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February 23, 2022

A tribute to the Contemporary Art Society of Montreal

Partial view of the gallery dedicated to the Contemporary Arts Society of Montreal in the Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion. © Estate of Charles Daudelin / SOCAN (2022). Photo MMFA, Annie Fafard

In the Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion for Quebec and Canadian Art, the floor housing the Towards Modernity display was recently refurbished to highlight the important influence Montreal and our institution, the Art Association of Montreal (today the MMFA), have had on the Quebec and Canadian art scene. This new presentation shines a light on the role the Contemporary Arts Society of Montreal (1939-1948) played in cultivating Modernism.

Jacques Des Rochers

Curator of Quebec and Canadian Art (before 1945)

Sacha Marie Levay

Conservation Technician

More than any other arts organization in Canada, Montreal’s Contemporary Arts Society upheld the right for free artistic expression throughout its ten-year existence. Founded by painter and critic John Lyman, this large, heterogeneous organization was dedicated to the promotion of Modern art and putting an end to the separation between Montreal’s English and French communities, while also welcoming Jewish artists. Such ambitions stemmed largely from the perspective Lyman gained over the almost 20 years he lived in Europe.

From mainly figurative art, the Contemporary Arts Society’s production gradually broadened to encompass abstraction. Nevertheless, this direction taken by Paul-Émile Borduas and the Automatistes was too extreme for many of its other members, creating a schism that led to the Society’s dissolution. Through its inclusive spirit and around ten exhibitions, which made room for many women and young artists representing the new generation, the Society encouraged visual experimentation, and cultivated and enriched the local art milieu. In short, it sparked a new chapter in Modern art in Quebec and Canada.

In the new display, several recent acquisitions and other rarely shown works underscore the organization’s remarkable contribution. In an effort to re-establish their integrity, some of the works were restored or reframed. The juxtaposition of artworks on similar subjects also reveals the distinct approaches used by artists within the same group, as illustrated in the following examples.

Two portraits of Gabrielle Borduas

The Contemporary Arts Society afforded Paul-Émile Borduas, the group’s first Vice-President, an important vehicle for disseminating his work. His portrait of Gabrielle, his wife, was shown in 1940 at the Society’s second exhibition at the Art Association of Montreal, under the simple title Portrait. At the time, the architect, designer and critic Marcel Parizeau gave an eloquent commentary on the work, underscoring the more refined decorative effect, expansive technique, feeling of intimacy and familiarity in the pose, and the colour and pattern of the dress, all lending it an easy poetry. John Lyman would reproduce the painting in his article on the exhibition that appeared in the magazine The Montrealer in December 1940.

In her portrait of Gabrielle painted the following year, Louise Gadbois conveys an equally decorative vision. The use of delicate pastel hues contrasts interestingly with the artist’s penchant for rapid execution, which adds strength of character to the model. In the two portraits, the penetrating black eyes and crossed arms of this seemingly sought-after model evoke at once openness and composure. A period frame was recently recycled and specially adapted to this new acquisition.

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Variations on the still life

Alfred Pellan’s return to Quebec in 1940 after many years in France made an impact on those then influenced by a new freedom, even though the artist’s stylistic eclecticism gradually led to the formation of two distinct aesthetic camps among the future signatories of the Prisme d’Yeux manifesto and the Automatistes. Here, Pellan executed an impressive, eminently decorative composition that covers the space with planes and grids, and combines echoes of Cubism and Henri Matisse with a palette of vibrant colours. The work is beautifully set off by its new frame that was inspired by that of another still life by Pellan, also dated to 1940.

Purchased at the time of the Contemporary Arts Society’s exhibition in 1942, Still Life (Fruit and Leaves) by Paul-Émile Borduas was his first to be acquired by the Art Association of Montreal. It shows three apples and two bunches of grapes, partly laid on a bed of bay leaves, on a corner of a table girded by a checked tablecloth or placemat. The influence of Paul Cézanne is clear, but the arrangement is also reminiscent of a still life painted by Georges Braque in 1938, a picture of which was in a magazine the artist had. Owing to its subject’s main emphasis on form and colour, the painting is a harbinger of Borduas’s early non-figurative works.

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Nudes in figurative and abstract conceptions

Charles Daudelin exhibited with Montreal’s Contemporary Arts Society at the Dominion Gallery in 1943, 1944 and 1946, at Eaton’s in Toronto in 1945 and at the show later remounted for the Art Association of Montreal in 1946. He was one of the cohort of Francophone students whose work was first shown in the Society’s young artist category, and then those – in particular Borduas’s students at the École du meuble – who asserted themselves and changed the very makeup of the group in the face of mostly Modernist, figurative conceptions of art. Daudelin painted Odalisque, or The Sphinx in Paris in the spring of 1948, shortly after he had signed the Prisme d’Yeux manifesto. John Lyman exhibited Rose at that same time at the Art Association of Montreal’s 65th Spring Exhibition.

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Goodridge Roberts, Interior

Goodridge Roberts settled in Montreal in 1936 and distinguished himself amongst Contemporary Arts Society members, who considered him, like John Lyman, as one of the most gifted of their number. In 1939, he was, along with Eric Goldberg and Louis Muhlstock, a member of the jury that selected the works for the Society’s first exhibition. In that same year, he also showed his watercolours at the Art Association of Montreal, which then made its first acquisition of a Roberts work, a Laurentian landscape. It was also in 1939 that he painted this Interior, recently acquired and which the Museum’s Conservation department has just reframed. The discovery of the signature “G. Roberts” on the back of the chosen frame confirmed the historical and aesthetic appropriateness of our team’s selection.

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Moe Reinblatt, Self-portrait in a Green Fedora

From its beginnings in 1939, the Contemporary Arts Society included among its members artists from Montreal’s Jewish community, including Jack Beder, Alexander Bercovitch, Sam Borenstein, Eric Goldberg, Louis Muhlstock and Regina Seiden Goldberg, many of whom were regular exhibitors with the Society. In his case, Moe Reinblatt would take part in Art of Our Day in Canada, an exhibition the Society held at the Art Association of Montreal in late 1940, the only time it would present works by a wider group of Canadian artists who were not members. That show would also include art from the Jewish community’s Herman Heimlich, Harry Mayerovitch and Fanny Wiselberg.

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Two recent Louis Muhlstock acquisitions

The first work by Louis Muhlstock to be shown with Montreal’s Contemporary Arts Society, at the Stevens Art Gallery in December 1939, was a picture of Goupil Lane. Leduc Lane intersected the latter in a rundown area that has since been razed and replaced by Habitations Jeanne-Mance. Muhlstock would be especially drawn to that underprivileged working-class neighbourhood, which he was familiar with because he had lived there. With access to derelict housing, he executed moving portraits of spaces devoid of life. The signs of time’s passing, the forms and the palette of vibrant colours are all opportunities to assert the modernity of otherwise mundane subjects. Leduc Lane, Montreal is one of the artist’s few paintings in which depictions of local residents from life enliven the architectural landscape that usually constituted the work’s sole motif. Here, Muhlstock shows subject matter straight out of a Michel Tremblay novel – long before any were written!

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The actual location for View from a Window, looking out on Mount Royal, and that of the side alleyway, where buildings with generic secondary facades overlap, was able to be found thanks to maps and aerial photos from the time, as well as a visit to the site, which has nevertheless considerably changed. Muhlstock would have captured his subject from the back window of a friend’s apartment in the Maplecourt, a newly constructed building at 3540 Durocher Street. In this painting, the artist depicts a built environment comprising a jumble of forms and flat areas of colour, emphasizing in the centre of the composition two trees that autumn has stripped of their leaves. A watercolour depicting an Old Tree was the first work by Muhlstock to have been acquired by the Art Association of Montreal, in 1939.

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