UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

How Canada stole the idea of Native art : the Group of Seven and images of the Indian in the 1920’s Dawn, Leslie Allan


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".

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