The Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibition Uninvited centres female artists in our narrative of modern Canadian art

The Vancouver Art Gallery’s new major exhibition Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Movement presents an immense range of artistic production and female creativity.

The ‘modern movement’ refers to the 1920s-1940s and the art movement that arose during this transformative time. Traditionally, our understanding of this movement includes artists such as the Group of Seven, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and has suffered from a lack of gender and racial representation. Uninvited begins to change this.

I was immediately surprised by the first room’s display of emotionally intense and vibrant portraits. In particular, Lilias Torrance Newton’s portrait of Elise Kingman mesmerized me. The artist’s friend is painted in elegant, understated clothes against a gray background. As she gazes to her right, her features are illuminated by a soft, warm light that highlights her calm, kind expression. The two women had served together in the First World War, and the portrait is painted with all the affection and fondness of a long-time friendship.

Portraits of women painted by men, which have been canonized by Western art history, are rarely imbued with the same agency that Newton gives her subject and friend. This idea of artistic agency followed me throughout rooms of landscape paintings, botanical studies, sculpture, garments, baskets and photography.

Wandering through rooms of such a variety of expressions of female creativity was a special experience — a rare one, as women artists have been so adamantly disregarded by art historians until relatively recently. It was inspiring to see such attention paid to the intentions of the artists in the curation of the exhibition by Sarah Milroy, with museum labels detailing the context in which the pieces were made.

Many of the featured artists were often discussed in relation to their male counterparts: the Group of Seven who produced what have become quintessential Canadian landscape paintings. The exhibition makes a point of recognizing many women artists’ divergence from the ‘wilderness landscape’ subject matter of their male counterparts.

The exhibition featured settler, Indigenous and immigrant artists whose works addressed the dramatic, and often painful, changes occurring at the time. These women took on themes of industrialization, environmental change, psychology, Indigenous cultures and immigrant experiences.

I worry, however, that by condensing such a wide range of mediums, topics, subjects, artists and styles to a single exhibition, we risk flattening out the nuance of each of these artists’ work and intentions. Museum captions don’t seem to be adequate markers of the amount of artistic variance within such a broad exhibition.

I had hoped to leave the exhibition with a clearer understanding of the ‘modern movement’ that consolidates these artworks. I found myself recalling the range of works I had seen, searching for the overarching through-line that laced the works together, that held the answers to questions like ‘What were the main themes of the modern movement?’, and ‘Who’s work is included and excluded from our discourse around the movement?’

I will definitely be visiting the exhibition again. There are too many amazing works to fully experience in one visit alone. I found my time spent admiring, questioning and analyzing these previously understudied works of female creativity to be heartening and important as we continue to rewrite tired, patriarchal understandings of artistic movements.