THE NUDE : In Modern Canadian Art, 1920-1950
THE NUDE
In Modern Canadian Art, 1920-1950
M.H.R., November 16, 2009
Reclining nudes, standing nudes, nudes sitting, blended into landscapes or inside the studio. Provocative poses, poignant poses, yes, but more tellingly, nudes as the subject of new adventures in form. Nudes straying from the academic tradition and venturing on to more daring paths. The Nude, a major survey exhibition that unveils the history of this little-known genre in modern art in Canada.

Nu_Nude/Adrien Hébert, Nu, Nude vers 1923_National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Nu_Nude/Adrien Hébert, Nu, Nude vers 1923_National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa


The Nude in Modern Canadian Art, 1920-1950 brings together some 130 paintings, sculptures, photographs, prints and drawings by 55 artists in all, including Paul-Émile Borduas, Alex Colville, Prudence Heward and Edwin Holgate.

The exhibition is designed to give visitors an astonishing human experience through works gleaned from Canadian museums and private collections, organized according to seven themes: Breaking with Tradion, Variations on the Back and the Torso, The Outdoor Nude, The Crisis of the Image, The Artist and the Model, Nudity and Contemporary Life and In War Time. The sheer scope and variety of the interpretations presented is compelling proof that the nude made a difference in the history of modern Canadian art. A captivating exhibition where art is laid bare.


Nu_Nude/Edwin H. Holgate, Intérieur_Interior, vers-about 1933_Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
Nu_Nude/Edwin H. Holgate, Intérieur_Interior, vers-about 1933_Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto


The Nude in Modern Canadian Art, 1920-1950 raises the veil on the art of the nude. Though often overlooked, this time-honoured genre was practised extensively by Canadian artists during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Eager to explore new forms of visual expression, they abandoned the classical quest for ideal beauty and made the representation of the human body into something subversive.

We offer here a fresh view of modern Canadian art, seen so often as dominated by landscape or abstraction. Our aim has been to show how this country’s artists breathed new life into the nude, drawing upon both European modernism and American realism but also assimilating the latest advances in photography, dance and sports. In a period of paradox, when exploitation of nudity by the entertainment industry co-existed with widespread censorship, the theme became an overt call for freedom of expression. In examining the works, you will see unfolding on the walls before you a history of perceptions of the human body that were shaped by their era and that range from pictures of unadorned reality to poetic flights of fancy.


Nu_Nude/Ernst Neumann, Autoportrait nu_Portrait of the Artist Nude 1930_Gift of-de Mr. Claude Laberge, Musée d'Art de Joliette
Nu_Nude/Ernst Neumann, Autoportrait nu_Portrait of the Artist Nude 1930_Gift of-de Mr. Claude Laberge, Musée d'Art de Joliette


During the 1920s artists began questioning the canons of ideal beauty that had been embodied for centuries in images of Apollo and Venus. Little by little the slick surfaces and smooth, entirely hairless bodies of the past disappeared, giving way to a more realistic aesthetic approach.

Under the impact of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, the works in this section reflect a concern for order and harmony. The nude figures blend into their environment, echoing its forms and light while embodying the sensual qualities of flesh in a variety of ways.

Despite the often classically inspired settings and the odalisque poses – either reclining or standing facing the viewer – the models show signs of modernity. It is easy to spot the roaring twenties garçonne, with her athletic body, cropped hair and make-up. Although female models still predominated in Canadian works from the first half of the 20th century, a number of women artists practised the art of the nude and contributed towards its modernization.


Nu_Nude/Alexander Colville, Nu et mannequin-Nude and Dummy, 1950_Purchased from the artist, 1951, New Brunswick Museum, Saint John
Nu_Nude/Alexander Colville, Nu et mannequin-Nude and Dummy, 1950_Purchased from the artist, 1951, New Brunswick Museum, Saint John


Research for the exhibition uncovered a wealth of images of backs and torsos. Does this phenomenon reflect the enduring affection of painters for the studio model – such a familiar feature of their education? Or was the focus on the back simply a way of avoiding censorship?

In fact, the habit of portraying the body in sections went back to the classical tradition, which taught drawing by having students copy fragments of antique statues. The practice meant that artists were used to perceiving the body not as a whole but as a collection of separate parts. And the development of photography brought new perspectives, since it allowed innovative framing and the mapping of new body geographies. These techniques encouraged the close-up, which sometimes confronted viewers with highly sexual, even provocative images.


Nu_Nude/Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté, Symphonie pathétique-Pathetic Symphony, 1925_Restauration effectuée par le Centre de conservation du Québec Musée national des Beaux-Arts du Québec, Québec
Nu_Nude/Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté, Symphonie pathétique-Pathetic Symphony, 1925_Restauration effectuée par le Centre de conservation du Québec Musée national des Beaux-Arts du Québec, Québec


The theme of the nude in nature has inspired numerous masterpieces, from Giorgione in the 16th century to
Manet, Cézanne, Renoir, Picasso and Matisse four hundred years later.

In Canada, the subject was eclipsed by the painting of the influential Group of Seven, whose members asserted their modernity exclusively via the representation of nature. Montrealer Edwin Holgate, who became a member of the group in 1929, humanized his landscapes by peopling them with nude figures that mirror the forms of their untamed surroundings. During the same period, the Toronto artist Kathleen Munn made her bodies one with the wilderness, fusing the two in the expressive chaos created by a network of Cubist lines and rhythms.

Like these artists – more so, in fact – Montrealer John Lyman was influenced by French thinking and its myth of a humanity in harmony with nature. His painting echoes Matisse’s, itself a reflection of Baudelaire’s invitation to go where “all is order and beauty, luxury, peace and pleasure.”


Nu_Nude/Henry George Glyde, Elle était assise sur une colline dominant la ville, 1940_She Sat Upon A Hill Above the City, 1940_Gift-Don de Helen Collinson, 1981_Glenbow Museum, Calgary.
Nu_Nude/Henry George Glyde, Elle était assise sur une colline dominant la ville, 1940_She Sat Upon A Hill Above the City, 1940_Gift-Don de Helen Collinson, 1981_Glenbow Museum, Calgary.


In Canada, the nude evolved into an experimental form that embodied the ideals of modernism. Its subversive character increased as explorations of the imagination and the subconscious generated new visual metaphors.

During the 1940s Quebec artists drew considerable inspiration from this inner world, and their contributions fed into several major international movements. The bodies created are sometimes disturbing in their strangeness and licentiousness, or because of their gruesome setting. In 1948 the Quebec Automatistes published Refus Global, a manifesto that loudly decried traditional values, societal stagnation and the dictatorship of reason. The works executed by their leader Borduas, just before he moved away from figurative art entirely to embrace abstraction, feature a highly sexualized nudity.


Nu_Nude/John Lyman, Jeune homme indolent, Indolent Youth about, vers 1922_MNBAQ, Québec
Nu_Nude/John Lyman, Jeune homme indolent, Indolent Youth about, vers 1922_MNBAQ, Québec


The nude figure study – known as an “academy figure” – was an essential element of an artist’s training. Since the late 19th century Canadian art schools had been offering drawing classes with live models, generally men wearing a loincloth. Students dissatisfied with this teaching approach organized clandestine sketching sessions with models who were entirely nude.

The studio nude soon became more than a learning exercise, developing into a full-fledged genre that symbolized the private space of creation. Certain artists, like Ernst Neuman and Pegi Nicol MacLeod, executed strikingly uninhibited self-portraits, stripped down and full of vitality. But the image of a nude body is never commonplace, and some works were considered shocking at the time. The proximity and crudity of the sexualized bodies sometimes led to censorship. The reputed draughtsman Louis Muhlstock protested publicly against such reactions, proclaiming the right to freedom of expression.


Nu_Nude/Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald, Nu, Vers_Nude about  1929_Don en mémoire de Marjorie Brunton, Guyborough, Nova Scotia, 1999_Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax
Nu_Nude/Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald, Nu, Vers_Nude about 1929_Don en mémoire de Marjorie Brunton, Guyborough, Nova Scotia, 1999_Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax


“The nude” and “nudity” are worlds apart. In art, the nude is a genre generally associated with bodies that are beautiful, healthy and in their prime, remodelled and exalted by the artist. Nudity, on the other hand, simply denotes the condition of being unclothed, and the term itself conjures some of the discomfort we feel when exposed to bodies in this state.

Between 1920 and 1950, as popular culture spread, images of nudity proliferated, especially in the swiftly growing entertainment industry. Swept along by this powerful movement, modernity demythologized everyday experience.

These fundamental changes were reflected in art, whose relationship to reality intensified. A number of artist employed nudity to express their criticisms of society and their progressive views. Others made it part of an ironic, irreverent approach. The modern nude is also characterized by a mix of genres: scenes of nightclubs and daily life abound, but so do images featuring the symbolic figures of classical art, portrayed in  conventional odalisque poses.

Canada’s war artists created many records of the country’s participation in the two world wars that marked the 20th century. Kept today at the Canadian War Museum, these works offer glimpses of the harsh experiences of troops at the front, but also reveal different aspects of everyday life in the military.

In the armed forces, nudity established a feeling of camaraderie among men of different backgrounds, contributing towards the cohesiveness of the various combat units. In his striking picture of soldiers bathing, C. W. Jefferys paid tribute to human flesh in a manner hitherto unseen in Canadian art. The impression of youth and strength conveyed by the male bodies – which are reminiscent of academic life studies – is accompanied by a sense of their vulnerability under the watchful gaze of the clothed observers, with whom we inevitably identify.

Some artists nevertheless continued to portray reclining female nudes during the years of conflict – an attempt to denounce indifference to the war being played out in Europe and to symbolize the dehumanization rife at the time.

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