The Imagined Cities of Three Canadian Painters

By Caulfield, Jon | Urban History Review, June 1991 | Go to article overview

The Imagined Cities of Three Canadian Painters


Caulfield, Jon, Urban History Review


Abstract

The paper argues that cityscapes of Toronto painted by John Gillespie in 1844/5, Robert Gagen in 1914 and Christiane Pflug in 1968-71 each illuminate and are illuminated by the urban historical periods in which they were created. The paper's conclusion suggests that three frameworks for looking at painters' images of cityscape are those of political economy, "sentiment and symbolism", and "discursive" relationship of observer and object.

Resume

Selon l'auteur de cet article, les peintures que John Gillespie, Robert Gagen et Christiane Pflug firent de Toronto, respectivement en 1844 et 1845, en 1914, et entre 1968 et 1971, eclairent les periodes de developpement urbain au cours desquelles elles furent crees et, par contrecoup, s'en trouvent eclairees. La conclusion ouvre trois perspectives permettant d'apprecier ces paysages urbains: l'economie politique, le <> et la relation <> entre l'observateur et l'objet.

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The curator of the recent exhibition Urban Images: Canadian Painting observed that art historians and urban scholars may have different interests in cityscape pictures. Her own goal was an historical overview of various artists' styles and perspectives in depicting the city; an urbanist, on the other hand, might want "to illustrate ... specific urban principles" in the context of the paintings. (1) This paper is an effort in the latter direction. It focuses on images of Toronto in painting at different moments of its urban development: the mercantile, commercial and industrial phases described in Gilbert Stelter's model of Canadian urbanization, (2) and the contemporary corporate/de-industrializing period.

Among the strengths of Stelter's typology is an implicit stress on ways that transitions between these kinds of urban historical eras are not only abstract matters of political economy but, in their effects on social milieu and built landscapes, also concrete experiences felt by city-dwellers in the course of their everyday lives. This experience is reflected in respect to the shift from the mercantile to the commercial city in the contrast remarked by the painter Paul Kane between the village of his boyhood and the town he found in 1845 on his return from studies in Europe--"Little York, muddy and dirty, just struggling into existence, now the City of Toronto bursting forth in all its energy and commercial strength," (3) and is illustrated in respect to the shift to the industrial city in the observation of Barker Fairley (in a 1921 review of Lawren Harris's urban paintings) of "a vast gulf between the city's present and its immediate but somehow almost mysterious past." (4) The transition to the corporate city, meanwhile, has been part of the lived experience of many Toronto-dwellers today, a process whose effects on, for example, built form are strikingly illustrated in an early-1970s collection of aerial photographs published by a local real estate executive that documents the replacement of downtown neighbourhoods by warrens of highrises, rural pastures by massive subdivisions and malls, and sleepy ravines by expressway cloverleafs. (5)

This paper's concern is the way that urban transition has become visible in the work of cityscape artists who painted at these cusps of urban change--moments at which emerging urban realities have become visual images. In this context, the term "image" denotes a depiction that is both a cognitive perception and holistic conception of urban socio-spatial form, serving not only to organize and interpret this form but literally to create it in the minds' eyes of city-dwellers. (6) Further, the term denotes a social construction contingent on the triangle of its creator's biography and relationships to "topic" and imagined audience, three poles that compose the social context of "discourse." (7) Painting, in this framework, is approached as an institution whose central components (besides materials of production) include norms of creativity and horizons of expectation arising in specific interactional settings. …

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