A Modern Life: Art and Design in British Columbia, 1945-1960
November 4, 2013
Review By Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe
An early and still not inappropriate epithet for Vancouver is Terminal City. This epithet denotes not only a peripheral cultural as well as a geographical location but also the city’s potential for development, despite its tendency to parochialism. Those attributes apply to this handsomely produced book of illustrations from, and essays about, a recent exhibition of the arts and crafts produced in Vancouver in the decade around the 1949 Design for Living show – each, incidentally, mounted at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
The major contribution of the original exhibition and current book is the collection of excellent examples, and colour photographs, of the pictures, sculptures, ceramics, and furniture produced in and around Vancouver from 1945 to 1960. In that respect it considerably expands on the comparable enterprise undertaken in 1983 with Vancouver Art and Artists, 1931-1983. The separate chapters written by Ian Thom and Alan Elder, curators of the exhibition, respectively review the wider cultural context and the important federal link established between what had, in an earlier era in Britain, been described as “Arts and Manufactures.” The postwar West Coast Canadian version of this was of a different mettle. It derived from a new interrelation between the public sphere and the emergent consumer economy situated in the suburban sprawl financed by Reconstruction government investment and Cold War rearmament. They and the remaining contributors touch on some of these factors.
Among those factors meriting fuller consideration are new patterns of Canadian and overseas immigration as well as regional variants on the confluence of social democratic and free enterprise politics. Rachelle Chinery provides an overview of the West Coast potter’s art that relates the local to the international scene through a judicious moulding of biographical and art historical data. The significance of personal networks and artists’ sojourns abroad, coupled with reference to the larger transatlantic art discourse, distinguishes Scott Watson’s account of West Coast painting. The relative conservatism of Vancouver painting, and particularly its bucolic and even romantic vein, reflect both the switch to an abstracted version of the picturesque paralleling British practice and the often overlooked biomorphic and spiritual components of the Modern Movement. Aspects of the complex weft and warp of what is generically defined as modernism also figure in the chapters by Alan Collier and Sherry McKay, respectively, on bc plywood furniture and the locally published magazine Western Homes and Living. Collier has been responsible for conserving and reinstating the historical no less than the aesthetic value of this genus of Canadian furniture, which, quite rightly, figures prominently in the book and exhibition. The technology of plywood and, in particular, the innovations introduced into western Canada by the Koerner dynasty could have been further explored, not least in order to illustrate the importance of anti-fascist migration and imported technocracy to the development of Canadian industry and culture during the age of C.D. Howe.
Indeed, much of the triumph of the formal language and visual vocabulary of modernism in North America depended upon the renewed belief in the social benefit of analytical and industrial processes; that is, in the materialist expression of an ethic that allowed the discourse of social reform to appear to be still active amidst the increasing commercialization of every component of social practice. This phenomenon is scrutinized by McKay, who introduces an interesting counterpoint between the domestic scene and the new materials and appliances that either decorated or dominated it, and between the practical and theoretical approaches to its definition. The theorists include Sigfried Giedion, author of the seminal Modernist text, Space, Time and Architecture (1941) and Jean Baudrillard, whose books include the System of Objects (1996). While the comparison illuminates the way in which we arrive at, or are influenced towards, divergent ways of understanding the objects that figure in our consciousness, the literature of advertising (notably by Vance Packard) and the critique of late bourgeois society (by Noam Chomsky or Alvin Toffler) bear equally on the diagnosis of modernism’s relapse into modernity.
The preceding etymological pun speaks to the potential for a more extensive contextualization and deconstruction of Reconstruction-era art and craft production in the Terminal City. The oddest omission, either by direct or bibliographic reference, is of the Vancouver architectural scene. All the chapters acknowledge the powerful presence of architecture and the frequent interchanges between architects, artists, and craftspeople. The Design for Living show was, after all, as much about the architectonic fabric of contemporary Vancouver society as it was about the fabrication of objects to ornament its comfortable lifestyle. Several of the artists and craftspeople highlighted are shown to have either architectural training or interests, most obviously Bert Binning, Douglas Simpson, Peter Cotton, and Zoltan Kiss; and it is worth noting that the single West Coast building on the National Register of Historic Monuments to date is the modernist house Binning designed for himself and his wife Jessie Binning with the architect Charles E. “Ned” Pratt of the distinguished Vancouver firm, Sharp Thompson Berwick Pratt. Moreover, the purpose of A Modern Life is stated to be a “weaving together” of the disciplines of design and architecture. That purpose is appropriate to the Modern Movement generally and to the West Coast situation specifically. The Design for Living show carried forward the dynamic of earlier radical and commercial initiatives centred on urban renewal and residential improvement. The Art in Living Group that was active in the 1940s had been formed by artists teaching at the Vancouver School of Art who were inspired by the tenets of social reform and aesthetic experimentation that they admired in Continental art and architectural work.
The first display of new architectural space-making, replete with modern appliances and furniture, was in the Sky bungalow erected to the designs of Fred T. Hollingsworth in the parking lot of the Hudson’s Bay Company store; Hollingsworth became an architect after studying at the School of Architecture at the University of British Columbia and doing a stint as a commercial artist. The exigencies of war contributed to a broadly welcomed diminution of the disjunction between so-called high and low art – one reflected in the alliance of business with cultural interests in the expansion of regional infrastructure and institutions. The centrality of architecture, encompassing the confident assertion by the profession of its primacy in the reordering of the total environment of contemporary living, was recounted in the 1997–98 Canadian Centre for Architecture (and Vancouver Art Gallery) exhibition and book The New Spirit: Modern Architecture in Vancouver 1938-1963. Also omitted from the citations are Harold Kalman’s masterly account of West Coast Modernism in A History of Canadian Architecture (1994), such diagnoses of postwar populist taste as Thomas Hine’s Populuxe: The Look and Life of America in the 50’s and 60’s (1986), and two other articles by this reviewer that address the ideological range and relation of public and private domain during the period: “Leonard Marsh and Vancouver Modern” (1996) and “The Fe-Male Spaces of Modernism: A Western Canadian Perspective” (2002).
The text of A Modern Life would also have benefited by the substitution of additional or expanded essays on the connectivity and contribution of West Coast art and craft instead of by reprinting R.H. Hubbard’s rather chatty romanticization of the episode – partly responsible for some of the mythologizing corrected by Watson. Among the issues worthy of additional study are the reasons for the temporary elevation of the moral and aesthetic suasion of architecture in the transatlantic sphere throughout this era, the shifts in the formal and theoretical discourse of art and architecture, and the genealogy of Canadian design praxis. Vancouver attracted a remarkable number of emigrant designers from Europe and Britain (especially following the Festival of Britain in 1951, which allied the arts of design with a democratized popular culture). But the Vancouver design community remained connected to various nodes of regional modernist enterprise in Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Not only Richard Neutra but also Bernard Maybeck, John Yeon, Harwell Harris, and Paul Thiry contributed to the formation of a local idiom. The supposedly distinctive post-and-beam structure, often regarded as the main feature of the West Coast style, had been anticipated in the 1930s by British, German, and Austrian architects, as published in more than one of the professional journals that affected such local practitioners as Catherine Wisnicki and Peter Thornton. And the reputation of Vancouver as a centre of the arts depended to no small degree upon a talented cadre of local photographers. Their work still awaits comprehensive study in spite of its value to both the cultural and commercial production systems. The slippage of modernism from agent of communitarian ethos to consumerist pragmatics and the associated auto-suburbanization of modernist endeavour also deserves further investigation (alongside the arts scene). The more limited extent of respective practice in Vancouver affords an invaluable opportunity to measure the internal changes and external pressure operating with regard to the migration of ideas and creativity.
A Modern Life nevertheless adds much to the picture of Reconstruction-era Vancouver. The relics of its art and design have an accessible vitality that compares favourably with the sometimes stilted ideological and iconographic artifice of the current Vancouver School and the glitz of much of the recent urban fabric gathered under the neologism “Vancouverism.”