UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Identity crisis : the nude in 1930s modern Canadian art Smither, Devon


In their unwillingness to fully assimilate or relate the human body to its surroundings, many artists who painted nudes in the 1930s in Canada found their works the subject of censure and moral debate. Rather than becoming the site of praise for a new Canadian sensibility in the visual arts, the nudes painted in this period would not come to be associated with a uniquely Canadian artistic practice, and the genre failed to assume a pivotal place within the canon of Canadian art history. Viewers could not imagine themselves as heroic pioneers in front of a painting like Lilias Torrance Newton’s Nude (1933), or could they see anything distinctly modern and revolutionary in its execution that would allow them to hold up such an image as an example of an inherently Canadian art. The nude in Canada did not incite the admiration of an art-going public who instead came to associate a national art movement with the landscape paintings of the Group of Seven. Censored, debated, praised, and criticized, the nude genre ultimately failed to have the same impact as landscape painting on the visual arts in Canada. Landscape painting was able to mediate the relationship between the natural world and its human inhabitants in a way not offered by the nude or figurative painting. In 1916, Saturday Night magazine published an article jocularly recounting how the typical Canadian artist was a “husky beggar” who pulled on a pair of Strathcona boots and set off into the woods with a rifle, a paddle, and enough baked beans for three months. Such assertions would lead a critic like Barker Fairley to complain later that, “[N]ot one Canadian in a hundred goes into an art gallery looking for anything but hills and trees and lakes and clouds and flowers and fruit.” Ultimately, the nude was not able to provide a collective viewing position that could embody a national sentiment. It was unable to penetrate the Canadian consciousness in a way that would win it a place alongside the rolling topography and pristine lakes of the Group of Seven.

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