The Urban Prairie

By Shaw, Nancy | Urban History Review, October 1995 | Go to article overview

The Urban Prairie


Shaw, Nancy, Urban History Review


The Urban Prairie, The Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, October 29/93-January 2/94, Winnipeg Art Gallery, April 9-June 19/94, Dunlop Art Gallery, Regina, September 17 to October 23/94, Edmonton Art Gallery, November 19/94-January 15/95, Glenbow, Calgary, February 11-April 9/95, accompanied by catalogue of the same name, Mendel Art Gallery and Fifth House Limited, 1993).

With unforeseen fluidity, global and local transactions increasingly transform city life, displacing economic, cultural, and administrative allegiances to the nation state. In the process, once great industrial capitals, such as Montreal and Paris, have become tourist centres designed to attract scholars and vacationers alike in order to boost flailing civic economies. At the same time, formerly peripheral cities like Vancouver and Seattle are now burgeoning agglomerations of high tech industry, international finance, and relaxed and cosmopolitan lifestyles.

Amid such rapid change, it is not surprising that so many recent museum exhibitions dwell on the city. Notable among them is The Urban Prairie curated by Dan Ring of the Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon. This exhibition is unique in that it not only provides a history of urban development on the Prairies--a much neglected subject--but also challenges fundamental assumptions about Canadian national identity. Conceived as a federation built on diversity, Canada is organized according to territorial regions--distinct geo-political entities identified by the material resources they yield toward the harmonious functioning of the country. The Prairies, then, are commonly imagined in nationalist representations of Canada as an agriculturally productive region with a culture that echoes its flat, fertile land and big sky. By suggesting that a distinct urban culture has developed on the Prairies over the past century, this exhibition supplements well-known representations that situate the region as rural and agrarian.

The Urban Prairies overall curatorial premise follows a familiar narrative of modernization whereby urban development is initiated with railway building and attains maturity in the post World War II period. To query this deeply ingrained image of the region, Ring employs an impressive array of visual materials depicting the development of Prairie cities between 1880 and 1960. Although it appears as a typical art-historical survey in its chronological organization--covering almost a century through six distinct periods of civic development--the show's roughly 300 paintings, photographs and popular paraphernalia (posters, postcards and advertising) are arranged to form a social history, rather than to simply track stylistic developments in fine art.

Appropriately, the exhibition's first section "The Cities of the Rail" is comprised of promotional and documentary materials illustrating settlements built and also those disrupted by the coming of the transcontinental railroad. Canadian Pacific Railway posters such as "Traversing the Great Wheat Region of the Canadian Northwest," (1883) promoted free homes and fertile lands to attract immigrants. Several photographs by Montreal-based William Notman, official CPR photographer and a pioneer of commercial and experimental photography in North America, document settlements initiated or transformed by the railroad. Included are a static depiction of a Blackfoot reserve, and stark images of the settlements which became Calgary, Brandon, Winnipeg and Medicine Hat.

As noted in Ring's essay in the 160-page exhibition catalogue, there were few painted representations of urban development during this period even though rail magnate and arts patron William Van Horne gave free railway passes to many artists. Instead, the paintings of this period focused on the natural landscape which was thought to be more attractive to the hearty and adventurous settlers and tourists of these largely uncharted territories.

Ring argues that from the 1880s until the 1920s photography was the predominant method used to represent the city. …

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