In the late 1930s as Adolf Hitler was consolidating control over Germany and the Spanish Civil War raged, artist Paraskeva Clark became exasperated with the complacency of the Canadian art world.
Clark, a leftist immigrant from Saint Petersburg, was infuriated over many of her fellow painters' obsession with landscapes rather than the plight of the poor. So she took out her frustrations in a 1937 essay called "Come Out from Behind the Pre-Cambrian Shield", which was published in New Frontier.
In some respects, Clark was the artists' version of Greta Thunberg 80 years before anyone had ever heard of the young Swedish climate activist. Clark's call to action came as many other artists were complacently going about their business.
"Her position was 'how dare you be looking at rock and trees and sky and mountains when the Great Depression was unfolding and when fascism was rising in Europe and when there was so much inequity in the world and pain and suffering?' She thought it was extremely decadent," Sarah Milroy, chief curator of the Vaughan, Ontario–based McMichael Canadian Art Collection, tells the Straight by phone.
A Paraskeva self-portrait is one of more than 200 artworks produced by women from across Canada that are part of a new exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery called Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment. Milroy curated the show, which will be at the VAG from June 11 until January 8, 2023.
"The title, 'Uninvited', simply refers to the fact that no women were invited to join the Group of Seven," Milroy says.
The Group of Seven, of course, is the famous set of Canadian male landscape artists who held their first show in 1920 and who became the country's most famous painters over the next two decades along with Tom Thomson, who died in 1917.
The McMichael has assembled one of the premier collections of works by the Group of Seven, which was presented in a major exhibition in 2020 to mark its centenary. That prompted Milroy to think about creating an exhibition about what female artists were doing when the men were getting so much attention.
"Of course one of the most important social and cultural things that was happening in this time was the displacement of Indigenous people off their lands," she says.
In addition, this era was marked by the intensification of resource extraction in Canada, the growth of the tourism industry, and increasing urbanization."
"So we wanted to make an exhibition about this period, 1920 to about 1945, and turn to the artists that were attending really to all those changes in Canada, which were the women artists of the day,” Milroy says.
The works of some Beaver Hall Group of painters of Montréal, such as Anne Savage and Lilias Torrance Newton, are featured in Uninvited, as are paintings by legendary B.C. painter Emily Carr and Toronto-based sculptors Elizabeth Wyn Wood, Frances Loring, and Florence Wyle.
There are several female Indigenous artists' work on display, including Nunavut's Attatsiaq, Sewinchelwet (Sophie Frank) of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation), Mi’kmaq quill box maker Bridget Ann Sack, and Rose Runner of the Tsuut’ina First Nation.
In addition, immigrant artists to Canada such as Clark and Regina Seiden Goldberg are featured.
Milroy says that when several members of the Group of Seven dropped away, they were invariably replaced by other men, even though several appreciated the genius of Carr. The Victoria artist's paintings of trees and totem poles, as well as the denuded landscape from forestry, make her works as relevant today as when they were originally created.
"Lawren Harris is to be thanked for lifting her up out of obscurity and incorporating her into an exhibition that was really important in 1927," Milroy notes. "That marked the end of her 16 years of not making much art work and not exhibiting and running a boarding house. So there was a very strong allyship between members of the Group of Seven and women artists of the day."
However, because women were not invited into the club, this kept many talented female painters in the shadows, according to Milroy.
"I think there’s been a lot of very good scholarship on these women over the last decade, but museums have been loath to throw a lot of resources behind monographic exhibitions of these artists because the assumption was, you know, no one will come because they’re not famous," Milroy says.
Uninvited includes a wall of Emily Carr's paintings of trees and a totem pole. And in front of these works of art is an undulating series of cases housing Coast Salish baskets from many different communities.
"Those are baskets that have not been back in B.C. for God knows how long," Milroy acknowledges.
The goal, she adds, was "to set up a discussion" between the paintings, which include a focus on clearcut landscapes and resource extraction, and the baskets, which resulted from the culling of resources in a completely different way. One of the baskets was created by Sewinchelwet, a longtime friend of Carr's.
Milroy describes the Indigenous baskets as "a kind of condensation of generations and generations of female knowledge".
In her view, this part of the exhibition represents the symbiotic relationship between Indigenous people and the natural world that evolved over a long period of time.
"And then our way, in the clearcutting, is fast and, of course, catastrophic," Milroy says.