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How Canada stole the idea of Native art : the Group of Seven and images of the Indian in the 1920’s 2002

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HOW CANADA STOLE THE IDEA OF NATIVE ART: THE GROUP OF SEVEN AND IMAGES OF THE INDIAN IN THE 1920*S by LESLIE ALLAN DAWN B.A., University of Victoria, 1975 M . A., University of Victoria, 1981 M. A., University of British Columbia, 1982 A THESIS SUBMITTED IN PARTIAL FULFILMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY in THE FACULTY OF GRADUATE STUDIES Department of ArthHIilstory, Visual Art and Theory We accept this thesis as confirming to thexequired standard THE UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA June 2001 © Leslie Allan Dawn, 2001 In presenting this thesis in partial fulfilment of the requirements for an advanced degree at the University of British Columbia, I agree that the Library shall make it freely available for reference and study. I further agree that permission for extensive copying of this thesis for scholarly purposes may be granted by the head of my department or by his or her representatives. It is understood that copying or publication of this thesis for financial gain shall not be allowed without my written permission. Department of Art" Hisfanj f \ J t S U & i f CXMCi T%JUft<Tj The University of British Columbia Vancouver, Canada Date 2. fLto 2 - 0 0 2 _ DE-6 (2/88) 11 Abstract This thesis examines the conflicted relationships between the construction of a national culture and identity located in landscape painting and the continuing presence of Native art and identity in Canada in the 1920s. It contends that the first was predicated on the assumed disappearance of the second. The first of five case studies examines and questions the validation of the Group of Seven at the imperial centre: the British Empire Exhibitions held at Wembley in 1924 and 1925, from which Native presence was excluded. The critical responses, collected and republished in Canada, are analyzed to show the unspoken influences of British landscape traditions, the means by which Group paintings were used to re-territorialize the nation, and to destabilize the myth of an essential Canadian national consciousness. The first confrontation between Canadian native and Native art occurred when a small group of Northwest Coast carvings was included within a related exhibition in Paris in 1927. The French critical responses validated the Native pieces but withheld recognition of the Group's works as national and modern. The reviews were collected but suppressed. The third study examines the work of the American artist Langdon Kihn. He was employed by the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Railways to work with the folklorist/ethnologist Marius Barbeau in producing images of the Stoney in Alberta and Gitksan in British Columbia. His ambiguous works supported claims to Native presence and cultural continuity, which ran contrary to repressive government policies, but were critically disciplined to ensure a message of discontinuity. The fourth investigates a program to restore the poles of the Gitksan, while changing their meaning to one signifying cultural decrepitude. Gitksan resistance testified to their agency, cultural continuity and identity. The fifth examines a program fostered by Barbeau to turn the Gitksan and their poles into the subjects of Canadian painting as "background" for the emerging nation's identity. This confrontation, which included Jackson, Carr and others, foregrounded all the problems. The exhibition which resulted in 1927 unsuccessfully attempted to join Canadian native and Native art and effect closure on the "narration of the nation". Ill T A B L E OF CONTENTS Abstract ii Table of Contents iii Acknowledgments v INTRODUCTION 1 CHAPTER I The Englishness of Canadian Art 16 Canada: Constructing an Identity 16 The Group of Seven: Questioning a Critical Jargon 19 The British Empire Exhibition at Wembley: Surveying the Site 31 Wembley: Reviewing the Critical Responses 37 Wembley: Pictur(esque)ing a National Image Abroad 45 CHAPTER II Paris: a Play of Mistaken Identities at the JeudePaume 75 Staging the Exhibition 78 The Native Presence in the International Theatre 84 Cueing the Audience 90 The Critical Responses Arrive 100 Masking the Critical Responses 112 CHAPTER III The Strange Case of Langdon Kihn Who Got Lost in the Wiles of Canada . 122 Imag(in)ing the Indians of the Canadian West 128 The Discourse of Disappearance is Affirmed and Challenged 143 iv Barbeau and Scott: a Crisis Appears, the Discourse Falters 151 Barbeau and Kihn: The Rupture Deepens, Framing some Pictures . . . .156 Identity and Ambiguity in Representations of the Gitksan 169 Barbeau and Kihn: Excluding Another Outsider 189 CHAPTER IV Propping Up and Repainting a Discursive Ruin: Part I, The Skeena Totem Pole Restoration Project 205 Giving the Gitksan Poles a New Slant 205 The Irrepressible Potlatch 212 Supporting a Collapsing Discourse 225 CHAPTER V Propping Up and Repainting a Discursive Ruin: Part II, Re-presenting and Re-possessing the Picturesque Skeena Valley . .240 The Success and Failure of A. Y. Jackson 243 Barbeau Re-tells a Story of Ruin 271 Exhibiting a Discursive Ruin: Canadian West Coast Art - Native and Modern 285 Re-viewing the Ruins 303 CONCLUSION Ambiguity and Identity: Reclaiming a Lost Heritage 314 Bibliography 327 List of Illustrations 354 V Acknowledgments I wish to express my profound gratitude to all those who contributed so much to this dissertation. It is impossible to list everyone here, but at the risk of omitting some, I would like to name a few. The thoughtful advice, directions, suggestions and corrections of my advisors, Dr. John O'Brian, Dr. Charlotte Townsend-Gault and Dr. Ruth Phillips have been instrumental in the development of the ideas and histories presented in this study. I would also like to thank my outside examiner, Dr. Gerta Moray, whose close scrutiny, generous reading and willingness to share her own research saved me from many errors. Those that still exist are entirely my own responsibility. Librarians and archivists, as well as those who aided in gaining access to them, were extremely helpful. I am especially indebted to Cyndie Campbell at the National Gallery of Canada, Benoit Theriault at the Canadian Museum of Civilization and Nora Hague at the McCord Museum. Marie Mauze assisted me in navigating the bureaucracy of the Louvre archives and was generous with her own research. None of this, however, could have been done without the support, encouragement, professional advice, assistance in research and endless proof-readings of Frederike Verspoor, who has so patiently put up with so much for so many years. This thesis is dedicated to her persistent belief in its possibility. The University of Lethbridge, my employer for the past decade, supported the project with sabbatical leave which allowed me to both start and complete the work. Finally, I would like to thank Dr. Serge Guilbaut both for advising me to pursue the topic and for loaning me the title. Perhaps it is true that theft is the sincerest form of flattery. 1 Introduction "The white Canadian looks at the Indian. The Indian is Other and therefore alien. But the Indian is indigenous and therefore cannot be alien. So the Canadian must be alien. But how can the Canadian be alien within Canada?"1 "The ambivalence of settlers toward natives was sharpened by an emerging preoccupation with national identity. . . . Settlers also, of course, frequently wanted to emphasize their modernity and connections with Britain and Europe; hence the use of native reference to proclaim a distinct culture was never the sole basis for declaring identity, but rather one strategy that was often inconsistent with others."2 This thesis examines the relationships between the formation of a myth of a homogeneous Canadian national culture and identity as defined in the visual arts, and located in the landscapes of the Group of Seven, and the role, or rather lack thereof, which Native identity and presence played in this imaginary and inventive construction, particularly during several crucial years in the mid and late 1920s. I posit that the existence of the first was predicated on and negotiated around the assumed disappearance of the second. It was believed axiomatically at the time when the Dominion was striving for nationhood that Native culture and peoples in Canada were on the verge of extinction and that they no longer belonged to or had a viable place within the new emerging native Canadian culture. The corollary to this was that the latter could take up and occupy the spaces vacated by this presumed absence to proclaim an essential Canadian character, different from its colonial parents because of its profound attachment to the land. The formation in the post-World War I period of a unique Canadian national identity and culture invested in the visual arts, and specifically in landscape, was not as straightforward as it has sometimes been represented. As with any claim to a new national difference emerging after a period of colonization, this construction was a complex, conflicted and contradictory affair. It 'Terry Goldie, Fear and Temptation: the Image of the Indigene in Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand Literature, Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1989, p. 12. 2Nicholas Thomas, Possessions: Indigenous Art/Colonial Culture, London: Thames and Hudson, 1999, p. 12. invoked a variety of discourses and disciplines, involved a host of institutions, organizations and individuals acting for a wide diversity of audiences, constituencies and interests and had to be negotiated along many fronts. These did not always proceed harmoniously. Since there were many competing interests and nationalisms at stake here, the emerging image of a national identity was extremely unstable and fragile. It was by no means a simple, clear binary opposition to a colonial parent, although it was often presented as such. Indeed, any claim to a singular, unified national identity involved a multiplicity of ambiguities and ambivalences. This was particularly so because the emerging nation was not only defining itself in terms of Britain, but also in relationship to its neighbor to the south, the United States. In addition it did not have a homogenous internal population, but consisted of several colonizing and immigrant groups, including those who traced their ancestry to France and their occupation of the land back for several hundred years. But most importantly, the Dominion also had resident indigenous populations predating colonization, whose presence extended into the past for millennia. These diverse peoples were seen as an essentialized collective whole, a single race collectively identified as "Indian" which was bordering on inevitable extinction or assimilation.3 This belief had been extended to a discursive truth which appeared everywhere. Within this context, it served several important functions. Not only did it ensure that the dualism of indigenous and colonialist remained stable, but it privileged the second term by erasing the first, thus allowing an unimpeded construction of the subsequent colonialist/nationalist opposition. Nonetheless, just as the formation of a Canadian identity and difference was riven with divisions and anxieties in the years following the war, so too were the discourses of Native difference and disappearance. It is a further contention of this thesis that they were undergoing a growing crisis during this period and that they were confronting a combination of mounting internal contradictions and external oppositional and resistant voices. The clamor threatened to destabilize what up to that point had long been held as 3I recognize the inherent problems of these terms. I have used Indian to signify the constructed, homogeneous race which came into existence through the imperial and colonialist gaze. Indigenous and Native are used throughout in relationship with the various peoples of the continent who predated colonization. 3 foundational truths for the discipline of ethnography, the principles of museum collecting and the formation of government policy and legislation, as well as the practice of art in Canada. The ruptures which eventually led to their complete fragmentation were, however, just forming at this point. The initial conflicts they produced resulted in a counter campaign of images in which the management, policing and discipline of the imaginary representation of the Indian became as much a matter of concern as the actuality. This in turn produced a discursive phantasm which corresponded less and less to its original subject and which would have to be abandoned and reformulated in the subsequent decades. In the meantime, these two mutually supporting discourses - a distinct Canadian identity and a disappearing Native one - intersected at several crucial occasions, when all of the components representing them coalesced. In this thesis I have attempted to isolate these events and examine the mechanisms that directed their progress. I have also, however, added other terms to the discussion to demonstrate how complex and unstable, if not volatile, they actually were. The case studies that I present occurred more or less simultaneously within a few brief years and were overlapping. Some began somewhat earlier, some ended a little later, but they were all closely linked, intertwined and concurrent. I have separated them into five chapters organized both by individual program and by geographic location. The latter extends from the national capital of Ottawa and the metropolitan centres of London and Paris to the regional and rural areas of Banff, Alberta, and the Gitksan territories in the Upper Skeena Valley, British Columbia. Such textual divisions may tend to create the perception that the events can be considered in historical isolation. This is not the case. Equally, because they are not precisely parallel in time, strict chronological order must sometimes be violated in order to both initiate and complete the discussion of each aspect of this complex set of imbricated events. I hope that I have taken sufficient care to preserve historical specificity and to establish a precise chronology, even if this means, at times, moving back and forth in time, and between the various programs and locations under discussion. 4 The first two chapters deal with a series of three related exhibitions of Canadian art that were held in London in 1924 and 1925 and in Paris in 1927. These exhibitions provide an entryway into and a route through a set of labyrinthine structures and relationships. This path has, in many important respects, never been fully opened up and at times has been obscured by the narrators of Canadian history. A l l three exhibitions focused on the Group of Seven and were staged at important sites for negotiating national identities at the international level. A close examination of these intimately related displays, however, demonstrates that there were significant differences that distinguished the content of the shows, their critical receptions and their positions with the narration of Canada as a nation. The first two exhibitions of Canadian art of interest here were held at one of the primary sites, at that time, for establishing national identity and colonial differences. The British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, one in a long series of international expositions, was staged in 1924 and 1925. The Canadian Section for Fine Arts presented in the first year highlighted the Group's works. It was revised and more finely focused on them in the second. The positive responses of British critics to the new Canadian landscapes were interpreted as proof positive of the recognition of Canadian difference and the validation at the Imperial centre of its essentialized and naturalized national identity and culture. The National Gallery of Canada capitalized on this reception by collecting, republishing and distributing the responses to a wide audience in Canada. But while the critical successes of the Wembley shows seemed to confirm that the nationalist discourse which surrounded the Group was secure, evidence shows that it still remained conflicted, unstable and ambivalent. In fact, I have taken somewhat of a contrarian's position on these "successes". My re- interpretation of the positive critical response challenges the fundamental claims that Group landscape conventions and practices broke decisively and completely with colonial precedents, and that their work sprang primarily from the land itself figured as nature, i.e. that it was "native", autochthonic, originary and thus different from its imperial parent. My readings are founded on an extensive comparison of their production with the history of British landscape 5 painting which shows very close, yet continuously unspoken, affinities between the new Canadian and the old imperial forms. This re-reading demonstrates that Group work can be seen to recapitulate the primary principles and practices of the picturesque as formulated in the late 1700s, as well as many other aspects of British landscape painting. Making these links apparent tends to clarify why the British critics were successfully able to read the deeper messages of work with which they were ostensibly unfamiliar. But more importantly, it destabilizes one of the major elements of the projected duality on which Canada's claims to a post-colonial identity and difference were based and allows for a more complex and nuanced examination. Furthermore, pointing out the British precedents and sameness within the work of the Group demonstrates how their landscapes were employed to maintain a solidarity with the empire, re-territorialize the country, dispense with other preemptive claims and situate the vast and diverse geography within the imaginary construction of a unified national community. The second chapter explores the followup exhibition held in Paris in 1927. This was largely based on the second Wembley show, but with some important differences. It too was meant to showcase the Group and further assert its nationalism and identity within a continental and modernist context. But it also included of a few pieces of Native work. This small addition to the exhibition was extremely important. It was emblematic of the competing interests in defining Canadian identity that existed among the various immigrant and colonizing groups. In particular, Eric Brown, the English director of the National Gallery of Canada, and Marius Barbeau, the French-Canadian ethnologist/folklorist working for the National Museum, had divergent views on the topic. In addition, Barbeau's cultural interests introduced yet more terms, particularly those of French speaking Canada, which further destabilized and made more complex the now shaky duality. Furthermore, the inclusion of the Native material led to a dramatic shift in the critical responses. Unfamiliar with picturesque precedents, the Parisian critics tended to reverse the expected order and to privilege the Northwest Coast carvings while devaluing the Group work. Indeed, in opposition to the English critics, the French by and large dismissed the claims of the Group to both modernity and nationality. In accounting for the shift within this new audience, I have turned to the history of the "primitive" in the artistic and critical discourses of 6 Paris and London, as well as what constituted the language of nationalism in each location. The French reviews, although diligently collected by the National Gallery, were suppressed rather than broadcast. This leads to an examination of why the critical reception in England was seen in Canada as a triumph while that in France was experienced as an embarrassing failure, which had to be concealed and written out of Canadian art history. Definitions of what constituted these successes and failures leads to a further discussion on the role of Native art and culture within the destabilized construction of Canadian identity in this period. The third chapter turns from the Group to an alternative vision of the Native as represented in the paintings of Langdon Kihn, an American artist invited by the railroads to work with Marius Barbeau in the early twenties in Western Canada. Kihn adds yet one more conflicting element to this complex discourse. His early pre-Canadian experience in the American Southwest placed him in contact with emerging proposals that advocated the preservation of Native cultures - which were seen as continuous - as a means of fostering a distinct, non-European American identity and aesthetic. Kihn's portraits of the Stoneys of Alberta and the Gitksan of the Upper Skeena River done in 1922 and 1924, were, at first, highly successful. They were even displayed at the second Wembley exhibition and were thus integrated into the emerging national culture. I argue, however, that their inherent ambiguities, which tended to produce both Native difference and presence, subsequently ran afoul of the discourses on both the construction of a Canadian identity, which had been destabilized in Paris, and the growing anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the disappearance of the Indian. This pending disappearance was especially important to both Barbeau and his colleague, Duncan Campbell Scott, the Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, who also had a vested interest in formulating a monocultural Canadian identity. Scott found Barbeau's views on the inevitable termination of the Indian race in Canada useful for the state's.purposes and collaborated with him in formulating and dispersing this precept to both a popular and scholarly audience. I have examined Barbeau's attempts to shape public perception of Kihn's pictures, 7 which appeared in two of his books. Barbeau's texts cued his audiences to read Kihn's accompanying illustrations as emblematic of the principles of both Indian racial sameness and disappearance, which, in being primarily portraits of actual people from different groups living in the present, they tended to resist. The chapter examines the conflicted relationships among Barbeau's theories, the state's policies under Scott, and Kihn's images. Chapter Three also takes into account the resistance of Native groups, both on the Prairies and in the Upper Skeena, to Scott's attempts to suppress all traces of Native culture and identity. Indeed, growing opposition from the Native communities threatened to undermine the discourse of disappearance. Kihn's images ultimately lay on the wrong side of this conflict, eventually resulting in his systematic exclusion from the Paris exhibition, as well as from other painting and publishing projects. The fourth chapter focuses exclusively on the Skeena region, where these joint discursive constructions found their most clear expression, overlapped most extensively and at the same time entered a period of crisis. Two projects within this region formed the sites in which all of the forces and interests coalesced. The first involved a plan to restore the totem poles of the Gitksan people who inhabited the region and who were still actively resisting colonial occupation of their territories. The restoration program was begun in 1925 and was carried on jointly by the National Museum, the Department of Indian Affairs and the Canadian National Railway. The project was ostensibly based on the prem