Glancing Back, Fondly
- Ian G. Lumsden (Author)
Early Views of British North America from the Collection of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. Beaverbrook Art Gallery (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Diane Eaton (Author) and Sheila Urbanek (Author)
Paul Kane's Great Nor-West. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by I. MacLaren
These are two well-produced books about early Canadian painting that break no new critical ground. In 1994, Ian Lumsden chose a safe subject with which to celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of Lord Beaverbrook’s gift of an art gallery to the people of New Brunswick. His approach to the topographical painters and their work is art historical in the conventional sense. In some ways, the activity of the inventory sciences in nineteenth-century Canada, which Suzanne Zeller studies so ably in her book Inventing Canada, remains a necessary model for us today, since so much Canadiana still needs to be properly identified. It is always a service to have factual catalogues of collections compiled and biographical profiles drawn, and this text exhibits sufficient care in the details as to render it a dependable resource, but we would all be in the debt of Canadian art historians if they would regularly interpret works rigorously in terms of the larger projects of imperialism, colonialism, dominion building, and, in some cases, capitalism in which they played a not insignificant role.
Even in a project the aim of which is chiefly celebratory, it is disappointing to find expressions of contentment with the old saw about the "unquenchable thirst" of the British "for knowledge, both written and pictorial... of the enormous breadth of the Empire." Aesthetic criticism of some of the works is offered. Lumsden finds a "brittleness" in the work of George Neilson Smith’s compositions, "which attempt to integrate buildings into the landscape with the buildings executed in a manner totally incompatible with the handling of the natural landscape." It remains to the reader to extend this observation to British North America in general, and to look at the ways in which imposing public building and natural, even if idealized, space remained incompatible. In an identification of these four dozen works—depicting people and places as far flung as the Haida at Skidegate (Jules Tavernier), Kakabeka Falls (John Arthur Fraser), the high Arctic (William Smyth), Niagara Falls (Elizabeth Sophie Storie Saunders), St John’s Newfoundland (Robert William Best), and much of New Brunswick, both wilderness (Anna Maria Yorke Head), including Micmac culture (Hibbert Newton Binney and two anonymous works), and settlement (for example, John Hewett and John Elliott Woolford)— Lumsden strays no farther than the summary claim that this significant "part of our national patrimony created by military officers, travellers, government officials, talented amateurs and professionals ... afford[s] the enthusiast a dimension of appreciation and understanding of this nation’s early years that transcends the written word."
This last statement could have appeared in Paul Kane’s Great Nor-West, a "crossover" publication aimed at both scholarly and general readers. Both are told— again—that "Kane’s visual and written records create a unique and immensely varied panorama of the ’Great Nor-West’." This remark suggests that the case of Kane is unproblematic and coherent, yet the editors, having republished excerpts from my edition of some of Kane’s field writings, have argued that "the voice in Wanderings of an Artist is of an altogether different order" from that in the field notes, and that "Kane’s manuscript—like many other travel books of the time, including Sir George Simpson’s—was clearly ghostwritten." Such implicit contradiction will not satisfy either kind of reader. To have one’s research cited must be gratefully acknowledged, but its implications are not taken up. Eaton and Urbanek content themselves with the image of Kane as the national hero, an image into which he has been cast ever since returning to Toronto in 1848 from his travels to the Pacific, in such publications as Paul Kane’s Frontier, Russell Harper’s formidable 1971 study of Kane as an artist.
Colour in some of the reproductions is well used, and the selection of illustrations is careful. Most of the book comprises the rehearsing in Eaton and Urbanek’s words of Wanderings, first published in 1859. The false claim that Kane emerged from a trip through nothing but wilderness is reiterated. (The Willamette valley had been overrun by emigrants to Oregon by 1847, when Kane saw it, and the Red River settlement had long since converted wilderness to rural landscapes.) Thereby, Kane’s urge—somewhat misplaced by the mid-i84os—to record the unchanged lives of Native peoples is offered unquestioningly yet again. With only a measure of accuracy, Eaton and Urbanek regard him as "witness to the last bright flash of the Hudson’s Bay Company empire in its glory days." Theirs is a fond glance back, driven, no doubt, by market demand.
- National Pasts, Posts, and Futures by Robert Zacharias
Books reviewed: Canada: Images of a Post/National Society by Gunilla Florby, Mark Shackleton, and Katri Suhonen, Global Realignments and the Canadian Nation in the Third Milennium by Karin Ikas, and National Plots: Historical Fiction and Changing Ideas of Canada by Andrea Cabajsky
- Ways of Going North by Sherrill Grace
Books reviewed: Great Heart: The History of a Labrador Adventure by James West Davidson and John Rugge and Light for a Cold Land: Lawren Harris's Work and Life--An Interpretation by Peter Larisey
- Knowing Qu'Appelle by Marilyn Iwama
Books reviewed: Qu'Appelle: Tales of Two Valleys by Trevor Herriot, Dan Ring, and Robert Stacey and Rediscovering the Great Plains: Journey by Dog, Canoe, and Horse by Norman Henderson
- Lives in Art by Susan Wasserman
Books reviewed: Back Flip by Anne Denoon and Private View by Jean McNeil
- Shake, Rattle, and Roll by Jon Kertzer
Books reviewed: Borderlands: How we talk about Canada by W. H. New, Scatology and Civility in the English-Canadian Novel by Reinhold Kramer, and Symptoms of Canada: An Essay on the Canadian Identity by Kieran Keohane
MLA: MacLaren, I.. Glancing Back, Fondly. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #165 (Summer 2000), (Brochu, Buckler, Davies, Lowry, Ondaatje). (pg. 147 - 148)
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