Body/Landscape/Art: Ekphrasis and the North in Jane Urquhart’s The Underpainter


Some of the most exciting contemporary approaches to settler-nationalist narratives of Canadian identity from postcolonial perspectives involve sustained engagement with non-literary modes of representation. Among the most striking examples of this tendency are literary interrogations of the iconic, overtly nationalist wilderness images of the Group of Seven and their associates. In this paper, I explore the critical potential of ekphrasis (the literary depiction of visual art) as a postcolonial mode in such a setting. Employing detailed formal theories of ekphrasis, I use the example of Jane Urquhart’s 1997 novel The Underpainter to illustrate how the referential ambiguities attached to ekphrastic representation enable its use as a radically destabilizing tool, restoring a temporal, narrative dimension to the spatialized forms of imperialist representation. By repeatedly suggesting and refuting links to the instantly recognizable canvases of the Group, I suggest, Urquhart’s novel fulfils just such a destabilizing (and hence recuperative) function.

This article “Body/Landscape/Art: Ekphrasis and the North in Jane Urquhart’s The Underpainter” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 212 (Spring 2012): 11-32.

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