In 1951, Samuel Bronfman, president of the House of Seagram, commissioned 22 artists to paint the cities of Canada. To select the participants he relied upon the expertise of artists Robert Pilot, then president of the Royal Canadian Academy, and A.Y. Jackson. Both had played important roles in the formation of a modern vocabulary for Canadian art in the first half of the 20th century, and while their selection was drawn from members of the RCA, it also included younger artists ”” five of the 22 were under the age of 40. Not all the artists painted their hometown; rather, many were sent out across Canada to observe and sketch firsthand. For A.Y. Jackson, the occasion of painting St. John’s was his first time in Newfoundland, though we might imagine that by that time he had, indeed, painted ”œall” of Canada. Artists were paid an average of $1,000 each for their completed work, a significant amount of money in the early 1950s.

Bronfman stated on many occasions his belief that the ”œhorizons of industry should not terminate at the bound- ary-lines of its plants.” This was hardly a typical view, and coming from a ”œcaptain of industry” might even be seen as a self-serving platitude. Bronfman also felt that private enterprise had a responsibility to take an active part in pro- moting culture. An exhibition of the commissioned paintings was organized to tour the Americas and Europe in 1953-54, and, in its patron’s words, brought ”œto the peoples of the world…views of Canada’s cities…rising from its sea- coasts, in the midst of its plains, at the foot of its mountains.” This was fol- lowed by a cross-Canada tour in 1954- 55. Bronfman’s vision of a new urban Canada was of the land, the people, cities, and the will to prosper, which he described in a 1954 radio interview as ”œthe sum of the nation.”

The Cities of Canada works toured again in 1964 and made their final major public appearance during Centennial Year in 1967. Although an immensely popular exhibition, it had its critics. Some felt the corporate asso- ciation compromised the integrity of the work, and art historian Rosemary Donegan suggested that Seagram had undertaken the project as part of a pro- motional program designed to circum- vent legal and moral restrictions on the advertising of liquor. She singled out one work as a ”œrather saccharine, abstract treatment…symbolizing the power and beauty of modern industry.”

The studied disregard for these paintings, which assumes they are tainted by a corporate vision, is a dou- ble-edged problem. The art world often assigns merit by a formalist crite- rion that looks beyond content, or privileges content-driven art that forms (some say, must form) a social critique. The middle ground is often regarded as anecdotal or irrelevant pic- ture-making. The Cities of Canada paintings have fallen into the latter category. Nevertheless they remain rel- evant to the appreciation and understanding of Canadian art and history. The paintings also underscore the complex issues of cities and urban life, then and today, and should be read as visual-social documents.

Although industrial images appeared in Canadian art prior to the First World War, the prevalent sub- ject matter for the first half of the 20th century remained the genres of land- scape, portrait and still life, with abstraction just on the horizon (clear- ly, a different horizon than the one Samuel Bronfman saw). Cities of Canada marks a shift in the depiction of Canada, now an emerging urban nation. Industry was very much a part of the Canadian landscape after the Second World War, with the growth of cities and suburbs, new prosperity and a general sense of optimism. Yet the Canadian wilderness was still being heavily promoted as the new growth industry, a destination for tourists from abroad but also for the modern Canadian family in search of leisure and recreation. That wild, rugged image endures, even though the majority of Canadians live in cities today. A 2003 poll by the Centre for Research and Information on Canada indicated that ”œthe vastness and beau- ty of the land” is what most citizens think of as the essence of the country.

The 1951 census is pivotal to understanding the dynamics that were changing, and continue to change, Canadian life and society. It was a por- trait of the modern nation, the first conducted with 10 provinces and two territories, as Newfoundland had entered Confederation just two years earlier. There had been a dramatic increase in population over the 50 years since the 1900 census, almost tripling to 14 million (whereas the population merely doubled from 1950 to 2000). Sixty percent of Canadians lived in rural areas in 1900, but by 1951 the urban population was in the majority, almost 57 percent. This trend contin- ues, and today almost 80 percent of Canadians live in urban areas. At the beginning of the 1950s, after 20 contin- uous years of hardship with the Great Depression and the global conflict of the Second World War, there was a sense of a new social purpose, well- being and optimism; this despite new global tensions arising from the Cold War and the war in Korea. Many of the artists included in Cities of Canada had served in the military, and, to state the obvious, had also been affected by the Depression.

In the immediate after- math of the war in 1946, the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation held a competition for the design of a small house that could be built for $6,000. The three regional winning designs illustrated how the new post-war fam- ily would live and how its needs would be met with open concept living/din- ing areas, floor to ceiling windows, basements with a recreation room, and even a fanciful helicopter landing pad incorporated into the design by John C. Parkin. A reviewing journalist wrote that the post-war Canadian family was different ”œfrom every other kind of family that has ever existed,” and that the housing designs offered ”œthe future opportunity for the development of a lively Canadian vernacular art.”

In 1953, the first Canadian urban- social engineering experiment was launched, the suburb of Don Mills, Ontario. There was no turning back.

In addition to the boom in resource industries and manufacturing, there was unprecedented research undertaken in the sciences and engineering ”” aero- nautics, for example. Consumer products began to re-enter the market- place after wartime manufacturing restrictions, as well as new products, such as Canadian-designed modernist furniture. Television provided a window on the world and would have as pro- found an effect on the sense of Canadian nationhood as the transcontinental rail- way did in the 1890s. The cultural sector saw significant developments in the 1950s. There were individual initiatives, such as the publication of Marshall McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), but public gal- leries were also established and new buildings constructed, the Canada Council was formed (1957), and recur- ring events such as the Stratford Shakespearean Festival appeared (1953).

The logistics of the Cities of Canada project appears daunting even 50 years later. The city locations stretched from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Victoria, BC, a distance of 7,314 km. Windsor was the southernmost city at 42° latitude, the same as the top of Northern California. Edmonton was the most northern city at 53° latitude. Equally challenging was the relative size of the 28 cities depicted ”” Montreal had the largest population at 1.4 million, and Charlottetown was the smallest at 16,000. There were also significant dif- ferences in historical development, and hence the urban fabric ”” Quebec City was established in 1608, and Montreal in 1642, while many of the Western Canadian cities did not appear until the end of the 19th century.

Each city posed a challenge for the individual artists. What to depict relative to old and new landmarks, how to reflect the geographic terrain, and how to cap- ture the essence of a city in a single, suc- cinct work? The works had to be dynamic portraits as well as visual documents, which precluded the use of abstraction.

Accordingly, each artist took on the role of social geographer in selecting their view and interpretation of the city, its past and present, with a glance toward the future. Artist Charles Comfort noted in his approach to painting Edmonton: ”œIn the mid-summer of 1952, [it] was like a great booming vortex of industrial enter- prises. I chose to paint a portrait of Edmonton and not a created myth of my own about the city; no artificial symbol- ism could communicate…the vigor and promise contained in that location.”

Comfort’s thoughts were repeated by many of the artists, and in turn, the- matic threads can be seen. City skylines are the most obvious indication of urban growth, but tall modern build- ings were rare in Canada in 1951, even though the tallest building in the British Empire always had pride of place. Structures in Montreal and Toronto took the premiere position in quick succession until the construction of the 34-storey Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, designed by archi- tects Darling and Pearson and complet- ed in 1931. As a consequence, CPR hotels built in the late 19th and early 20th century often dominated. They figure prominently in the paintings of Victoria, Quebec City, Toronto, and Winnipeg, and served as actual vantage points for some artists. Churches were also prominent landmarks, as were provincial legislative buildings, often the first major public building projects. Bridges, built before skyscrapers and another sign of the modern age, can be seen in the paintings of Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Hamilton, Hull, Sarnia and Windsor. They were essen- tial for the development of transport and industry, and a connection to trade with the United States. Prominent fac- tory and industrial sites were depicted in Hamilton, Hull, Fort William/Port Arthur, Sarnia, Sudbury, and Windsor, as well as the ocean ports of Halifax, St. John’s, Vancouver, and Victoria.

With few exceptions, the artists strove for accuracy. For this reason the paintings now serve as important historical documents of urban development, as some promi- nent landmarks no longer exist and urban expansion and suburban develop- ment eventually encroached on the landscape. It is here that the documen- tary value of these paintings is located ”” they reveal how ”œmodernity came to Canada.” In Alfred C. Leighton’s paint- ing of Calgary, a view of downtown and the Centre Street Bridge over the Bow River, the tallest building was the CPR Pallister Hotel. It was designed by archi- tects E. and W.S. Maxwell of Montreal, and opened in 1914. The 1929 hotel addition was done by architect Lawrence Gotch in the so-called Chicago Look, with very pronounced geometric lines and an E-shaped design that gave it the appearance of being three adjacent tow- ers. Charles Comfort’s painting of Edmonton, likewise, is a view of the city centre from across the North Saskatchewan River, and included the High Level Bridge, completed in 1913. It was the first bridge in Canada to carry four modes of transportation: rail, street- car, automobile and pedestrian. There is an ”œanomalous” white box building in Comfort’s painting, and the only such ”œinternational style” skyscraper in any of the Cities of Canada paintings. Only after much searching was I able to verify the identity of this building as the 16-storey extension to the chateau-style MacDonald Hotel, built in 1915. The tower was started in 1950 and complet- ed in 1953. Comfort’s painting, done in the summer of 1952, depicts the incom- plete building, hence, the ”œwhite box.” The contrast in architectural styles caused Edmontonians to refer to the addition as ”œthe Mac [as the original MacDonald Hotel was called by locals] and the box it came in.”

No Edmontonians I contacted could identify the building in the paint- ing because it was demolished in 1986. This is yet another condition of the new urban environ- ment: short-term memory, or out-of-sight, out-of-mind. A similar situation arose while identifying two tall buildings in a sketch of Toronto’s down- town by Joseph Hallam. One was the Bank of Nova Scotia, completed in 1951, a site now occupied by the 68-storey Scotia Plaza Complex. My search for the identity of the other build- ing had an amusing conclusion. A friend and colleague, who also happened to be the art and architecture critic for the Toronto Star, could not identify it. It turned out to be the 22-storey Toronto Star Building, which opened in 1929 and was demolished in 1971.

A preliminary sketch by Albert Cloutier shows another long-gone Canadian urban landmark, the entrance to the five km long Mount Royal Tunnel. The Canadian Northern Railway built it to provide access to lines north of Montreal without having to go around the city. The tunnel opened for service in October 1918 at a cost of $5 million, and because of its length elec- tric locomotives used it; there were three electrical power substations along the line. The Montreal building boom that started in the 1950s eventually covered up the tunnel’s South portal, and the tracks leading to it.

There are also historical ”œtruths” represented in many of the works. In his commentary for the Cities of Canada catalogue Bernard K. Sandwell wrote of Windsor’s proximity to Detroit: ”œThe American Revolution separated the two places, but…they are still almost a single city in two nations.” That ”œsingularity” refers not only to the ”œwalking distance” prox- imity, but the auto industry that the two cities shared. This compressed view is reflected in one of Frederick B. Taylor’s oil sketches of Windsor, with the skyline of Detroit looming above that of Windsor along the river and dominated by the Penobscot Building, designed in the deco-style and completed in 1928. It was the tallest building in Detroit until 1977. Taylor’s view is a still accurate representation of a visitor’s first impression of Windsor. Meanwhile, his finished pres- entation work for Cities of Canada requires the key of knowledge of local and social history to unlock the pictorial door. It shows an area along Riverside Drive known as Ford City, which developed out of the French parish Notre-Dame- du-Lac. Ford City was incorporated as a town in 1915 and was the centre of the Windsor auto industry. It was amalgamated into Windsor proper in 1935. Taylor’s point of view was from the roof of the original Ford assembly plant, the location of a famous Canadian Auto Workers strike in 1945.

The 1950s saw the United States and European nations circulate art worldwide for cultural and promotional purposes. Canadian group exhibitions were also mounted through the National Gallery and toured within the British Commonwealth, but none matched the scope and ambition of Cities of Canada. The international tour was launched with an inaugural pre- view at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa in March 1953, then went to 16 cities in the Americas and Europe, together with a custom-built gallery and display units consisting of moveable aluminum pan- els that weighed four tons in total. Catalogues were printed in English, French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese editions, and in full colour, unheard of for gallery catalogues at the time. In addition a limited-edition deluxe folio catalogue was produced and used to promote the exhibition to government officials, gallery directors and curators, and other ”œcaptains of industry.” To fur- ther promote the exhibition a special feature appeared in the May 1953 issue of New Liberty magazine, with a nation- al circulation of 500,000. The article included commentary by the artists themselves.

The exhibition lasted a mere 7 to 13 days in each city, but cumulative attendance figures were impressive ”” close to 200,000 visitors. The highest attendance was in Stockholm, with 28,000, and the show was extended in Paris to accommodate the high degree of interest. Venues varied, but were primarily grand hotels and public buildings. In Rome the opening took place at the ballroom of the Grand Hotel; a Seagram report noted ”œthe dramatic moment [with] the arrival of His Eminence Cardinal Tisserand escorted by two official candle bear- ers.” The public exhibition opened ten days later at the International Fair Grounds. In two days alone, it attract- ed 19,000 visitors.

Upon returning to Canada the dis- play units were refurbished and the exhibition opened in Montreal in April 1954. There were 24 stops in 23 cities ”” it was shown twice in Toronto ”” and a venue was added for the Memorial Gallery at the University of Rochester. Typical venues included public galleries, libraries, hotels, and other public spaces. As with the inter- national tour, the exhibition dates were short, between 5 and 16 days, but the attendance figures were equally impres- sive. The cumulative total was 304,000 visitors; Saskatoon topped the atten- dance figures with 52,000 visitors over six days; Regina was a close second with 49,000 visitors over six days.

There is an ironic and tragic anal- ogy in the ever-changing urban fabric. Many of the artists in the Seagram Cities of Canada proj- ect have been covered-up by art history, and it is a rule of thumb in the art world that when artists’ ”œfortunes” fall, they rarely recover. But this is only one perspective on the merits of art. Writing for New Liberty in 1953, Robert Pilot stated that art provides a vision for any nation: ”œWe see the surging forth shown in [Canada’s] oil developments, its min- ing communities, its vast wheat fields, summarized eventually in these sky- lines.” Unlike the wheat fields ”” or mountains, lakes or rivers ”” skylines are not resolute, eternal subjects, and as an urban culture and society we may have less critical knowledge of our environment than an agrarian one. Learning about it, in the popular ter- minology of the day, is a steep curve. If the Group of Seven announced in 1920 that their modernity was ”œArt for a Nation,” the Cities of Canada paint- ings, 30 years later, were ”œA View of the Nation.” Above all else, we should be reminded that photography does not provide a complete historical doc- ument, and that art can be much more than something for its ”œown sake. »

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