A Canadian Dream: 1965–1970
June 10 to August 20, 2017
In the warm glow of national celebrations, dreams of unity abound. This was certainly the case during Canada’s last big birthday bash in 1967 marking the Centennial of Confederation. A closer look, however, shows that the bright optimism of this time—summed up in Montreal’s Expo 67—blurred or completely erased deep divisions within Canadian society. This exhibition looks at the years immediately before and after 1967 and traces the fractures with the Canadian Dream through artworks from the MacKenzie’s permanent collection. The picture painted by these selections shows a nation in transition as it redefined its British colonial identity under pressure from within and without. The rise of the United States as a cultural superpower, internal divisions between French and English-speaking Canada, the emergence of voices from Canada’s Indigenous communities, second wave feminism, and debates around multiculturalism reshaped Canada’s cultural landscape. Looking back at this critical period sheds light, not only on the past, but on our present moment, as these issues continue to colour our collective dreams in 2017.
For visitors riding the escalators in the U.S.A. Pavilion at Montreal’s Expo 67, a dreamscape of progress unfolded before their eyes. Set within Buckminster Fuller’s transparent geodesic dome, American contributions to technology, art and cinema were on display for all to admire. But what sort of Canadian dream did visitors imagine as they looked outside the dome, past the Apollo space capsule and the three soaring stripes of Barnett Newman’s abstract painting Voice of Fire (1967)?
This is a question raised by a small painting from the MacKenzie Art Gallery’s permanent collection. The blue and red bands of La folie conduisant l’amour no 8 (Lunacy Love No. 8), painted in 1967 by Montreal artist Jean McEwen (1923-1999), bear a striking resemblance to Newman’s painting, though on a much smaller scale. While a direct connection is impossible to prove–McEwen had been working with vertical stripes for years–the similarity seems more than coincidental, especially given McEwen’s prior interest in Newman’s work. If Newman’s painting can be seen as a “beacon that affirms and inspires each person’s being and freedom in the word” (Brydon Smith), then how might we view McEwen’s compact reprise?
In 1963, McEwen submitted a proposal to a competition held by Canadian Art magazine for a new Canadian flag. His design featured ten blue bars flanking a central star stripe on an orange field. Many of the other designs similarly featured blue and red as symbols of Canada’s dual French and British heritage. Thus, as McEwen responded to Voice of Fire (if indeed this was the case), his small canvas would have resonated as much with flag-focused debates around Canada’s national identity as it would with Newman’s declaration of personal freedom in the face of the U.S.A.’s undeclared war on Vietnam. As to McEwen’s specific intentions, we have no additional evidence.
What is known is that the dreams of progress and unity that were common themes during Centennial celebrations glossed over deep divisions within Canadian society. This exhibition looks at the years immediately before and after 1967 and traces the fractures within the Canadian dream through a variety of artworks from the MacKenzie’s permanent collection. These selections show a nation in transition as it redefined its British and French colonial identities under pressure from within and without. The rise of the U.S.A. as a cultural superpower, internal divisions between French- and English-speaking Canada, the emergence of voices from Canada’s Indigenous communities, second wave feminism, and debates around multiculturalism can all be traced to this tumultuous period. Looking back sheds light not only on the past, but on how these issues continue to colour our dreams in 2017.
Joyce Wieland, I Love Canada – J’aime le Canada, 1970, cotton and metal link chain, 153.1 x 304.7 cm. MacKenzie Art Gallery, University of Regina Collection.