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UBC Theses and Dissertations

"Harmonious disagreement" : Painters Eleven, abstraction, and the construction of Canadian modernism in the 1950s Poon, Jessica


This dissertation is an examination of Painters Eleven and the complex network of national and international discourses on modern art, abstraction, and cultural politics that converged in Toronto in the 1950s. As a practical grouping of artists, Painters Eleven relied on self-marketing and self-branding strategies to gain recognition for themselves as well as for modern art in general in English Canada. Through a close consideration of Painters Eleven’s paradoxical idea of “harmonious disagreement,” I explore the group’s artistic practices, exhibition practices and pursuits, public and private statements, and their career successes and failures in order to highlight the idiosyncratic and contradictory mechanics of the group. I argue that the tensions between rhetoric and practice, cohesion and incohesion, and amicability and antagonism in the group’s art and discourse form a complex series of conflicts—as well as attempts to overcome or smooth out these conflicts or frictions—which are at the crux of Painters Eleven’s significance for abstract painting in midcentury English Canada. This study reframes the relationship between Painters Eleven and their reputations as pioneers of midcentury Canadian modernism by investigating how the group conceptualized, curated, and constructed their own reputations as avant-garde radicals. It also considers what their discourse and practice in Toronto can reveal about a transnational network of experimental abstraction in the era following the end of the Second World War, where contemporaneous artistic and critical activities in centers like Montreal, New York, and Paris were similarly preoccupied with advancing modern art as a national or international cultural force. I seek to understand how Painters Eleven attempted to mediate and reconcile the universalizing convictions of modernism and progress in art, science, and technology with the increasingly urgent concern for national identity in Canada during this period. By examining Painters Eleven through the lens of a postwar cosmopolitan ethos and vision, this inquiry offers new insight into their significance for the construction of Canadian culture in the postwar era.

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