Saturday, June 04, 2005

Edwin Holgate by Sari Mandel


It seems that this is Edwin Holgate's weekend. Michel Hellman, of Le Devoir writes about his retrospective in today's Le Devoir, and I would assume that it is Henry Lehmann who wrote the article in today's Gazette. But you can't read either one of them. However, there is Jacquline Mabey's review that I posted here last week, along with my thoughts from slightly earlier.

While I am still mulling over whether I like the Musée des Beaux Arts putting on an educational exhibition, I just got another guest post. This one from Sari Mandel. Her take is fairly different, than that of Ms. Mabey's or mine.
Edwin Holgate: Art beyond the Group of Seven

I'm a third year art history student and for a bunch of reasons that I'll get to later, I asked my father if he was familiar with the Canadian artist Edwin Holgate. This is how the conversation went:

Me: "So does the name Holgate ring a bell dad?"
Father: "Oh sure, Holgate, I know who he is." (I know my father is lying. I can tell from his tone of voice that he has no idea who Holgate really is.) "Holgate's claim to fame was the Group of Seven. He never became an official member, just an honorary one."
Me: "Well Dad, Holgate was invited to join the Group of Seven in 1929, but I am not sure his ties to the group define his artistic career."
(There is a brief pause on the telephone.)
Father: "Well then who is Edwin Holgate? What is so special about his career?"

Not only am I my father's daughter, I am also a young art historian who is constantly reminded that I know very little about Canadian art. This crazy guy with two first names recently asked me if I wanted to attend the press conference for the Musée des beaux Arts de Montreal's retrospective exhibition on Edwin Holgate. I enthusiastically accepted the invite. As it got closer to the date of the press conference I realized that I knew very little about Holgate's career. I Googled him and browsed some online art journals, and to my surprise I did not find that much. There was hardly any significant publications concerning the Holgate's career. This is when I called my father for help and evidently he knew as little as I had.

My father, being my father is the font of all knowledge in my family. Right or wrong he is the source which we all go to at one point or another when stumped. Despite my being wrong about my father's lying on the morning of the press conference I could not escape my father's words. Who is Edwin Holgate? What is so special about his career? Why would an established art museum, like the Musée des beaux Arts de Montreal, desire to organize a retrospective exhibition of an artist so inadequately recognized? Surely there was something more to Holgate's career, something independent of the success of the Group of Seven and The Beaver Hall Hill group. Guess what? I was right.

The exhibition addressed my concerns and answered my questions about Holgate. I really enjoyed the selection of his works and believe they have a lot to offer the unfamiliar viewer such as myself. (On a side note, my experience at the exhibition opening went smoothly. No one outed me for knowing so little about the artist, and in spite of the crazy guy's concern, I felt quite comfortable and content being all dressed up.)

So who is Edwin Holgate? What's so special about his career? The exhibition successfully emphasizes Holgate's individual artistic expression. In chronological sequence the exhibition explores the many stages and themes of Holgate's career. At once a draftsman, painter, printmaker, war artist, muralist, and book illustrator, Holgate's versatility is not only impressive but is a significant contribution to Canadian art.

Unlike members of the Group of Seven, Holgate explored a range of subject matters. The diversity of Holgate’s work, which includes portraits, nudes set in Canadian landscapes, war scenes, and depictions of First Nations cultures, suggests his personal and distinctive artistic pursuits rather than the collective and nationalist ones of the Group of Seven.

My personal favorites are Holgate's landscape nudes. The landscape nudes are refreshing and offer something very different than the landscape aesthetic of the Group of Seven. At once these paintings expose Quebecois scenery as well as establish the nude as a modern Canadian subject matter.

The female nudes are depicted amongst Quebec's countryside and appear as if preoccupied with their personal aesthetics and leisure time. I love that the landscapes were painted in Quebec during the spring/summer season. As the women in The Bathers cool their heads down with towels, the viewer really gets a sense of how hot and sunny the day must have been. Not that it would make sense for Holgate to have painted these nude women in the midst of winter, but as one who has survived several brutally cold and snowy winters in Montreal, I really appreciate being reminded of the warmer and brighter side of the province’s bitter climate. Although contrary to what you would think, Holgate would first paint the landscape, and then in his studio, paint the women, layering them over what he had already done.

Popular opinion suggests Holgate's landscape nudes have a Cezannian sensitivity to the physical world and form, and I could not agree more. In these paintings, Holgate's integration of the human figure into the background scenery reveals the artist's Modernist tendencies and a personal style focusing on form and contour. Both landscape and nude are consistent throughout the composition as color and contour remain fresh, pure and clean. The women do not appear awkward or uncomfortable in their surroundings, and it is as if their bodies have become one with the landscape itself. As a result of this consistency, the scene's natural beauty and heath is emphasized, and the viewer is discouraged to think of these nudes as erotic or sexual.

I recommend a trip to the Edwin Holgate exhibition at the Musée des beaux Arts de Montreal. The exhibition provides a great overview and introduction of his career. I am glad the Musée des beaux Arts de Montreal has chosen to expose such an unrecognized and talented Canadian artist and I can’t wait to tell my father that there is art beyond the Group of Seven.

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