Kirk Niergarth, "The Dignity of Every Human Being": New Brunswick Artists and Canadian Culture between the Great Depression and the Cold War

By Antoncic, Debra | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Kirk Niergarth, "The Dignity of Every Human Being": New Brunswick Artists and Canadian Culture between the Great Depression and the Cold War


Antoncic, Debra, Labour/Le Travail


Kirk Niergarth, "The Dignity of Every Human Being": New Brunswick Artists and Canadian Culture between the Great Depression and the Cold War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 2015)

It should not come as a surprise to observers of 20th-century Canadian art that the Group of Seven and wilderness landscape painting has received, and continues to receive, significant attention. In this well-researched study of New Brunswick artists in the 1930s and 1940s, Kirk Niergarth argues for a re-evaluation of the contributions and accomplishments made by non-Group artists in different parts of Canada. In the process, Niergarth challenges the conventional portrayal of New Brunswick-based artists, such as Miller Brittain and Jack Humphrey, as regional artists who overcame poverty and cultural isolation but who remain largely outside the central Canadian narrative. In what is a lament for a lost opportunity, the author argues instead that these artists should be seen as working, not on the margins, but in opposition to the main thread of artistic development in Canada during this period.

Niergarth finds his evidence through an examination of the ideas and preoccupations of artists, poets, writers, educators, and intellectuals living and working in New Brunswick during the Depression and World War II. Through an analysis of critical writing, private letters, and art production, the author attempts to reclaim the 1930s from subsequent scholarship which has downplayed or ignored the political motivations of these artists. Faced with outright denials by the artists involved, Niergarth looks back in time to this archive to find expressions of political engagement that, in his analysis, could have produced a very different post-war cultural landscape in Canada.

By situating this investigation in the context of both economic depression and war, and examining the intersections of ideas, Niergarth makes a strong case for this re-evaluation. In his analysis, the first-hand experience of poverty, hopelessness, and deprivation in Depression-era Saint John informed both easel painting and the public art murals produced by Brittain and Humphrey, among others. The group of like-minded individuals in the region included Walter Abell, the US-born founder of the arts journal Maritime Art (the precursor to Canadian Art), potters Erica and Kjeld Deichmann, and poets P.K. Page and Kay Smith. Niergarth demonstrates that this diverse group of artists, from different educational, social, and economic positions, working in various media, shared a common goal of contributing to society and to their community. His careful attention to primary sources, to artists' biographies, and his visual analysis of individual works of art are among the strengths of this study. Niergarth's detailed description of the participation and contributions of the many women artists and cultural leaders in New Brunswick is also noteworthy.

The challenge facing the author is that, as alluded to above, the subsequent record includes many personal disavowals of political engagement. While a look back to the period is critical to this reevaluation, Niergarth might also have considered the reasons behind such denials in greater depth. The impact of anti-communism, for instance, has been considered by Canadian academics in other disciplines, but remains underdeveloped in the field of visual arts. The received wisdom is that the New Brunswick artists were neglected because they were not part of the nationalist agenda formulated by the premier arts institutions in central Canada. …

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