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National Visions, National Blindness: Canadian Art and Identities in the 1920s

By Leslie Dawn

Review By Gerta Moray

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 156-157 Winter-Spring 2007-2008  | p. 179-83

Leslie Dawn makes an ambitious contribution to a hotly debated topic of Canadian cultural history – the role of the visual arts in the formation of the image of a modern Canadian nation. The title’s reference to national blindness and the cover illustration take us to the heart of the book’s argument. A handsome portrait of a Gitxsan woman chief in ceremonial regalia is seen hanging on a gallery wall. She gazes out, while in front of her the blurred figures of a gallery audience pass by. The painting seems to be a piece of Canadian heritage, but neither the image (Martha Mawlhan of the Raven clan of Gitsegukla, BC, portrayed in 1924) nor the artist (W. Langdon Kihn) are familiar today. The book’s title promises an enquiry into what have become our accepted icons and what has been rendered invisible. Based on a huge fund of new archival research, National Visions, National Blindness will be an indispensable resource, even for readers who question the patterns of interpretation that Dawn superimposes throughout his narrative. 

At issue is how and why certain time-hallowed images of Canada, such as the paintings of the Group of Seven, were enshrined at the formative moment when national institutions – the National Gallery of Canada and the National Museum – were newly created. Dawn’s general perspective, that Canada’s self-image as a pristine northern wilderness of jack pine, lake, and snowy peak was constructed by a self-appointed Anglo-Canadian elite, is one widely shared by revisionist scholars since the 1980s. Many critics (now accessible in Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art, edited by John O’Brian and Peter White, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007) have noted the paradox that the painting of these seemingly unspoiled wilderness scenes coincided with the exploitation of northern Ontario for mining, logging, and tourism. They have pointed to the erasure of first Nations presence from the landscape in paintings by the Group of Seven, at a time when the government’s policy of Aboriginal assimilation through Indian residential schools and enforced enfranchisement aimed to eradicate first Nations cultures in Canada. 

Dawn’s mission is to explain what he pinpoints as a crisis in the representation of the Native population in Canadian arts and popular culture during this formative period. He presents a series of detailed case studies that trace the activities of the artists and administrators who put in place a public image and identity for Canada during the 1920s for domestic and for international consumption. The imagery of the landscape and of the regalia of a “primitive” and now allegedly vanishing Native population, Dawn notes, was required to fill a gap because of Canadians’ lack of an ancient Volk – a central concept for European nation-states grounding their own national mythologies. As a result, he points out, “Native populations had no viable place within the new ‘native’ Canadian culture, except as emblems of their own disappearance” (2). While this manufactured image of the nation suited the interests of the state and the elite it served, it was fraught with ambiguities and was highly unstable because Native peoples, in fact, were not disappearing but were engaged in numerous local struggles to resist current government policies. Their visibility in popular culture (rodeos and “Indian Days” in the Canadian west) and in the arts thus always threatened the fiction of their “vanishing” and, with it, the assumption by colonial newcomers that unused lands and a “prehistoric” Native cultural legacy were up for grabs. 

Dawn scrutinizes a series of artistic projects through which Canada’s newly fledged cultural institutions launched their fictions of Canadian identity and, concurrently, he suggests, worked to cover up the contradictory state of “Indian” affairs. He discusses the key exhibitions through which the National Gallery promoted the Group of Seven – at the British Empire Exhibitions at Wembley in 1924 and 1925, through a Canadian art exhibition sent to Paris in 1927, through the now notorious Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art, Native and Modern at the National Gallery in 1927, and in shows circulated in the North American continent during the 1920s and 1930s. He examines the activities of government ethnographers and of the Department of Indian Affairs (dia) with regard to recording and preserving Native artifacts and totem poles and deploying them as tourist attractions. In the dock are the first director of the National Gallery, Eric Brown; ethnographer Marius Barbeau of the National Museum of Canada; Duncan Campbell Scott, superintendent-general of the dia; and the Group of Seven’s A.Y. Jackson and Lawren Harris. Like a prosecuting attorney tracking evidence of cultural crimes, Dawn combs through their desk drawers, files, mailboxes, and published reports in search of smoking guns. 

He finds plentiful evidence of systemic racism, although how far the activities of the individuals he discusses were as self-consciously calculated as he makes them sound may be questioned. Dawn acknowledges some risk and unease in combining two distinct methodologies: (1) the analysis of broad historical systems and their inherent logic (here, the colonial situation in Canada that saw a conflict between Aboriginal peoples and colonizers over control of the land and the enforcement of cultural values) and (2) the application of detailed attention to the role of specific actors. In Dawn’s narrative it is these actors rather than the colonial power structure that become the villains of the tale. 

While the cultural projects Dawn investigates have been described and discussed before, in each case he finds sufficient new evidence to clarify the links between political agendas and cultural policies in Canada after the first World War. With his detailed examination of the reception of the Group of Seven in London, Paris, Toronto, and Montreal, for example, Dawn makes clear how dramatically the meaning of the art shifted with the varied ideological positions of diVerent audiences. He attributes the Group’s critical success at the British Empire Exhibition in 1924 to the artists’ use of an underlying pictorial structure that carried on the conventions of the Picturesque movement, conventions that historically had signalled a Eurocentric gaze upon an entrepreneurial and colonial domain. The members of the Group of Seven succeeded in “displaying an image of national difference” with their new Canadian Shield imagery and their broad post-Impressionist colour and handling, while remaining “loyal to the empire” with the more conservative structure of their compositions (11). 

Dawn shows that appreciation of the Group of Seven unravelled when the National Gallery sent their work to the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris in 1927. He reveals that the National Gallery, which expected to score a further endorsement of the Group of Seven, obtained the invitation for a Canadian exhibition through covert solicitation. But the reception by the French press, which in general assessed the work of the Group of Seven as weak and immature and the Native artifacts in the show as masterly, was so contrary to the National Gallery’s intentions that, instead of publishing the reviews in a pamphlet, as it had promised and as it had done with the Wembley reviews, it in fact suppressed them.

Dawn goes on to analyze the complications of reception that arose in a succession of cultural projects that attempted to insert first Nations heritage into “Canadian” culture. His treatment of the Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art, Native and Modern brings new light to its political aspects. A crucial argument in Dawn’s book is that the visibility of Native traditional cultures in art exhibitions, and the excessive interest that this often elicited from observers, was seen by administrators as a threat to the government policies that aimed to eradicate a separate Native identity in Canada. Dawn sets out a fascinating accounting of the divisions among government administrators and anthropologists “on the issue of the continuity of Native cultures and identity and the policies of assimilation and repression” (190). He makes it apparent that Marius Barbeau was more often in sympathy with D.C. Scott than with the explicitly anti-racist position of the head of the Canadian anthropological division, Edward Sapir (381 n. 39), although his portrayal of Barbeau as a spy for Scott rests on conjecture. Dawn draws a general contrast between the attitudes of art circles and government oYcials in Canada and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. Compared with the growing support for local Native art production in the American Southwest on behalf of a market of interested art patrons centred in New York, Canadian bureaucrats complied with the dia to discourage anything that made Native ownership and retention of their customs and traditions seem viable (243-44).

These Canadian priorities, Dawn contends, also account for the ultimate disappearance from view of the work of Langdon Kihn, an American painter first sponsored by the cpr to paint portraits of Native chiefs in the Canadian Rockies. Dawn’s lengthy discussion of Kihn’s paintings and activities supplies a significant missing chapter in Canadian art history. It also serves as an example of Dawn’s tendency to find conspiracies everywhere. He argues that the National Gallery’s purchase in June 1926 of Kihn’s paintings of Skeena Valley subjects was a calculated move to take them out of circulation and effectively bury them because of their sympathetic and detailed portrayal of Native individuals. Kihn portrayed his sitters dressed in the regalia of their traditional rank – images that, if seen in London, might sway public opinion there. It is certainly true that “control of the image of the Indian” was important to D.C. Scott and the dia in 1926, when the Allied Tribes of British Columbia was challenging the government on the question of land and Aboriginal rights in that province. But far from “having to concede defeat of his policies to eradicate Native culture and identity” (172), Scott was all too successful in blocking further land claims activity, and the Allied Tribes was given no chance to take its case to London. There are numerous slippages between speculation and fact in Dawn’s account of Kihn’s treatment in Canada. Since Kihn was an American, the relegation of his paintings to various Canadian museum vaults is just as likely to have been the result of the nationalism and artistic turf protection that gave primacy of place to the new Canadian art movement epitomized by the Group of Seven. Dawn notes only Kihn’s successes in the United States and not the fact that his work was equally eclipsed there by the Stieglitz circle and its patriotic modernism. The humanity and cultural specificity of Kihn’s Native portraits was perhaps a subliminal reason that Canadian government officials stopped promoting his work, but it was hardly the only one. 

Dawn is quite right to point out the National Gallery’s failure to buy Emily Carr’s new monumental paintings of Northwest Coast totem poles in the early 1930s – a rejection he attributes to the nervousness of the art establishment regarding the vivid impression of Native presence in her works (272). But he goes on to elaborate a conspiratorial scenario in which Lawren Harris, through “subtle and brutal” innuendoes in his letters (306), virtually “coerces” Carr into submission to his “moral, racial, national and aesthetic imperatives” (307). Dawn’s argument that Harris pressured Carr because of the political connotations of her Native imagery is sheer conjecture: it should be noted that the National Gallery did not buy her landscape works at this time either. Also unconvincing is Dawn’s depiction of Carr as responding to Harris and Brown’s supposed “bullying” by calculating which of her paintings to send east in order to avoid exclusion. He represents her submission to the National Gallery’s Canadian Annual Exhibition in 1931 as “eschewing the monumental Native pieces she had been working on and showing elsewhere.” Actually, Carr had none of her recent Native paintings at hand as they were still retained by John Hatch after her show in Seattle, a fact that she bemoaned as it left her with nothing to send east. Dawn explains the apparent contradiction (that the painting Carr did send, Indian Village, BC, was in fact a Native subject) by citing Doris Shadbolt’s suggestion that this might have been the same painting that had been hung at the Baltimore Pan-American Exhibition. States Dawn: “It had been accepted into the Pan-American Exhibition. Given its ratification by such an authority, refusing it in Canada would have been hard to justify” (305). But since the dates of the two exhibitions overlap, these two paintings could not have been the same. So Dawn’s argument holds no water. 

Dawn’s frequent reliance on such apparent statements of “fact” to con-struct elaborate speculative scenarios somewhat mars a challenging book that otherwise adds a great quantity of significant detail to our picture of cultural developments in Canada between the two world wars. The repetitive deployment of a profusion of details to construct what Dawn infers were the schemes and motives of individual players creates a fascinating and tendentious “reality effect,” to use a term from Roland Barthes. How far this extends our understanding of the actors in this drama and how far it gives rise to blindnesses of its own will generate a continuing debate.