to technique, diverge sharply from that of their contemporaries? A sharp contrast is the work of the post-1945 artists. Examples include Jean Dallaire’s “Wo ist ein zigarrengeschaft?” 1954, and the works by Alfred Pellan and Jean-Paul Riopelle.
14. Three works, among others, that begin this process are Virginia G. Berry A Boundless Horizon: Visual Records of Exploration and Settlement in the Manitoba Region 1624-1874 (Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery 1983) and Virginia G. Berry Vistas of Promise: Manitoba 1874-1919 (Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery 1987) and Dan Ring, curator, The Urban Prairie (Saskatoon: Mendel Art Gallery and Fifth House 1993).
15. Angela E. Davis Art and Work: A Social History of Labour in the Canadian Graphic Arts Industry to the 1940s (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press 1995); Davis Laying the Ground: The Establishment of an Artistic Milieu in Winnipeg 1890-1913 Manitoba History 4 (1982); and Davis “Business, Art andLabour: Brigden’s and the Growth of the Graphic Arts Industry, 1870-1959” PhD dissertation, University of Manitoba, 1986.
17. Daniel Thomas, Ron Radford et. al. Creating Australia: 200 Years of Art, 1788-1988 (Sydney and Adelaide: Art Gallery Board of South Australia and International Cultural Corporation of Australia 1988) pp. 6, 10, 11.
Page revised: 14 October 2012