Kathleen Morris’ Nuns With Children is one of works on display at the Colours of Jazz exhibit at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibit of works by The Beaver Hall Group runs through January.

Nuns among the nudes at Montreal art exhibit

By  Alan Hustak, Catholic Register Special
  • November 21, 2015

MONTREAL - Two paintings of Montreal’s St. Patrick’s Basilica bathed in the amber glow of a late winter afternoon serve as something of a muted introduction to the Colours of Jazz, a dynamic exhibition of artwork turning heads in Montreal.

The exhibition is the work of the Beaver Hall Group, the first Montreal modern artists to gain international recognition. The group was also Montreal’s first to include women artists, although at least one of them, Regina Seiden, sometimes had to paint under her husband’s name to avoid a negative reaction in chauvinistic 1920s society.

When The Beaver Hall Group was founded, it was regarded as Montreal’s answer to Toronto’s Group of Seven. Its first president was Montreal native A.Y. Jackson, a prominent member of the Group of Seven.

“Montreal has long had an art association, but no association of artists,” he explained at the inaugural exhibition in 1921. “Our aim is to give younger painters a regular opportunity of showing creative work, to give a place to efforts, which, possibly experiments in the earlier stages, may develop along some new and vital line… individual expression is our chief concern.”

They worked out of a studio that was next door to St. Patrick’s. That made the basilica an inviting subject for landscape artist Robert Pilot.

Another of Pilot’s featured works in the exhibition is Sunday Morning, Sault au Recollect, which shows the faithful arriving for Mass in sleighs.
A much more colourful and evocative scene, by Kathleen Morris — After The High Mass, Berthier-en-Haut — shows a crowd leaving St. Patrick’s on a bright winter’s day and positively glows with nostalgia.

The 20 or so artists who worked out of a studio on Beaver Hall Hill set the local art scene on its heels with their works for a decade but were largely forgotten during The Great Depression of the 1930s. The show, being held through January at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, offers the first expanded viewing of the group and its contributions to art in Canada.

Curated by Jacques de Rochers and Brian Foss, the exhibition not only showcases the group’s modernist works but also touches on the all-pervasive religious life of Quebec a century ago. Among the 140 works, that include portraits, nudes and sculptures, are at least 20 paintings that capture the spiritual dimension of Montreal in the 1920s.

Sarah Robertson has painted the gardens of the Sulpician Seminary and nuns walking along the stone walls of the Grand Seminary on Sherbrooke St. Another of her works, In the Nuns’ Garden, is a boldly geometric study of three nuns harvesting pumpkins. In the catalogue, but not in the exhibition, are several canvases by Andre Bieler of a Corpus Christi procession at Sainte Famille.

In her essay, A Montreal Modernity, Quebec art historian Esther Trepannier suggests the group’s representation of religious themes should not be seen as an ideological choice.

“Whatever their denominations, churches as architectural structures often contrast in intriguing ways with the surrounding dwellings and their towering forms can provide an ideal foil for visually interesting light and atmospheric effects,” she said.

Similarly, she says the religious figures were merely included for “pictorial balance.”

“During this period members of the clergy and the various religious communities were not only numerous but highly visible. There is nothing nostalgic or anachronistic about their inclusion in these paintings.”

Most reviews of the Colours of Jazz ignore the religious themes in the exhibition and dwell instead on how the paintings tell the story of Montreal in the Roaring Twenties. At the time, as museum director Nathalie Bondil writes, “Montreal boasted one of North America’s busiest ports, the economy was growing by leaps and bounds; prohibition south of the border served to free Quebec from the yoke of straight-laced morality.”

But as they say, art is in the eye of the beholder. And beneath the visually stunning modernist panoramas and chromatic portraits this exhibition quietly reminds us that vibrant sophistication and the sacred are not mutually exclusive.

(Hustak is a freelance writer in Montreal.)

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