The Modernist Tradition, 1900-1950

Emily Carr, Metchosin, c. 1935. oil on canvas. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery; Gift from the Estate of Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Naylor G-86-501.


Worldwide exploration, colonization, and trade dominated the 1800s, underpinned by revolution and economic disparity, as well as scientific and technological advancements. Academic art in Europe and Canada, which favoured a serene and polished sentimental style, stood in increasingly stark contrast to this turbulent reality.

The invention of photography had a lasting impact on how artists in the latter-half of the 19th century came to view the world. Beginning with the French Barbizon school, and continuing with the Impressionists, painters portrayed the world as a patchwork of light, emphasizing rather than concealing their brushstrokes. Additionally, the invention of tube oil paints allowed artists to work with greater ease outside their studios. The Impressionists not only began their painting outdoors, they often finished their work en plein air, and in doing so captured something of the fleeting quality of modern life.

Artists who followed the Impressionists—the so-called Postimpressionists—developed other stylistic innovations. Expressionism and Fauvism emerged during the first three decades of the 20th century, motivated by an intuitive use of colour and form toward the evocation of feeling and emotion. Rather than seeking to replicate what they saw, these artists succeeded in abstracting from reality, thereby pushing art away from the goal of pictorial illusion and into various modes of abstraction.

Throughout the early 20th century, Canadian artists absorbed modern art principles from reading international art magazines, studying overseas and in the United States, and attending groundbreaking exhibitions like the 1913 Armory Show in New York City. However, they all reacted differently to these influences. Some welcomed modernism for its own sake; others adapted European innovations toward creating a distinctly national art. While several Canadian painters experimented with Expressionism and Abstraction as early the late 1920s, both remained undercurrents of the Canadian scene until 1940, when the Quebec-based group the Automatists used abstraction as a rallying call for social revolution.

Bertram Brooker, Sounds Assembling, 1928. oil on canvas. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, L-80

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