150 Years of Canadian Art

Written By: Simran Birk

Canada is short of its 150th birthday in a few weeks. Over a century of development and progress has ranked Canada among the highest in international measurements of government transparency, civil liberties, quality of life, economic freedom, and education. However, Canada’s progress and flourishment in cultural and artistic movements should also be acknowledged and recognized.  Let us recount Canada’s finest artists from the past century and half.

It is important to start this article with recognizing and celebrating indigenous art. Indigenous art is an important part of Canadian art as it describes a history and culture that has been established in Canada for centuries. It should also be acknowledged that the word ‘Canada’ is believed to originates from the St. Lawrence Iroquoian word kanata, meaning "village" or "settlement". Bill Reid is a renowned Haida artist who specializes in jewelry, sculpture, screen-printing, and paintings. His work has can be found in various galleries and museums across Canada. An important accomplishment of Reid’s is that two of his sculptures, Raven and the First Men and Spirit of Haida Gwaii, are prominently featured on the $20 Canadian note from 2004 to 2012.

Bill Reid, Spirit of Haida Gwaii, 1986

Bill Reid, Spirit of Haida Gwaii, 1986

Another aboriginal artist that deserve recognition for their artistic work is Rebecca Belmore. Belmore specializes in installations and performance pieces. Belmore is especially important as her piece’s addresses history, voice and voice-lessness, place, and identity. Belmore work incorporates art, history, and politics to create a truly impactful piece of work. Some of Belmore accomplishments include the 2013 Governors General Awards as well as being the first aboriginal woman representing Canada at the Venice Biennale in 2005.

Rebecca Belmore

Rebecca Belmore

Moving on to other artists who have influenced the Canadian art scene, the Group of Seven is a name that is known by many Canadians. The Group of Seven is a group of artists who specialized in painting Canadian landscape during the early 20th century. The group originally consisted of Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley. The Group of Seven is best known for initiating a national art movement in Canadian art. The Group traveled across Canada, depicting its varying landscapes in a new perspective, that gained popularity among Canadian society.

Emily Carr is name that is often associated with the group of Seven and Canadian artists. Although Carr was not officially member of the group, she was closely associated. Carr is known for being one of the first artist to adopt a Modernist and Post-Impressionist painting style. Initially, Carr’s work is focused on indigenous culture and art. However, there is an evident shift to landscape paintings later in her life, when she became involved with the Group of Seven. Carr is an important figure in Canadian art history as she broke and changed the customary representational form of landscape paintings by painting the landscape and spirit of Canada in a modern style. Carr’s life and work is recognized through the many Canadian art institutions named in her honor and the various galleries and museums that hold her work.

Emily Carr, The Indian Church, 1929

Emily Carr, The Indian Church, 1929

The late 20th century and early 21st century art scene has also been impacted with various artists from different movements and mediums. One group that should be mentioned is the media based artists, General Idea. General Idea was an active art group from 1967 to 1994, that is made up of artists Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson. General Idea’s work specialized in the twisting forms of popular mass media culture, such as beauty pageants, television talk shows and trade fair pavilions into unconventional media forms. These forms would include postcards, posters, balloons etc. General Idea’s later work addresses the AIDS crisis’s, spreading awareness of this disease through various projects. General Idea’s accomplishments include being featured in the Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Canada.

A.Y. Jackson, Red Maple, 1914

A.Y. Jackson, Red Maple, 1914

General Idea, AIDS, 1988

General Idea, AIDS, 1988

Canada’s art scene is much like the country; incredibly diverse with passion and culture. The artists in this article are a few of the many who contribute to Canadian art.  However, it is important to understand that art in Canada is influential and impactful in various ways; whether its making a statement about politics or bringing awareness to a disease, art always has a purpose. With Canada’s 150th birthday coming up, it is important to not only celebrate the birth of this great nation but also to recognize it many accomplishments throughout the years, whether it be in science, culture or art.