The Discourse of Disappearance
- Leslie Dawn (Author)
National Visions, National Blindness: Canadian Art and Identities in the 1920s. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Tim Kaposy
In early April of 1927, the Museé du Jeu de Paume in Paris held an exhibition entitled, “L’Exposition d’art canadien.” It featured the now famous picturesque landscape paintings of the Group of Seven, along with a smattering of Haida and Tsimsyan carvings. Approximately one year earlier, a similar show in Wembley, England was heralded by London’s fine art establishment for displaying “the beginnings of a truly national flowering of art bearing beneath its soil seeds which may some day be fructified by a wider vision and deeper humanity.” The response in France a year or so later was just the opposite. Not only was each artist of the Group’s technique and colour composition dismissed by critics, they were satirized in the popular press for their nationalist pretense, for presenting themselves as adroit modern painters, and for the “outdoorsman” personae that imbued their work. The response was so negative that critics uniformly chastised their “primitive” sensibility—a double entrendre labelling them as “naïf” and accusing them of using a rhetoric of their unmediated relation to nature. After seeing the exhibit in Paris, Wyndham Lewis commented that the paintings were “all (no doubt) painted in log shacks by great hairy men with clear-cut bronzed features, keen eyes and open necks.”
This event in the history of Canadian art has long been suppressed. One wonders who sought to erase the fact that the exhibit failed miserably, and, why? Leslie Dawn’s astute book, National Visions, National Blindness, gives us at least two formidable answers. First, the reliance of the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) on the success of the Group of Seven in the world art scene was engineered and anticipated by its affiliated personnel. At stake was a canonical and a commercial future: approval in Parisian circles would serve to consecrate the Group’s uniqueness and, by extension, shed a favourable light on the Canadian arts in general. Hoping to bring symbolic value to a largely staid institution, collectors and curators of the NGC sought to frame the Group in epochal terms. The paintings were said to have captured the Canadian landscape in a “distinct, true, and independent” form. This aspect of Dawn’s critique of the Group is rich with archival rarities such as letters between NGC officials, exhibit pamphlets, and critical appraisals from an array of periodicals. The material is narrated thoroughly to unfold a story of how the international “field” of fine art in the 1920s was shaped to an increasing degree by bureaucrats and State coffers, not artists and their audience.
Dawn’s second answer to this question develops over the last six chapters of the book. The debacle in Paris is said to be a symptom of a latent conflict shaping Canadian cultural identity—a conflict at the forefront of this country’s identity in the eighty years since. He writes: “A broader analysis . . . indicates that the exhibition’s failure was the result of more complex and nuanced factors that went far beyond the works and the critics. Much of it had to do with how landscape, far from being ‘natural,’ was constructed during the period to serve different and competing claims for modernism and nationalism.” Although the Group and their handlers sought to supplant the history of indigenous art by claiming a myth of national origins for themselves, Dawn’s narrative shows how the “discourse of Native disappearance” was nonetheless interpreted uneasily and ambiguously by the anthropologist Marius Barbeau, the American artist W. Langdon Kihn, and the artist Emily Carr. The majority of the book traces in prodigious detail how these figures interpret Canadian identity at a time of continuous governmental dispossession of Native populations, and a growing fetishism and homogenization of Native culture. Most valuably, Dawn focuses our attention on the aesthetic and historical particularities of the Gitxsan community in British Columbia. The threat to Gitxsans has, since the earliest settlements, been a combination of systematic elimination and preservation in the form of mere aesthetic curiosity. This interrelation is examined here with the purpose of changing the conditions of future inquiries into Canadian art. “What,” Dawn ponders in the conclusion of his book, “became of the attempt to have Canadian Native art recognized as art, not ethnography?”
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MLA: Dawn, Leslie and Kaposy, Tim. The Discourse of Disappearance. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 July 2014.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #197 (Summer 2008), Predators and Gardens. (pg. 129 - 130)
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