The arrival of Surrealism in Canada

A review of the March 10, 2010 conference on ‘The Arrival of  Surrealism in Canada’ given by Prof. Yves M. Larocque at the National Art Gallery

by Nancy Brandsma (March 24, 2010)

Jock Macdonald

Jock Macdonald, Untitled (1946), watercolor, priv. coll.

As an accomplished public speaker Prof. Larocque always has the gift of introducing his students and audience to new concepts and ideas; this extremely interesting lecture was no different. His review of the arrival of the idea of Surrealism in Canada was a real eye opener to anyone interested in Canadian art history whether they are an artist or a serious art history student.

He began by explaining the concept that ideas of all kinds do travel between people, but also between continents. He also described how religion, culture and politics have influenced, hindered or promoted the spread of new ideas as is undeniably the case with the introduction of Surrealism in Canada. Edgar Morin once said that ‘ideas are like a virus.’ If we equate Surrealist art to a virus, then Canada’s immune system was very strong! While the Surrealist system was born in 1924 in France, Canada was not ready to accept Surrealist art until around 1944. This was not without prior attempts such as in 1938 in “Toronto the Saint” but without success.

This brings us to Dr. Grace W. Pailthorpe, a psychiatrist and an artist who belonged to the English Surrealist Group and is credited for really bringing Surrealism from England to Canada through the “kitchen door” — Vancouver via California. People of the time were still under the spell of old Calvinist notions that works of all kinds needed to be devoid of the enjoyment of the five senses, productive, functional and capable of generating a profit; the good old work ethic of Protestantism. All were encouraged to view the film Babette’s Feast to fully understand how lack of knowledge and religion may hinder society’s development.  Surrealism goes against all these precepts as it is rarely viewed as something bought to “decorate a home” but more as something created to reach deep within its viewers to grab hold of a feeling or an emotion unique to the viewer. It is a form of “automatism”, a drawing or painting without thought, just as “one doodles on a scrap piece of paper while talking on the phone” (Dr. Pailthorpe). Prof. Larocque went on to describe Dr. Pailthorpe as an intelligent, scientific woman that had what it took to convince Canadians that Surrealist art wasn’t just children’s drawings but legitimate works coming straight from the inner depths of the artists subconscious. Prof. Larocque rightfully pointed out that Canadian women need to be credited for their efforts in bringing Surrealism into Canada.

He also discussed other artists such as Reuben Mednikoff (Dr. Pailthorpe’s patient and lover) as well as Jock MacDonald and their contribution to the burgeoning of Surrealism in Canada. The audience was also treated to a rare audio recording from the Canadian Archives of a radio interview with Dr. Pailthorpe. (Mirror to Women, CBC July 1944) Prof. Larocque’s lecture was complemented with an astounding MS PowerPoint presentation comprised of images of various artists and their paintings, maps, charts, diagrams as well as his vast knowledge in art history to help the audience fully grasp the successes and the failures of the birth of Surrealism in Canada.

Surrealism is an art form devoid of fear, outside “moral and aesthetic” constraints as Breton’s manifesto said. It is ultra personal and it took Canada over two decades to accept it within its galleries and society at large. Today Surrealism continues to grow in Canada despite its still being misunderstood by many people too preoccupied by the daily rat race. If only they would just look into that red splotch of paint… maybe, just maybe their “daily rat race” might change into something — something only the viewer can decide.

8 thoughts on “The arrival of Surrealism in Canada

  1. Yves, your talk sounds fascinating and I regret not being there. We are very lucky to have someone with your level of knowledge in the Ottawa area. If ever you give it again I’d love to be in the audience. Nancy, good article!


  2. Good stuff. I wonder sometimes whether we make a mistake in confining ourselves to political borders, especially in countries as vast as Canada and the USA. Would it not be more profitable to talk about Montreal, Toronto, and New York? Was surrealism a major ‘school’ in New York and how did that affect the perceptions of people in Toronto and Montreal?


      1. The first surrealist work of art were by Bertram Brooker as early as the 1920s.The artist also is the first abstract artist of Canada and the most futurist of all Canadian artists.His work was kicked out of the Group of seven/cdn group because he exhibited a nude.He also brought Charlie Chaplin’s cinema to Canada.He also worked in advertising and designed the modern day Heinz Ketchup label.In 1954 he also wrote a book entitled ‘Think of the
        Earth’ which sounds like a Green Party slogan.At most turning points Brooker was 20-40 years ahead of the times.If you look at his works like sounds assembling from the 1920s they look like album covers from the 70s.
        Brooker is the untold giant story of Canadian art and as relates to Surrealism in Canada,Alfred Pellan and him are the innovators.However,the most important artist who from Canada/Spain is linked directly to Surrealism is Jesus Carlos de Vilallonga(b1927).He is one of the only artists from ‘Canada’ who actually worked and cosigned art with Dali,the visual surrealist pioneer of all.In the interrnational surrealist art market,De Vilallonga is sold well and is the only Canadian one that would be accepted at an auction.In Canada,he was rejected because he wasn’t born here even though he lived almost all his life in Canada,45 years.Lately though academics and connaiseurs of art seem to be catching up.
        Surrealism is so important to people and difficult for academics to digest because it is in almost every tatoo put on someones skin in Canada and has been on motorcycles since the 50s.


        1. Bonjour. Sorry, but Brooker was among the first English Canadians to paint abstraction, a cerebral type of abstraction, where everything is explained because of being a good Christian and insecure. It was indeed Jock Macdonald who did the first Automatics, a series of small watercolors answering to André Breton’s writings. Keep reading my thesis, and you will see.


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