Early Saskatchewan Art History?


1918 Noax modern art cropped

1918 Morning Leader cartoon by Noax

1956 Sebestyn on Modern art



The main point of this blog is to supply information for what could become a thorough study on Saskatchewan’s art history.  In the meantime, I offer the following observations illustrated so well by these cartoons. i.e. Everything is of its own time.

In 2011-2012 the Mackenzie Art Gallery Outreach Program included a travelling exhibition called the Saskatchewan Art Progress Show 1880-1955.  The catalogue for this show is online at: http://mackenzieartgallery.ca/admin/aMediaBackend/original?slug=the-saskatchewan-art-progress-show-1880-1950&format=pdf

Although, this catalogue essay is not an academic document, its construction gives an outline of the state of current research and thought on the history of Saskatchewan art and several colour reproductions of Saskatchewan art are included.  I recommend it as an introduction to the subject, which has certainly not been treated as well in general textbooks or online documents on Canadian art, or indeed, in the online Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan entry on Art, visual. http://esask.uregina.ca/entry/art_visual.html Does anyone producing these so-called representative documents in general histories ever consult with gallery personnel or art historians?  However, don’t ignore specific entries on artists or art institutions in this online encyclopedia . They are generally written by specialists.

Most research on historical Saskatchewan art is coming out of galleries. There are now numerous catalogues produced by both the Mendel Art Gallery and the Norman Mackenzie Gallery on aspects of the history of Saskatchewan art and they go into much more detail on their particular subjects.  If you have access to them, you will learn a lot more about Saskatchewan art than you can from reading survey catalogues or encyclopedia entries. Check the gallery websites for lists of catalogues and online essays. But this blog is about Saskatchewan art in historical newspapers and on the Internet so that is what I focus on here.

I have selected a number of newspaper articles on the general subject of Saskatchewan art history which show how people approached the subject in the past and what they valued in their surveys.  The most notable thing is that the point of view on the province’s art depends upon where the author is writing from.  Regina and Saskatoon are usually two separate entities and seldom does an author attempt an overview of happenings in both places until the 1960s. And of course, there is precious little covering other cities and towns of the province.

Additionally, the Regina Leader-Post was noticeably less interested in treating of this subject than the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix was, so most of the items I’ve linked here come from the latter source.  Saskatoon had the advantage of having a reporter on staff who was very interested in art – Jean Swanson.  In 1945, Swanson wrote an article for Canadian Art (Feb/Mar Vol. II) magazine entitled “Art in Saskatchewan” and she wrote several thoughtful articles on the subject in the Star Phoenix.  While she was knowledgeable about art in Saskatoon, her understanding of Regina art was filtered through the opinions of artists in Saskatoon (really the only way to access information back then) and thus not very developed.  However, she was a writer possessed of a critical mind and her pieces are well worth reading for their insight.

I give her credit for attempting to write the first history of Saskatoon art in 1952. She did this in relation to a Saskatoon Art Centre show called “Saskatoon Artists through the Years” which was held to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Saskatoon.  Her survey can be found here.

In 1959 someone with the initials I.M.N.  treated the history of the Saskatoon Art Centre and its effect on the community of Saskatoon.

Swanson was the books editor for the Star-Phoenix and she often reviewed books on art.

Her 1950 review of Graham McInnes’s recently released Canadian Art shows her astute appraisal of this early book on Canadian art history and also shows her opinion of the Canadian art establishment’s lack of interest in anything beyond the western border of Ontario.  She reiterated this opinion in a number of reviews on books and exhibitions. See for example her review of Malcolm Ross’s 1955 compilation entitled the The Arts in Canada, published in 1959.

Swanson even wrote a review of Clement Greenberg’s famous article “A View of Art on the Prairies,” in the March/April 1963 issue of Canadian Art. Interestingly, in this review she expresses the typical Saskatoon view that Regina didn’t have much going for it as an art centre, kind of a reverse echo of her own criticism of the Canadian art establishment regarding Saskatchewan in the above-mentioned book review.

In her 1964 editorial to celebrate the opening of the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, Swanson provides a 20 year timeline of important dates since the opening of the original Saskatoon Art Centre in 1944.

1959 was the 50th anniversary of the University of Saskatchewan and a small article, unattributed, appears in the Star-Phoenix’s special section to celebrate the history of the art department.

In the Leader-Post’s Jubilee issue of 1955, celebrating Saskatchewan’s 50th anniversary as a province, you can find a first attempt to summarize the history of Regina art, included in an article celebrating the cultural history of the city. While no authorship is attributed to this article, it is clear that the writer used research material obtained from Ethel Barr (Mrs. G.H.) who had delivered a speech on the subject back in 1942 to the Orpheus Club of Regina. Sadly, the newspaper didn’t see fit to print Mrs. Barr’s speech at that time. She was an eye witness to Regina’s cultural history and Barr’s papers at the Saskatchewan Archives in Regina include some notes she made on historical artists in Regina, including Mrs. Swanston, mentioned in my blog, whom no one else ever mentioned in writing about Saskatchewan’s art history.

Remarkably, given the relative paucity of articles on art in the 1950s and 1960s in the Regina Leader-Post, staff writer Mary Ann Fitzgerald took on the task of writing the history of Saskatchewan art in 1965 in an astounding series of four articles published over the course of a week in the Leader’s editorial pages. “Saskatchewan Gains Art Centre Reputation,” “Province’s Art Tradition began in 1908,” “Lawyer’s estate gave art gallery its start,” and “Mendel Gallery expression of gratitude.”  These are the kind of articles that get cut out of newspapers and stored in art gallery files.  In these pieces the history of earlier artists and organizations gets short shrift in exchange for what was considered important in 1965 – modernism.  While arguing that Saskatchewan is not a cultural wasteland, she ironically reinforces that viewpoint by ignoring most of the activity that went on in the province before 1950, activity that was well documented back in the day by her own newspaper.

Apart from the recent online catalogue mentioned in my initial paragraph, there are at least three other survey catalogues produced locally which characterize the early painting of the province: Painting in Saskatchewan, 1883-1959 (Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, 1967); Saskatchewan Art & Artists (Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, 1971); Watercolour Painting in Saskatchewan 1905-1980 (Mendel Art Gallery, 1981). These, too, are heavily affected by their time, so it would be good to read them after looking at the Saskatchewan Art Progress Show 1880-1955 text published online and after reading some of these newspaper articles in the Google News Archive.

I also want to mention the unusual 1940 survey of Saskatchewan art that appeared in an IBM sponsored catalogue Contemporary Art of Canada and Newfoundland, which can be found online. A brief essay on each of the ten province’s art histories was included in this catalogue. No author is credited but one can assume that they were written by authorities in each province, as the introduction tells us that these people were consulted. No American author could tackle this back then.  If you read all the surveys, you will note how distinctive the essay representing Saskatchewan is. It is the only one written by someone intent upon contextualizing the provincial history of art into the general history of Canadian art and since the only art historian in Saskatchewan at that time was Gordon W. Snelgrove, I believe that the text relies heavily on his viewpoint and knowledge, if not his actual words. In that case, his short survey would be the first example of an art historical essay on Saskatchewan art written before 1950 that I could find. It is highly unlikely that this publication was widely distributed in Saskatchewan, though, since the exhibition never came there.

I will be speaking on Who was Gordon Snelgrove  in Saskatoon at Louise Barak’s exhibition of historical documents “Looking for Gordon” held at the Gordon Snelgrove Gallery, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon beginning January 19, 2015 to the end of the month.




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