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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Leisure and pleasure as modernist utopian ideal : the drawings and paintings by B.C. Binning from the mid 1940s to the early 1950s Yamanaka, Kaori


Bertram Charles Binning's depiction of British Columbia coastal scenes in his drawings and paintings of the mid 1940s to the early 1950s present images of sunlit seascapes in recreational settings; they are scenes of leisure and pleasure. The concern for leisure and pleasure was central to the artist's modernism, even after he began painting in a semi-abstract manner around 1948. In this particular construction of modernism, Binning offered pleasure as an antidote to some of the anxieties he observed in postwar culture. Binning also thought that art could contribute to life in a direct way. In the mid to late 1940s, Vancouver saw a series of artistic community projects which explored the possibility of art as a social force; the Art in Living Group, of which Binning was a member, believed that art could have a therapeutic value in relation to housing projects and community planning. In certain ways, the Art in Living Group was a response to rapid changes in the social matrix of Vancouver. Binning's personal artistic practice, however, appears to have existed outside of what was embraced in his participation in those community projects. His essentially personal, self-authenticating expression in the form of drawings may be seen to resist the idealism of his more 'public' production, that is, his own idealism, his demand for an art thoroughly harmonized with the public sphere. Moreover, in this more personal body of work, his choice of leisurely scenes, rendered in a style reminiscent of Matisse, can be seen as far removed from the urban tensions of the time. It also seems to suggest that the leisure-and-pleasure idealism which finds expression in these works was not only class-and gender- specific, but also antithetical to his strong desire to democratize art. Binning's preoccupation with personal expression took a turn when he shifted his concern from representational drawings to semi-abstract paintings. The shift coincided with his career move to the University of British Columbia as a professor of Art History in 1949. From then on, Binning's interest in regional cosmopolitanism became more pronounced in his work. In this sense, it is significant that Binning looked for guidance to Herbert Read's ideas about modern art and art education. At the same time, his reputation expanded beyond the West Coast. In 1954, Binning was chosen to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale. Binning's particular modernism, as represented by this range of work, all of which presents a pastoral version of Utopia , was in some ways profoundly at odds with the social circumstances of the time. Why was the interest in leisure and pleasure significant to his practice? What did it mean to promote this kind of idealism in the local context? And in what ways did it relate to the international art scene — for example, to the work of Matisse or to contemporary concepts of art? My thesis addresses these questions by situating Binning's work both regionally and internationally.

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