By Alexis Janssen, BA Art History. McGill Visual Arts Collection ARIA Intern (2022) Museum Database Assistant (2023)
Forgotten! Scott, Brandtner, Eveleigh, Webber: Revisiting Montreal Abstraction of the 1940s closed at the Musée de Joliette last January, and is currently on view at the Musée des beaux-arts de Sherbrooke until January 7th, 2024.
The exhibition, curated by Prof. Esther Trépanier from UQÀM, brought together four anglophone artists working in post-war Montreal: Marian Dale Scott, Fritz Brandner, Henry R. Eveleigh, and Gordon Webber. Although they did not form an artist group during their careers, the show leaves one wondering, what if? Trépanier brought together four artists with vastly different backgrounds and styles, yet produced a coherent and complementary hanging. These artists’ works demonstrate the strength of the formal innovations present in Montreal in the shadows of the roaring groups called the Automatistes, Prisme d’Yeux, and the Plasticiens.
Historically, the research and exhibitions conducted on art from the 1930s to the 1960s in Quebec has focused on the surrealist and post-Automatistes movements headed by popular artists such as Paul-Émile Borduas, Alfred Pellan, and Guido Molinari. In recent years, scholars and curators have begun to recognize the often overlooked significance of the formal innovations of groups outside the previously mentioned cluster of largely francophone artistic revolutionaries. Prof. Trépanier has been at the forefront of such research, looking at works by Jewish painters, women artists, and anglophone pioneers in Quebec. Forgotten! is another brilliant example of the important research Prof. Trépanier has undertaken in Quebec art history.
All except one of the four artists presented in the exhibition have a deep connection to McGill University through the School of Social Work (Brandtner), the School of Architecture (Webber), and the Faculty of Law (Scott). Although Henry Eveleigh’s art was at the forefront of surrealist and cubist thought in the 1930s and 1940s, he abandoned painting and focused on graphic design from the 1950s. Closely linked to UQÀM, Eveleigh was involved in the graphic design program there.
Brandtner’s works presented in the show felt like they were from a by-gone era of space-age utopia. The mid-century feel of his works was especially evident in his drawings from the late 1950s and early 1960s (Cosmos I, III, VI-VII, 1958-1962). Atoms, stars, planes, and UFOs mix together with abstract organic forms to create monochromatic surrealist windows into the post-war space race and nuclear research. Brandtner was consistently dedicated to the education of disadvantaged youth and taught at McGill’s School of Social Work for nearly a decade from 1947 to 1956. McGill’s Visual Arts Collection (VAC) has two works by Brandtner, including Dock Workers which is on display in the Visual Storage Gallery on the fourth floor of the McLennan Library.
The Gordon Webber fonds in McGill’s John Bland Canadian Architecture Collection (CAC) form one of the largest collection of works by Gordon Webber in the world. Many of the works presented in Forgotten! were lent by the CAC. Webber was closely associated with McGill and it’s School of Architecture. On the recommendation of Arthur Lismer, Webber was hired to teach design and was known to show his own works in class. One of these is Untitled from 1948: a video artwork Webber created by painting on film stock. This film was a highlight of the exhibition, not least because the stock was recently restored and digitized by the Cinémathèque québécoise. The work shows the characteristic abstract forms Webber is known for against a white background. Through the magic of film, Webber’s forms move around the seemingly infinite picture plane and morph into one another. Seeing this movement in his film adds a new sense of motion to Webber’s other works, where he used more traditional techniques. One hopes that the film will be presented more often at McGill and other Webber exhibitions. Webber’s Design #X (1948-1949) was lent to the exhibition by the VAC who acquired it through the generosity of Bruce Anderson, B.Arch. ’64.
Marian Dale Scott was a pioneer of Quebec abstraction in the 1930s and 1940s. Prof. Trépanier’s book on the artist is an obligatory source on the subject, and the works in the exhibition highlight Scott’s remarkable innovations. Closely linked to McGill through her husband, the poet and lawyer Frank R. Scott, Marian Dale Scott is well represented in the VAC’s collection. One of the largest works in the Collection is a mural entitled Endocrinology (1943) painted by Scott for what was formerly the office of Dr. Hans Seyle. The research she conducted for this mural lead Scott to produce a large number of works inspired by cells. Scott’s Cement (1938) also hangs in the Visible Storage Gallery on the fourth floor of McLennan Library. The remarkable transitions in Scott’s artistic career are on display in Forgotten! From war-time propaganda to her colourful Figure No. 2 (1957, also lent by the VAC), Marian Dale Scott’s ever-changing style singles her out as a leading female artist in mid-century Quebec.
Although somewhat pessimistic and sensationalist, the title of the exhibition points to the need for a more comprehensive evaluation of Quebec art history in the mid twentieth century. By highlighting the work of Scott, Bradtner, Eveleigh, and Webber, Forgotten! effectively and rightly underscores the formal innovations and contributions to Quebec art history offered outside the often mentioned francophone artists the public has come to know and love.
Forgotten! Scott, Brandtner, Eveleigh, Webber: Revisiting Montreal Abstraction of the 1940s was presented from 15 October 2022 to 15 January 2023 at the Musée d’art de Joliette. It is also at the Musée des beaux-arts de Sherbrooke from September 2023 to January 2024.