Throughout history, opportunities for a career and its success were scarce for women. Ensnared by societal norms, they have often been told to prioritize their responsibilities at home over such pursuits. As in every other prospect, institutions unsurprisingly exhibited and favoured works by male artists, exacerbating the challenges faced by many talented women in their artistic journey.
Led by Sarah Milroy, Chief Curator of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment at the National Gallery of Canada intends to revive and recognize women’s contributions to art from the 1920s-1940s, supporting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Gender Equality, By increasing their visibility and representation, the exhibition reflects the significant institutional changes that have taken place over the past century to empower present-day women artists.
"The title Uninvited simply refers to the fact that no women were invited to join the Group of Seven," Milroy explained in an interview with Georgia Straight magazine. The National Gallery was known to favour pieces by this prominent group of seven male artists, who often painted Canadian landscapes together and received global recognition by the early 1930s. It is thus fitting for Uninvited to feature portraits by women painters, as a clever way to convey their opposition to this exclusion.
Canadian painter Prudence Heward was one of these women. Through her works, she challenged traditional ideas of how a woman should be, portraying them as independent, thoughtful, and occasionally melancholic. Heward's penchant for figure painting ties into her overall vision to "develop something interesting and Canadian in feeling, yet universal, modern, yet timeless," according to the National Gallery of Canada.
In her painting, At the Theatre, Heward features two women sitting together and waiting for a performance to begin. The fact that they are in a public place unaccompanied by men indicates a sense of independence. Although viewers today may not think twice about this, it is crucial to remember that the events in question transpired in 1928. At that time, women in Canada had not yet been granted legal personhood, a milestone achieved only a year later.
Like Heward, Canadian artist Suzanne Duquet is another painter known for her portraits of women. Group is a family portrait of her and her sisters. Duquet establishes her artist identity by placing herself in front of an easel, which contrasts with her sisters sitting down in their dresses. Despite that distinction, none of these four women are smiling. With brooding faces exuding dissatisfaction, Duquet does not shy away from showing the duller aspects of domestic life for women of her times.
However, different women have different experiences, hinging dramatically on divisions of race and class. Being a painter means being able to access supplies, free time, and a network of other artists. In Marguerite Pilot of Deep River (Girl with Mulleins), one sees a dark-skinned woman with her face wary and arms crossed against a backdrop of the Canadian wilderness. Not seen but still felt is "the charged space between a non-Indigenous woman artist [Yvonne McKague Housser] and her Indigenous female subject," which points to the power imbalance between women of different races that was much more apparent in the 1930s according to the National Gallery of Canada.
Myself is another portrait of a woman with crossed arms, but carries the opposite energy. Combined with red lips and a black outfit, Canadian painter Paraskeva Clark signals confidence and commands respect. Her subtle smile almost resembles that of Mona Lisa, minus a few degrees of mystery. Something else subtle about this self-portrait is that Clark painted it when she was three months pregnant, which casts an uncommon light on the common experience of early motherhood.
Paintings in Uninvited are more than just colours on canvas. These portraits by Canadian women capture their diverse expressions and experiences during the interwar period. This special exhibition at the National Gallery may leave visitors feeling a mix of emotions — frustrated about glaring historical gaps between men and women, proud of the progress made following each wave of feminism, yet dissatisfied because gender discrimination is still pervasive, oftentimes below the surfaces at home and at work.
Although girls growing up in the current century have more autonomy than ever before, women remain underrepresented and their contributions undervalued in many fields including art. Living in a society where expectations for women and men will never be the same means that there will always be more steps to take towards gender equality. By remembering and rewriting modern art history to include more women, Uninvited takes a subtle but significant step.