Prairie Prestige, by Liv Valmestad

Manitoba, L.L. FitzGerald (UMASC - MSS 287, A.09-16, Box 4, Fd. 5, Item 8)
Manitoba, L.L. FitzGerald (UMASC - MSS 287, A.09-16, Box 4, Fd. 5, Item 8)

Prairie Prestige, by Liv Valmestad

During the first decades of the twentieth century, Winnipeg was the third largest city in Canada and the crossroads of commerce and merchantry, attracting people from all over the world. Its geographical isolation (approximately 800 km from any city of significant size) and long, harsh winters were conducive to intense creativity in many art forms. According to Russell Harper, noted art historian and author of Painting in Canada: a history, the development of art in Manitoba, like the rest of the Prairie provinces, followed a similar pattern from 1900 to 1940. The first artist groups were formed by like-minded English immigrant landscape watercolourists and art lovers, who formed art galleries and schools: the Winnipeg Art Gallery was established in 1912 and the Winnipeg School of Art in 1913. These institutions attracted art teachers from the east, and together with their students they initiated a groundswell of creativity that continues to develop into the twenty-first century. Today, Winnipeg boasts the most art and cultural institutions and organizations per capita in Canada and is the Cultural Capital of Canada designate for 2010. Winnipeg artist Wanda Koop once said, “When you live on the Prairies, you have no limitations. You walk out into a horizon that goes on forever, and you have this tremendous rush of freedom.” The artists in Prairie Prestige, whose work spans the twentieth century, shared this geographical and artistic freedom. While many were originally immigrants from Europe, all made great contributions to the art scene in Manitoba, and some achieved national and international acclaim. This essay highlights these artists and places them within the greater context of Canadian art of the twentieth century.

The Prairie Prestige artists, through the diversity of their techniques, working methods, and perspectives, exemplify the complexities of the Prairies. At first, many painted the Prairie landscape to gain an understanding of the region, and enhanced this by travelling, living, and studying elsewhere. They showed slices of social and local history, intense and subtle light, and natural history. However, the Prairie landscape dominated their ideas and work. The wildlife painter Angus Shortt, although born in Ireland, became a Prairie person to the core. He once said when returning from “away” that he was always eager to get out from under the mountains and under the fantastic Prairie sky. Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald—who painted primarily landscapes and streetscapes of Winnipeg and the surrounding area—while interested in the light and colour of the Prairies said that “subconsciously the Prairie and the skies get into most things I do no matter how abstract they may be.”(Ann Davis, “A North American artist,” Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald: the development of an artist, p. 63).  Landscape was central to his vision, and although his later landscapes were very abstract and treated like living entities, they demonstrated his belief in nature as a unified whole. Like FitzGerald, George Swinton showed a concern for a more universal relationship with nature. He declared his love for the Prairies and the North, and “saw the presence of Christ in nature.” (Raul Furtado, George Swinton: painter of the Canadian Prairies, WAG artist file). Richard Williams writes that it was Winnipeg and the surrounding Prairie landscape that allowed Swinton to not worry so much about style, but to commune with the subject matter, revealing “its spirit through himself in the spirit of the medium.” (Richard Williams, unpublished manuscript, 1963, One-man exhibition of recent paintings and drawings by George Swinton, brochure, Arch/FA Library, U of M artist file).

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