Suburbs Standing West: Potentially Untimely Thoughts on Post-World War II Atlantic Canadian Art

By Andrew Nurse

Christopher Pratt just died. I did not know him, but I did have the pleasure of hearing him speak and I’ve used his art in my classes for almost as long as I have been teaching. I can’t say that that gives me any particular insight into his imagination, although I am also certain others will take the time write about that aspect of his career. By all accounts he was a dynamic and caring individual.[1] His passing even drew the notice of Prime Minister Trudeau who lauded Pratt as “one of our country’s greatest artists.”[2]

Pratt was part of a school of Atlantic Canadian painting that emerged, in part, through Mount Allison University in the 1950s. Exactly what we might call this school of painting is not particularly clear. Perhaps, drawing on literary studies of Herb Wyile and Tony Tremblay:[3] Regional Artistic Modernism? It would include the outstanding work of his wife Mary (from whom he divorced) and that of Alex Colville, perhaps the most celebrated Atlantic Canadian artist of the post-World War II era. My aim in this blog is not to write an obituary for Christopher Pratt. Instead, what I want to do is venture some preliminary thoughts on what we might see as his historical legacy. Of necessity, this is connected to the painters with whom his work can be aligned.

Winter at Whiteway, a 2004 painting by Pratt. (Christopher Pratt/Mira Godard Gallery). Image source: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/christopher-pratt-newfoundland-painter-obituary-1.6319009

I want to argue that Pratt’s legacy is mixed. By this, I don’t mean that his art is in any way “bad.” Pratt’s work has been duly and, in my view, rightly, celebrated. He was a member of the Royal Canadian Academy, the Order of Canada, and the Order of Newfoundland. What I mean is this: if I had to, I’d problematize the idea of good and bad art, question the appropriateness of such binary distinctions and suggest that “distinctions” of taste are far more complicated and far more interesting than simple distinctions.  As a raft of current art historiography makes clear, artistic distinctions are embedded in particular historical processes (what one generation finds artistic, another does not), contested, and inherently political, even while that politics is not always self evident or simple. I think that it is on this level that we need to grapple with Pratt’s legacy and think about the implications and importance of post-World War II Atlantic painting.

The work of Pratt’s I like the most is Suburbs Standing West, part of the collection of the Owens Art Gallery at Mount Allison University. If you have not seen this image, it is outstanding. It pictures a pristine subdivision sometime after a snow. Like most of Pratt’s mature work, the lines are clear, clean, and uninterrupted.  The colours do not mix but stand out against each other, set off in what looks like precise fashion. The painting tells a story that is open to interpretation. It is set at twilight; interior lights illuminate the houses. There is a veil of calm that settles over the scene. What strikes me most about this painting is the absence of people. Each house is enclosed unto itself, set against the winter: there is no road hockey, no sled tracks on the hills, no pets running through the snow or kids building forts. There could be something nostalgic about this painting, perhaps calling up old memories of walking home on cool winter nights. There could also be something disturbing about it. For whatever reason, the people who live in these houses don’t interact with each other or with nature. If this work is set against the long tradition of associating Canada with winter and nature, Suburbs Standing West breaks that association. The people in this suburb are disconnected from nature, disconnected from winter, and disconnected from each other.

The message of this painting does not necessarily sit easily with other Pratt paintings or the overall trajectory of Atlantic art after World War II.  This trajectory differed significantly from the work that had preceded it. It would be wrong to simplify the artistic production of Atlantic Canada. It was defined by marked differences related to provincial, linguistic, professional, and ethnic-heritage factors. Patterns of artistic production connected to the persistence of amateurism, for instance, are important considerations, as are the ways in which Indigenous and Acadian cultures created different matrices within which cultural production developed. One important narrative, however, is the displacement of the socially engaged and socially committed art that had defined the period running from the 1930s through to the immediate post-World War II era. As Kirk Niergarth and others have detailed, the depression and war had a significant effect on regional art, its subject matter, institutional organization, and how artists thought about their relationship to society. The art that emerged from the time included the work of Fred Ross, Miller Brittain, and Jack Humphrey. It was often brutally and disturbingly honest. It explored the dramatic social divisions that defined modern society and the horrors of war.[4] It could also be optimistic, as Ross’ restored two-panel mural The Destruction of War and Rebuilding the World through Education shows. In this work, Ross staked out a social project of reconstruction that redeemed the carnage of war to make for a different kind of social order.[5] As Walter Abell, editor of Maritime Art and professor of fine arts at Acadia argued, art’s relationship to society was an important element of this reconstruction. It was intricately tied to a cultural reorientation that led to a different kind of democratic order.[6]

The new generation of Atlantic Canadian artists who displaced this earlier socially committed art worked with different themes. Colville could be instructive because he was a transitional figure, working originally with a grand narrative similar to Rebuilding, but he rapidly moved away from both narrative and social engagement. Like Pratt, his work focused on figures, clear lines, observation, with an almost geometric presentation. Post-1950s Maritime art history differed from the social realism through which Colville passed in a number of other respects. Its aesthetic was precise, simplified, and image focused instead of the complex, narrative driven and periodically gritty or even (in the case of Brittain) chaotic work that preceded it. The new realism of Pratt and Colville shifted the geographic focus on regional art both literally and metaphorically. In place of urban or institutional scenes, Pratt celebrated rural life. If Saint John had been the centre of depression-era Atlantic Canadian socially oriented art, Pratt lived and worked St. Catherine’s, NL.

What was the effect of this shift in artistic focus? What were its ideological dynamics? I suspect it differed from artist to artist. Pratt maintained a fierce but friendly regionalistic pride and he painted the shifting dynamics of rural space. His wife Mary’s work always struck me as presenting a deeply feminist beauty that looks both forward and backward at the same time while challenging the viewer to see artistic vibrancy in daily life. There is much in this history. Ideologically, it moved in more than one direction. It was also part of an historical process that pushed away from the social realism and activism represented in the work of Humphrey, Ross, and Brittain. It was caught up in, and part of, an historical transition that re-inscribed conceptions of artistic genius and that detached art from its social connections. At the same time, it reinforced some conception of a decorative aesthetic at which one looks — even admires — but which was not connected to a different vision of society and culture. It also benefits from, and became embedded in, new cultural institutions and internationalized art markets.

Christopher Pratt’s death has already brought numerous tributes, as it should. His work was honest. It’s history still needs to be more thoroughly explored and a key part of that exploration needs to the ways it intersected with historical processes that reconstructed specific conceptions of art, its place in society, and the character of culture and the social role of the artist.


Andrew Nurse is professor of Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University.


Notes:

[1] Allison King, “Newfoundland Painter Christopher Pratt Fondly Remembered,” VOCM June 6, 2022,  https://vocm.com/2022/06/06/newfoundland-painter-christopher/; Lindsay Bird, “Christopher Pratt, Legendary Canadian Painter, Dead at 86” CBC News, June 5, 2022, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/christopher-pratt-newfoundland-painter-obituary-1.6319009. Canadian Press, “Christopher Pratt, Prominent Canadian Painter and Printmaker, Dies at 86,” Saanich News, June 5, 2022, https://www.saanichnews.com/news/christopher-pratt-prominent-canadian-painter-and-printmaker-dies-at-86/; National Gallery of Canada, “Christopher Pratt,” National Gallery of Canada, https://www.gallery.ca/collection/artist/christopher-pratt.

[2] Cited in King, “Newfoundland Painter Christopher Pratt Fondly Remembered.”  

[3] Herb Wyile, Anne of Tim Hortons: Globalization and the Reshaping of Atlantic-Canadian Literature (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011).Tony Tremblay, The Fiddlehead Moment: Pioneering an Alternative Canadian Modernism in New Brunswick (Montréal, CA: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019).

[4] 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).

[5] John Leroux, “Revision and Recovery: Fred Ross’s Fredericton High School Memorial Murals” Acadiensis 43,2 (Summer/Autumn, 2014), 100-106; Peter Larocque, “The Peripatetic Journey of Miller Brittain’s The Place of Healing in the Transformation from War to Peace” Acadiensis 43,2(Summer/Autumn 2014), 117-26; Claire Titus, “Miller Brittain’s Mural Cartoons for the Saint John Tuberculosis Hospital: From Creation to Conservation” Acadiensis (Summer/Autumn  2014), 127-35.

[6] Kirk Niergarth, “‘Missionary for Culture’: Walter Abell, Maritime Art and Cultural Democracy, 1928-1944” Acadiensis 36, 1 (Autumn, 2006): 3–28.

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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