There’s a brilliant new exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery called Defying Convention. It features female Canadian artists who were defying convention in the first half of the twentieth century by trying to earn a place for themselves in an art world dominated and controlled by men.
This is a rich exhibition that I absolutely love so it will probably give rise to any number of blog posts but this one was inspired by a group of grade eight boys I was touring through Defying Convention. I told the boys the exhibit was a collection of work by women artists and they pointed to the painting above and asked, “Why are there men in the paintings then?” I had to clarify that the artists and not the subjects of the paintings were women, but those boys got me thinking of how men are portrayed by women in the exhibit.
It probably would not have been considered very ‘proper’ in 1905 for a woman to paint a half nude blacksmith especially for Marion Nelson Hooker who was very active in the traditional Anglican church. Marion Nelson Hooker did paint this brawny blacksmith when she was still a single woman. In 1907 she moved from Ontario to Selkirk Manitoba to marry a widower with six children. A condition of the marriage was that she would be allowed to continue her painting. Her new husband provided her with a studio for doing just that.
Pegi Nicol MacLeod was a Canadian painter living in New York City when Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson commissioned her to do a painting of the United Nations General Assembly. Pearson was very involved with the United Nations after World War II, serving as the President of the General Assembly and earning a Nobel Prize for his work as a peacekeeper. A similar United Nations painting of Pegi Nicol MacLeod’s sold recently at the Mayberry Gallery in Winnipeg. Pearson commissioned the United Nations paintings so you might think he would have asked Pegi Nicol MacLeod to paint him at the speaker’s podium, but the person at the podium in this one looks suspiciously like a woman. I know this painting must have been done in 1947 because that is when the second session of the United Nations General Assembly was held in Flushing Meadow New York in an old exhibition hall. The third session was held there too in the fall of 1949 but by then Pegi Nicol Macleod had died. Pierre Berton gives a detailed and colorful description of this meeting in a November 1947 article in Macleans magazine. The photo in the magazine matches Pegi’s painting. In the sea of men she has painted Pegi Nicol MacLeod appears to have included three women- one on the podium and two to the far right. According to Pierre Berton’s article the wives of many of the delegates were in attendance and the ushers were women but the head of the Indian delegation was also a woman Mrs. Vijaya Lakasmi Pandit. Could she be one of the two women on the right or is she at the podium? Pierre Berton also mentions the names of some female journalists at the meeting.
This boy looks like he is must be in his late teens. He has a classic face, seems to be bare chested and his hair and cap have a a softer quality about them in contrast to his rather sharp features. The Boy With A Red Cap was painted by Lucille Casey MacArthur who moved to Winnipeg from Mississippi with her husband in 1884. She studied in Europe and on her return to Winnipeg held an exhibition that some say was well attended because of Lucille’s nude section of paintings. She was definitely a defier of convention.
You don’t want to miss the Defying Convention exhibit. This blog is just a tiny taste of the variety of pieces on display by nearly forty different women brave and determined enough to make their way in what was definitely a man’s world or art in the early 20th century.