British Journal of Canadian Studies

‘A Century of Canadian Art’: the Tate Gallery exhibition of 1938

British Journal of Canadian Studies (2014), 27, (2), 149–162.

Abstract

An exhibition of 263 works of Canadian art opened at London's Tate Gallery in October 1938. These showed how European traditions of portraiture, landscape and religious carving had interacted with Canada's geography and First Nations to create a distinct national aesthetic epitomised by the Group of Seven and Emily Carr. The exhibition had been envisioned by Vincent Massey, Canada's foremost arts patron and collector, who had lent many works to the show. He was an ardent Anglophile who, as High Commissioner in London, believed in fostering Anglo-Canadian understanding as war loomed. He had also seen the impact of cultural propaganda launched by European governments in the mid-1930s. While Canada lacked a similar programme, Massey believed that ‘the force of culture’ could promote Canada's unique identity within an imperial heritage. Modern Canadian art had been exhibited in London and Paris in the mid-1920s and critics had greatly admired works they did not completely understand. By providing a century of context, the 1938 exhibition placed Canada within wider Western traditions and underlined shared social values. The exhibition catalogue explicitly endorsed this intention to ‘strengthen friendship and mutual understanding between’ Canada and Britain. As such, the exhibition provides important early insights into Massey's views of Canadian culture. It led directly to his wartime collaboration with the British Council and many ideas that originated in the Tate Exhibition appeared clearly in the 1951 report of the so-called Massey Commission, which was a watershed in Canada's cultural evolution.

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Horrall, Andrew