The Visual Arts in Canada: The Twentieth Century

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Anne Whitelaw, Brian Foss and Sandra Paikowsky (eds), The Visual Arts in Canada: The Twentieth Century (Don Mills, ON: University of Oxford Press Canada, 2010), 496 pp. 185 colour illustrations. Cased. $85. ISBN 978-019-542125-5. Paper. $60. ISBN 978-0-19- 543459-9.

The present book is a collection of twenty short essays, each written by individual contributors selected from universities and museums in Canada. It is a handsome tome with most of the 185 images reproduced in colour; a useful picture and general index; and a list of resources that include contact addresses of Canadian museums and art galleries.

In the introduction the editors make three ambitious claims: first, 'new essays'; second, 'from across Canada'; and third, an 'overview of developments in Canadian art from the late 19th century to the present ... in the most comprehensive survey ever published' (p. xiii). First, are the essays new? Hardly: many of the contributors, particularly the senior writers, cover familiar ground on which they have previously published in one form or another. The book would have been more accurately entitled 'Essays on Past and Current Research into Twentieth-century Canadian Visual Art'. Second, 'across Canada' is misleading as half the contributors have studied, taught or teach at Concordia University, Montreal. Seventeen of the twenty (thirteen female, seven male) are based in Quebec (eight) and Ontario (nine), with only one writer from each of Alberta, British Columbia and Nova Scotia. Third, the content is far from comprehensive and is selective. Painting and painters play an important role and comprise almost half the chapters, including three devoted to Canadian icons: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven; Paul-Emile Borduas and the Automatistes; and Emily Carr.

Sculpture is treated in two chapters; the First Nations are addressed in three; and there are single chapters on design, photography, conceptual art, video, the role of art institutions and historiography. …