British Journal of Canadian Studies

‘Beauty which we had not previously known’: Walter Abell and the dynamics of modern art in Canada

British Journal of Canadian Studies (2013), 26, (1), 1–20.

Abstract

A re-reading of the writings of Walter Abell, a well known art critic and theorist in Canada in the 1930s and 1940s, suggests a different way of thinking about the development of Canadian art and culture. Instead of viewing Abell's treatments of art - as have other cultural historians - as a stable discourse, this essay suggests that they are better viewed as a series of often incongruous treatments that do not constitute a cohesive whole. It is the very disjunctures and aporias in Abell's discourse, however, that make it most meaningful. Instead of treating Abell's contradictions and shifting perspectives as problems, this essay argues that they signify the diverse, and at times incompatible, ways that artists, intellectuals, and Canadians responded to the the development of modernist art and the conditions of artistic modernity in twentieth century Canada. In this sense, they present an image of Canadian artistic culture as a fractures field within which different subject positions, conceptions of cultural history, and forms of political activism became possible.

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Nurse, Andrew