Historicist: Nude Pictures at an Exhibition
Works displayed in the art gallery at the 1927 CNE caused an uproar.
The 1927 Canadian National Exhibition broke its attendance record by nearly 300,000 visitors. In addition to the varied entertainments and usual commercial exhibits, highlights included an appearance by the Prince of Wales (with his younger brother, George), for the official opening of the Exhibition grounds’ new landmark, the Princes’ Gates. Another notable draw that year was the opportunity to cheer the 174 swimmers who braved exhaustion and, reportedly, the lake’s particularly vicious eels, as part of a gruelling 21-mile swimming marathon which only three of the starters managed to complete. A surprisingly popular venue in 1927, however, was the exhibition’s art gallery, which nearly tripled its attendance over the previous year, in no small part because of a prolonged series of letters in the Toronto newspapers concerned with several paintings depicting nude subjects.
Although the CNE was perhaps better known in the early 20th century for its raucous midway and various commercial and industrial features, art was part of the Exhibition from its first year in 1879. The curators of the art gallery at the Exhibition were themselves part of the local arts community, and produced exhibits showcasing a variety of works, not just from Canadian artists, but from all over the world. The successes of the art exhibit each year had resulted in the erection of a purpose-built art gallery on the Exhibition grounds, on a site now occupied by a parking lot on the north side of Manitoba Drive.
The CNE’s 1927 art exhibit was reviewed in most of the major Toronto newspapers at its opening in late August. In addition to its review, the Star ran a separate article under the headline, “Nudes Hung at Exhibition Likely to Cause Controversy,” recognizing George Drinkwater‘s Paolo and Francesca and John Russell‘s A Modern Fantasy for their realistic depictions of the human form. The Star article described the content of both pictures, and sought an explanation from Fred S. Haines, a local artist and head of the commission which had assembled the art exhibit, who explained that “there are some of the modern French nudes that are really vulgar, but this is not like that type of thing.”
The same day, the Telegram also published a positive review of the exhibit, including praise for Russell’s A Modern Fantasy, and another painting showing nudity, Ernest Procter‘s Mischievous Boy (also called “Mischievous Youth” later in the same article). The Telegram article published photographs of both these works, and specifically praised Russell’s painting for its interesting subject matter, use of colour, and the “exquisite grace of modelling in the feminine figure in the foreground.”
Elsewhere in the same day’s paper, however, the Telegram printed a lengthy letter of protest attributed to “A Father,” which denounced “at least two pictures on view last evening that are unwholesome, unnecessary, and unwanted. It doesn’t matter in the least whose pictures they are, nor whether they are great and beautiful works of art or mere daubs. Their effect on the mind of the boy or girl a year or two past puberty cannot be good and might be hurtful beyond measure.” Alongside this letter, the Telegram published a response from Fred Haines, who explained that “art reflects the thought and emotion of its environment, and that if there are serious pictures…that appear to [A Father] to overstep the bounds of good taste, then I must answer that that is a result of a condition and an attitude of mind that is prevalent in society.” Haines added that the committee tried to display works from around the world which reflected the best work currently being done, and that both of the unspecified works which had apparently caused offence in Toronto had previously been warmly received in Europe.
Over the next month, and for several weeks after the closing of the CNE, the Toronto newspapers published an incredible number of letters from the public, as people (including many visitors from out of town) debated the merits of the works on display. “It does not require censoriousness but only common decency to protest against the display of these pictures where thousands of young eyes can see them,” wrote one Globe reader. “Were scenes such as they depict presented on the stage of any theatre in this city, the manager would be in the Police Court within 24 hours.” Another Globe reader wrote “May I suggest that you…[call] upon all those who are in favour of having an inquiry made as to what persons are really responsible for the outrage that has been committed upon public morals and decency.”
Some readers condemned all the displayed painting featuring nude forms, while others cited between one and three offending works. Drinkwater’s Paolo and Francesca and Rosalie Emslie‘s Comfort were mentioned by several letter-writers, but the chief source of controversy seems to have been Russell’s A Modern Fantasy.
John Wentworth Russell, born and raised in southern Ontario, had developed a reputation in his native Canada as a talented portrait artist, whose prominent subjects included Wilfrid Laurier. He eschewed most schools and collectives, and publicly decried the growing Canadian interest in natural landscapes then being popularized by the Group of Seven. Much of his serious work featured the human form, and his work had been particularly warmly received in Paris, where he had lived intermittently since 1906. Several of his works had been hung at the prestigious Salon in Paris, including A Modern Fantasy, which had itself earned the highest honour there earlier in 1927, contributing to its selection for exhibition at the CNE.
Right: John Russell. The Toronto Telegram, September 7, 1927.
Writing in 2008, historian Jane Nicholas notes that while it is tempting to see the Exhibition controversy as a typical example of prudish “Toronto the Good,” there are several elements of the letters which reveal more nuanced anxieties. After all, this was hardly the first time that nude pictures had been on display in Toronto, and only some of the works on display had been a source of public complaint. Nicholas suggests that whereas Toronto audiences may have been accepting of traditional, classical nudes, the 1927 paintings appeared to show more contemporary, everyday figures. The female figures are all shown with modern, bobbed hair, even in Drinkwater’s Paolo and Francesca, which depicted the adulterous couple described in Dante’s Inferno that is discovered (and killed) in flagrante. In A Modern Fantasy, Nicholas writes, Russell “announced a new public woman, but in a traditional and controversial form that fused old and new in strange ways. Here was a woman of leisure casually lying about in the nude, surveying her collection of mass-produced, commercial goods.” Nicholas notes that the use of various modern elements in the works played to anxieties concerning changes in the modern world, particularly those concerning sex.
Many of the letters objected explicitly to the venue at which the paintings were displayed, and the sort of audience that the gallery seemed to be attracting. The CNE drew visitors across classes, and some believed that the Exhibition gallery attracted people who would not usually visit the city’s primary gallery at the Grange. The inclusion of paintings viewed by some as salacious thereby blurred the traditional line between the perceived high art of the gallery and the baser appeals of the midway.
“I contend that these two pictures should not be shown in a gallery which will be visited by tens of thousands of boys and girls, and unsophisticated young folks from city country,” wrote “Art Lover” in the Star. “Not one third of the people who are visiting the art gallery daily would ever think of going at all were it not for the fact that these two pictures are on view within,” wrote one reader to the Telegram. “By hanging the paintings in question they gave the crude and vulgar an opportunity to see what they would naturally see in such paintings,” wrote a Peterborough resident to the Star.
While most of the complaints appear to have come from individuals, the Star reported that a formal objection had been filed by “a deputation of women representing various women’s organizations of this city.”
“The women urged that such pictures had a dangerous effect on young minds and on those who lacked artistic sense,” reported the Star. “One woman said that after a somewhat similar picture had been shown in Toronto some years ago there were a number of offences against women.”
The Toronto papers sent their reporters to the gallery to observe the behaviour of the visitors, and therein found the reactions they had clearly hoped to find. “A man in blue strode into this octagonal apartment [where A Modern Fantasy was displayed] with two men friends,” wrote the Telegram. “He looked about him, and saw the large Russell. Then he lifted up his voice so all the sixty people in the apartment could hear, and exclaimed, quite crudely, but truly, ‘Let’s get out of here. We will spoil our eyes.'” While the Telegram managed to find people who were outraged, the Star managed to find those who were shocked and embarrassed. “Some people seemed to be ashamed of being in the art gallery,” reported the Star. “Two prim ladies walked into the room where the nude pictures were hanging with their eyes straight ahead of them…Then, as if upon a prearranged signal, each flicked their eyes sideways in a sly manner. One blushed, the other whitened.”
After the close of the exhibit, the Star and Globe printed more letters by readers who were in favour of the works, and who insisted that they had seen none of the scandalized reactions at the gallery which had been reported in the press. “Three times I, who am an ardent lover, stood before those much discussed paintings,” wrote “Gene” LaVerne Devore in one such letter to the Globe, “and three times I failed to see ‘blushing girls and snickering youths’ sneak past and dodge out the door…I am not a married man, and on one of those three occasions I was accompanied by a young lady who is a typical product of the twentieth century. Side by side we stood and discussed those paintings as we discussed others under the same roof. I didn’t see her blush, I didn’t blush myself, and we didn’t sneak away abashed.”
People on both sides of the debate chastised the Toronto press for having generated the controversy themselves. One Star reader went so far as to suggest that the Telegram should be censured for having published photos of the nudes, and several pointed out that the letters claiming offence only enticed more people to view the paintings for themselves, accounting for the long lines outside the gallery. “Two or three skilfully emphasized and suggestive reviews, and a few hundred of their readers—perhaps one half of one percent—decided that the Art Gallery was for once worth visiting,” ran an editorial in Canadian Forum. “It would seem obvious to any unbiased observer that the whole humiliating rumpus was caused by the newspapers for reasons best known to themselves. Had the public been left to itself, the comparatively few who are really interested in pictures would have visited the gallery and admired or condemned these pictures as they found them.”
The newspapers reported with deliberate irony that the art gallery seemed unusually popular in 1927, and suggested that the art committee might have intentionally displayed shocking work in an effort to boost attendance. Art commissioner Fred Haines denied this, but made no secret that he was happy about the spike in public interest. “In the future, the art gallery will be one of the supreme attractions,” Haines predicted. “I figure that the publicity given by the Telegram was worth at least 30,000 admissions.”
The absurdity of the situation might be best summed up in one letter to the Star, in which the writer complained that “having seen in the press news about there being in the art gallery at the Exhibition certain pictures of the nude that ought not to be there, I decided to go and see those pictures so that I could decide for myself about them. But imagine my disgust, when, on reaching the place, I could not get in owing to the long line of people ahead of me. Those people were going to see those pictures, drawn by vulgar curiosity…If these pictures are going to be shown anywhere else before leaving the city, kindly let me know at the address enclosed…”
At the close of the Exhibition, the Star reported that more than 158,000 had paid to see the art exhibit, nearly triple the total from the year before. The art committee promised to apply a stricter standard for selecting art in future years, and in 1928, Fred Haines told the Star that “to have a fine exhibit you must have fine paintings…and to get the finest pictures you must take nudes.” Haines claimed the committee had indeed rejected some works for the 1928 exhibition which they thought “some prude might object to,” and boasted that “I went to particular care to get a nude that no one could complain about.” Attendance failed to reach the lofty total achieved in 1927.
The publicity surrounding A Modern Fantasy appears to have helped establish John Russell as a maverick in the minds of the public. Russell visited Toronto during the 1927 exhibition and gave several interviews, but appears to have eluded most of the questions about the controversy, instead taking the opportunity to share some of his other views on art. Over the coming years he became a clear favourite with local journalists for his willingness to speak his mind, once famously dismissing the Group of Seven as “the jazz band of Canadian art.” In a 1934 piece, the Toronto Star referred to Russell as “the bad boy of [the] pose and paint industry.”
Russell had numerous exhibitions at the CNE in later years, and caused controversy again in 1935 when the centrepiece of his exhibit was The Spirit of the Island, a very large work depicting a naked young woman diving off a rock on the Toronto Island. Nevertheless, Russell remained welcome at the CNE and in demand, and was commissioned by the Exhibition the following year to produce a large work commemorating Vimy Ridge.
After the controversy over the 1927 nudes had died down, Saturday Night wrote an editorial, ridiculing the attention which had been given to the vocal minority who had expressed offence related to the nude paintings. “It is astonishing that in this day of mental hygiene and liberal sex education, the prurient conception of the human figure still exists.” After addressing the subjective nature of art and the role that the Toronto dailies had played in provoking the controversy, the Saturday Night piece continued: “No sound morality will ever be built up that takes as its premise the theory that the biological processes are degrading and that, as a corollary, the human figure partakes of the obscene…There will be nudes at the Gallery next year without a doubt, and it is our suggestion that those who disapprove of such things go to see them as often as possible. They will soon realize that there is, after all, very little about nude paintings to write to the papers about.”
Additional material from: Canadian Forum (October 1927); Paul Duval, Canadian Impressionism (McClelland & Stewart, 100: Toronto); The Globe (August 27, August 30, September 9, September 10, September 13, September 14, September 15, September 16, September 17, September 19, September 21, September 22, 1927; November 6, 1959); Fred S. Haines, “Art,” in Dr. Oswald C.J. Withrow, The Romance of the Canadian National Exhibition (Reginald Saunders, 1936: Toronto); J. Russell Harper, Painting in Canada: A History (University of Toronto Press: 1977); Muriel Miller, Famous Canadian Artists (Woodland, 1983: Peterborough); Jerold Morris, The Nude in Canadian Painting (New Press, 1972: Toronto); Jane Nicholas, “‘A Figure of a Nude Woman’: Art, Popular Culture, and Modernity at the Canadian National Exhibition, 1927” in Histoire Sociale/Social History, Vol. 41, No. 82, 2008 (313-344); Sybille Pantazzi, “Foreign art at the Canadian National Exhibition, 1905—1938,” National Gallery of Canada, Bulletin 22 (1973); Saturday Night (September 24, 1927); The Toronto Star (August 27, August 29, September 2, September 3, September 6, September 7, September 8, September 9, September 10, September 12, September 13, September 14, September 15, September 17, September 20, September 22, September 23, September 27, 1927; August 24, 1928; August 18, August 24, August 26, August 27, September 8, 1932; February 4, 1933; August 24, September 6, 1934; August 12, August 20, 1935; August 22, August 29, 1936; September 28, 1957); The Toronto Telegram (August 27, August 30, September 2, September 3, September 6, September 7, September 9, September 10, September 14, 1927); Keith Watt, “On Pender, the Mystery of the Two Nudes,” The Tyee (January 20, 2010).
Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Did you like this article? Do you love Torontoist? Support articles like this by becoming one of the first Torontoist subscribers. Get great perks and fund local journalism that makes a difference—join Raccoon Nation now.