Can you name a handful of women artists? Seems like an easy question but when I asked some of my friends and colleagues, most of them were not able to – and neither was I. It is a task many have failed at before.
It is startling how little is known about women in the arts and their achievements. “Defying Convention” at the Winnipeg Art Gallery now features the work of more than 30 women artists from across Canada who shattered social and cultural barriers in the decade from 1900 to 19060.
“It explores the obstacles, influences, and achievements that shaped their artistic identities” explain curators Paula Kelly and Stephen Borys. “These artists not only challenged 19th-century ideals of domestic womanhood, they joined the Modernist movement that resisted academic tradition and embraced innovation of every kind.”
The exhibition spans six decades during which profound social and cultural shifts were prompted by growing demands for gender equality on many fronts. In their own time, these women received widespread acclaim, exhibited their works in North America and Europe, and influenced the landscape of Modernist art in Canada. Yet today, most are not well recognized by the public at large. “Defying Convention” addresses this deficit in the historical perception of women’s value as artists.
I loved this work of art by Emily Coonan whose beautifully textured oil painting shows the impact of European Post-Impressionism which the painter explored in studies at the Art Association of Montreal. Coonan later joined the influential Beaver Hall Group from Montreal that helped galvanize the Canadian Modernist movement and was remarkable for its inclusive membership of women artists.
“The women in Defying Convention seized the Modernist potential for intuitively expressing contemporary life around them, the people who inhabited their worlds, and their desire for self-expression”, says co-curator Paula Kelly.
“By asserting their identities as artists, they also resisted the social prescription that a woman’s sphere was primarily the home. Instead, they occupied multiple roles as artists and activists, mothers and mentors, wives and lovers, teachers and community builders.” They worked as instructors, illustrators, and entrepreneurs to further their goals. Some had supportive families, spouses and partners, while others remained single to maintain a self-determined lifestyle, e.g. Emily Carr.
The work of these artists represents the lives and experiences of women from across Canada: from Nunavut to the Prairies, from British Columbia to Eastern Canada. Their stories are as rich and diverse as the styles they explored. The art they made reveals the insistent nature of their personal visions.”
I could not stop looking at this painting by Prudence Heward. Several of her figurative paintings depict young women in landscape settings, including this oil painting called “Farmer’s Daughter”, painted toward the end of the Depression. The uncertain and defiant gaze of the young woman epitomises an era exhausted by the struggle for survival.
The current exhibition runs until September 3 and is drawn entirely from the WAG‘s permanent collection.
With a focus on Canadian women artists working within the same period, Defying Convention invites dialogue about the significant gender imbalance apparent in the European shows.
Interesting further reading about amazing international women artists: