Staid modernists sought artistic cred
CANADIAN MODERNISM at Stephen Bulger Gallery (1026 Queen West), to September 12. 416-504-0575. Rating: NNNN
What was the state of Canadian photography during the high modernist period? Stephen Bulger Gallery’s current exhibit, Canadian Modernism, attempts to answer that question. Gathering work by the most noted Canadian photographers from the late 20s to the late 50s, it gives an overview of the prevailing mid-century aesthetic.
Viewed as a whole, its tenor is unmistakable. The human figure retreats rigorous composition comes to the fore. Framing puts the subjects into a formalist grid often dominated by large shapes or bold lines, aiming to abstract natural forms into a pleasing symmetry.
When people do appear, they’re adjuncts of larger, industrial structures such as ships, in the maritime photos of Harry Waddle, for example, staircases or planes.
Welcome and Vertical Artichoke, by E. Haanel Cassidy, explore the rigorous geometry of plant life to the point of abstraction. Cassidy’s portrait of a young girl, Sylvia, is more about the symmetry of the whorls of hair on the back of her head than about the child herself. Static At Sunrise, by Rex Frost, is a meticulous study of the four curled forms of canoes contrasted with the flat plane of a lake. Composition matters most.
Photography had not yet been fully embraced as an artistic pursuit at this time, and its imitation of the geometric abstraction that reigned supreme in the painting of the era may have been, in part, a stab at legitimacy.
You get little sense of the love of surprise and coincidence that was to dominate the era of candid handheld photography. These are serious, sober, painterly photographers creating handsome, if slightly staid, modernist images.