Montreal Museum of Fine Arts | A new look at the Contemporary Art Society

In its Canadian and Quebec Claire and Marc Bourgie art pavilion, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) has reorganized the section dedicated to the Montreal Contemporary Art Society (SACM), this association of Anglophones and Francophones that promoted the modern art from 1939 to 1948. The space reflects this brief but distinguished period in Montreal’s art history.

Why take an interest in this ephemeral Contemporary Art Society founded by the painter John Lyman when the sound of Nazi boots began to sow fury, violence and death throughout Europe?

In the first place, because it is a period in its own right in the history of art in our country, just like the Group of Seven (1920-1932) or the Beaver Hall Group (1920-1923).

Back in 1931, after a long stay in Europe, John Lyman was convinced that Canadian modern art should take a different path from the typical Canadian figurativeness of the Group of Seven and take more into account the plastic form, and this, in a complete freedom of expression. expression. It was in this spirit that he founded the Society for Contemporary Art in 1939.


Jacques Des Rochers, curator of Quebec and Canadian art (before 1945) at the MMFA for 20 years, wanted to take into account the museum’s acquisitions, both recent and old, in reorganizing this section of the first floor. paths of modernity. “In our collection we have more works than I can show from this period, but we still have a beautiful corpus that allows us to talk about this Contemporary Art Society,” he says.


Commissioner Jacques Des Rochers

The section starts with trees, a painting by Fritz Brandtner – whose works can currently be seen at the Musée d’art de Joliette thanks to the beautiful exhibition by Esther Trépanier – who was secretary of the Contemporary Art Society. Then a very beautiful little painting by Lyman, haymaking near the lakerepresenting the Saint-Jovite region.

A work on color and shape.

Jacques Des Rochers, Curator of Canadian and Quebec Art (before 1945) at the MMFA, on haymaking near the lake

The Contemporary Art Society had brought together English- and French-speaking Montreal artists, of both sexes, but also of Catholic, Anglican, and Jewish faiths. An eloquent gesture of openness at a time when anti-Semitism was exploding in Europe and also flourishing in Quebec. This boldness, then welcomed as much as necessary, is illustrated by a magnificent self-portrait by the Montreal artist and teacher Moe Reinblatt.


Self portrait with green hat, 1940, Moe Reinblatt (1917-1979), oil on canvas. MMFA Collection.

The section includes two works on paper by Pierre Gauvreau, a gouache by Jean-Paul Mousseau, a 1946 watercolor by Riopelle, a beautiful oil, plaster and terracotta by Charles Daudelin, as well as a recent acquisition, Inside1939, by Goodridge Roberts (1904-1974).


Two works by Charles Daudelin (left) and a terracotta by Louis Archambault, right

A part of the section that we particularly liked. We can compare two portraits of Gabrielle Borduas. One, unpublished, was made by her husband in 1940, when he was vice president of the Society, and the other, by Louise Gadbois, is a canvas that Paul-Émile Borduas had acquired. Two very different painting styles in Borduas and Gadbois, but the portrait of Louise Gadbois is, let’s face it, our favourite!

pictorial journey

Two still lifes painted in the same period also illustrate the effect of European travel on Canadian artists of the time. Alfred Pellan, back in Paris, painted a magnificent still life in 1942, renewed modernity if we compare it with that of Borduas. “Pellan left his mark on the entire art scene here,” says Jacques Des Rochers. However, a few years later, it was the Automatistes who took center stage with blanket denialwhile eye prismthe manifesto of Jacques de Tonnancour, Albert Dumouchel and Pellan, undoubtedly too soft, remained behind the scenes.


On the left, Still life (fruits and leaves)an oil of Borduas, and on the right, Still life with tiled tableclotha painting by Pellan

Having presented a dozen exhibitions (including five at the Montreal Art Association, MMFA’s predecessor), the Contemporary Art Society will have had as many as 62 members. Artists, but also collectors and art professionals, such as the historian and critic Maurice Gagnon. The Society died a beautiful death in 1948. However, it managed to energize the Montreal art community during World War II, putting a large number of young artists in the stirrup, at a key moment in our artistic history. A great initiative, therefore, to renew this very useful section for art lovers. Let’s hope it can grow significantly in the coming years.

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