Painters Eleven: a Brief Lesson in Canadian Art History

6 Jul

Book Review – Painters Eleven: a Brief Lesson in Canadian Art History

by Lorette C. Luzajic

There is vivid, exciting art culture in Canada beyond our stunning natural landscape and the Group of Seven, who translated that heritage into a national treasure and revealed it to the world. The Group of Seven has become synonymous with Canadian art, and no one in their right mind fails to be moved by the distinctive work on the interplay of light through Canada’s northern forests. However, the prominence and popularity of these iconic works at home and abroad has in some respects obscured the rest of Canadian art history.

In her new book, Iris Nowell explains how The Painters Eleven were dubbed the “wild ones” for defying societal politesse and Canada’s longstanding cultural identification with landscape and still life. It was the 1940s, back when Toronto the Good was cloyingly puritanical. The end of WW2, burgeoning prosperity, the commitment to ethnic harmony for which Toronto is internationally known, middle class expansion, and the end of repressive, prohibitive liquor laws were the first glimmers of a cosmopolitan, urban future for Ontario.

The Group of Seven rose to acclaim during the 1920s, and it is hard to believe that they were considered by some outrageous for the lack of realism in their landscape works. Concentrating on light and shadow, making use of thick lines and bold, opaque bursts of colour, their art did not comply with the quaint and appropriate Canadiana expected by artistic associations.

Even so, the Painters Eleven came together to defy such staid traditions altogether. To put things into perspective, the 1920s was the Jazz Age in France and in New York- the era where Picasso and other Cubists and Surrealists ushered in modernism. Women in these circles shook off their shackles of propriety and took up smoking and red lipstick and cut their hair short, and they also took up writing and painting. Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds were knocking back the booze while churning out shocking novels and short stories. With the paths forged for creative diversion from cultural conventions in art and literature, painters like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock had popularized abstract art by the 1940s. Collage, assemblage, and all manner of artistic exploration was taking place in America, in Europe of course, and even in Montreal, where Les Automatistes carried out further examinations of surrealism. By contrast, despite Montreal’s adventurousness, Canada was hopelessly timid and lacking in artistic experiment.

Stultified and suffocated by convention, a group of artists came together under the name Painters Eleven, ironically referencing their Seven forerunners. Alexandra Luke, William Ronald, Tom Hodgson, Oscar Cahen, Harold Town, Jock Macdonald, Kazuo Nakamura, Ray Mead, Hortense Gordon, Walter Yarwood, and Jack Bush formed the Painters Eleven, united by a commitment to modernism in their work.

Ray Mead – Untitled

Their first exhibit was in 1954; Nowell says that while the public was “mildly shocked” their subsequent shows “ignited a glow over Toronto like none other.” Critical reviews “zoomed to crescendos of acclaim.” Collectors and galleries began gobbling up the work, which confirmed “the art establishment’s seal of approval.”

Clearly, Canadians were hungry for new vision, but also, in my mind, for a more varied and exciting cultural life. Long identified with prairie skies, farming, frontiers, and birch bark canoes, I believe Canadians began clamouring for an urban identity, for a world of pubs and poetry and cafes and invention and gallery openings. Nowell talks about Toronto’s blossoming sophistication as social events and a healthy dose of scandal began to ripple through the city. After all, Paris and New York and all kinds of cities had firmly entered modernity. It was Toronto’s time. Nowell describes “a little weed, a lot of booze, jazz, nudity…Openings of shows by a daring band of iconoclastic, brash, articulate…artists known as Painters Eleven…their art and lives represented a particularly vigorous challenge to the stuffy status quo.”

Oscar Cahen – Traumoeba

For the first time, in one handsome volume, we can explore the lives and work of each artist uniquely and the Eleven as a whole.  Like myself, Nowell refutes the idea put forth by many scholars that “one need not probe the intimacies of artists’ lives to appreciate their work.” It is true that one “need not” but it is also true that the more one knows about a painter or writer or actress or anyone at all, the closer the audience can get to their work. An understanding of the artist adds depth and intimacy to one’s relationship with the work, and increases one’s ability to appreciate art. To me, it is the key to enjoying a wider range, giving greater dimension and experience to understanding. Perhaps scholars disdain the popularity of gossip or of biography, but that disdain does not erase our innate need for “people stories.”

Harold Town – The Tower of Babbling

This conviction on Nowell’s part is what makes this book as great as it is. With eleven charming and informative biographical essays, new audiences are much better able to distinguish one artist’s work from another. More importantly, we are able to care. The details chosen to inform are as vital to the story of the Painters Eleven as the works Nowell has curated to show us. For example, we learn that Harold Town said, “I paint to defy death” and was supremely devoted to his cat, Moby. Alexandra Luke’s styles changed and expanded as her spiritual beliefs changed, exploring reincarnation, Rosicrucian occultism, and various transcendences. Oscar Cahen met an untimely demise in a crash against a gravel truck; had he lived, said historian Graham Broad, he “might be remembered as the greatest of all Canadian artists.”

With these vivid splices of life, with broad strokes of historical background and context, and with a veritable buffet of paintings, nearly 300 of them, to feast on, this book belongs on the shelf of anyone who cares about art history.

Tom Hodgson – Street Scene #3

It is a curious fact that no matter what feats of imagination and invention Canadians achieve, few are broadly recognized internationally. Perhaps it is Canada’s inexplicable reticence to trumpet and market, a habit of polite reservation for which I personally have no use. Perhaps it is merely getting lost in contrast to America’s loud and proud patriotism, since we are, again, quietly patriotic- a quietude for which I have more recently lost my taste. Or perhaps it is not any fault of shyness,  but the fault, some suggest, of those abroad who lump us in with our neighbours and assume mistakenly that American and Canadian identities are interchangeable. In any event, this splendid art book contributes a great deal to changing all of that.

Painters Eleven: the Wild Ones of Canadian Art

Iris Nowell

Douglas and McIntyre, 2010

Lorette C. Luzajic’s latest book is Fascinating Writers, available at Amazon (Fascinating-Writers-twenty-five-unusual-lives). To see her own abstract Canadian art, visit her at

1 Response to Painters Eleven: a Brief Lesson in Canadian Art History


Frank Zweegers

July 7th, 2011 at 7:35 am

Interesting read!

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