Billed as the “first exhibit examining the history of women’s self-portraiture in Canada”, The Artist Herself at the Art Gallery of Hamilton was one best art shows I’ve seen in many years. It took a fresh and unique look at the work of Canadian women artists spanning the years from 1700 to the early 1960s. Composed of fifty-eight carefully curated paintings, drawings, textiles and other objects from over twenty-eight lenders, the exhibition included everything from traditional self-portraits to button blankets to dolls.
Curated by Alicia Boutilier of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston and Tobi Bruce of the AGH, the show was conceived, in part, as an homage to their mentors, Dorothy Farr and Natalie Luckyj, who had created the first show ever to look at historical women’s art in Canada, the seminal From Women’s Eyes: Women Painters In Canada exhibit in 1975. Longtime collaborators and friends, Boutilier and Bruce wanted to do a new show to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first.
“We realized that we couldn’t do From Women’s Eyes again,” Boutilier told me when the three of us talked by phone last week. “I was thinking self-portraits would be an interesting theme. There had been exhibitions of women’s self-portraits internationally, and a number of books, but this had not been done in Canada.” When Boutilier first made the suggestion to Bruce in early 2012, Bruce was lukewarm. “Frankly I thought it sounded really boring,” Bruce laughed.
But then the two spent a weekend tossing around various ideas and drilling down on questions of identity: what exactly constitutes a self-portrait? Does it have to be concerned with likeness? Must self-portraiture depict the face of the maker? Merely posing these questions made them realize that they were onto something, and that they “wanted to approach women’s self-portraiture in a new way, not in the traditional canonical sense.”
By rejecting the traditional equation that likeness equals identity, Boutilier and Bruce had the genesis of an exciting new show. “Once we had this framework, we could argue about whether this work is a self-portrait or not,” Bruce said. “And now we could include a range of objects, such as textiles, in addition to painting.”
Boutilier and Bruce reached out to fellow curators across the country, asking for their assistance in exploring this broadened notion of identity in relation to self-portraiture and seeking their expertise in locating exciting works. Once the working list was in place, they reached out to 35 colleagues (curators, artists, art historians, artist descendants), asking them to contribute short written commentaries on individual works. Having successfully applied for grant money to mount the exhibit, the two women were able to travel to various museums across the country to look at pieces first hand and determine if they would work in the upcoming show. “Not until you are in the space, do you really get a sense of the scale and if a piece will work,” Bruce said.
Eventually Boutilier and Bruce drew up a short list. Printing out reproductions, the two curators laid out their selections. They looked for diversity of expression and material. In addition to reaching across 200 years, they wanted to have regional variety and a balance of artists with ‘name recognition’ and women who were completely unknown. A practicum student working on the project under Boutilier’s supervision, for example, came across the work of Bertha May Ingle, a 19th-century southern Ontario painter and brought it to her attention. “It was just a small self-portrait, and yet, it was so powerful.”
As time went on, the two women began to explore how the objects ‘spoke’ to each other. “We moved the reproductions around and to see how they worked together,” Boutilier said. “And we began to have a sense of certain adjacencies.” These discoveries began to change the shape and selections for the show. “What about this one of Emily Carr with her back to the viewer? Or a painted tea canister by Maud Lewis? We started to explore what fits.”
Amongst the objects that captured my heart were two tiny Muskego Cree dolls, created around 1790-1800 by women who lived close to a Hudson’s Bay post. According to Bruce, these dolls are extremely rare – there are only seven remaining in the world and none in Canada. “It was very tricky to get them at all,” recalled Bruce. After a false start, they were able to borrow them from a private collection in California. “One of the exciting things about the dolls is that they represent cross-cultural exchange,” Boutilier said. “They incorporate both traditional and trade materials: porcupine quills, but also cloth and glass beads.”
The Artist Herself ultimately toured four galleries: the Agnes at Queen’s University in Kingston, the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and the Kelowna Art Gallery. As it turned out, no two shows were quite the same. Though Boutilier and Bruce travelled with the show to help hang it, each host curator was given the freedom to place the objects in their gallery as they wished. “The in-house curators know their spaces. We gave them the opportunity to shape the show at their venue. Bruce said. “Thus the show looked different in all four spaces. Visitors to each venue would have different exhibitions.”
Boutilier and Bruce faced an additional problem. Given the fragility of some of the work, not all of the 58 pieces were able to travel to all four venues. For example, Pauline Johnson’s buckskin dress, a showstopper at the Agnes in Kingston, was too fragile to travel. “That was a bit of heartbreak,” Bruce said. Photographs of the dress had to stand in for the rest of the tour. “Oil paintings are quite durable compared to textiles or works on paper,” Boutilier told me. On occasion, objects like the button blankets and some photographic prints, were swapped mid-tour for similar objects.
The show’s comprehensive catalogue serves as a delightful reminder of the captivating work these two women brought together. The exhibition fundamentally shifted the way I think about Canada’s visual heritage. Though I love decorative arts and prize crafts, I had unconsciously seen paintings and craft as telling different stories, instead of having the potential to create a unified narrative. Brought all together, the creative output represented in The Artist Herself, showed just how many women wanted to leave their mark. I began to wonder if, when it came to women’s art in Canada, we had just been too blind to see what was plainly in front of us.
Was there any possibility of a remount for Canada’s 150th anniversary? Alas, the answer was a flat no. “Once The Artist Herself went up and was successful, other galleries did inquire about hosting,” Boutilier said. But by then it was too late. No additional galleries could be added. “Private collectors often don’t want to part with their pieces for more than a year,” Bruce added. “That’s why we felt it was important to have a catalogue. So there would be some sort of record.” A virtual website, which could promote the whole of the exhibit, was, unfortunately, too expensive to produce.
As for their future plans, both Boutilier and Bruce are looking forward to collaborating again. “There are so many strands that we can take forward from this show, ideas we can riff on,” said Boutilier. I agree. As much as I wish that all Canadians could have seen this stunning show, I am looking forward to what these two remarkable curators will come up with next.