UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Canadian social comment art in the thirties Smith, Toby Maureen


The Depression in Canada was a period of economic and social distress. Loss of optimism, restraint in development and severe physical hardship characterized the era. At the same time, social and political resistence to this collapse appeared in every facet of Canadian society, with the visual arts being no exception. In the early part of the decade, protest through art appeared in the form of anti-capitalist cartoons and illustrations printed in communist-affiliated publications. They were politically direct, and visually unsophisticated. Their specific purpose was to raise the class consciousness of the working class and incite them to overthrow the capitalist system. In the mid thirties, however, elements of social comment began appearing more frequently in the works of fine artists. Although the criticism varied from intentional and direct to unintentional and subtle, it was usually anti-poverty and anti-Depression in focus rather than specifically anti-capitalist. Traditional aesthetic qualities were a consistently essential aspect of these works. Why did this shift in the nature of social comment art take place in the mid thirties, what interests were represented, and how does this contribute to a better understanding of the Depression in Canada? These questions will be investigated in relation to the political left in Canada, as it is here where social comment art received its support. As will be discussed, a rupture within the left which involved a struggle for hegemony between the Communist Party and the newly formed Cooperative Commonwealth Federation resulted, by 1935, in social democracy gaining primacy over communism as the dominant political ideology of the left in Canada. Through the analysis of three works: Petroushka by Paraskeva Clark, Orchard by Carl Schaefer, and "D'Ye Ken John Peel?" by Miller Brittain, it will be shown how the "fine art" social comment of the mid thirties functioned as the visual ideology of the new left and propagated values consistent with its shift from working class to middle class base, and its factionalism, intellectualism and spirit of compromise.

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