Art Gallery of Alberta Opens Prairie Life: Settlement & the Last Best West 1930-1955

The Art Gallery of Alberta presents Prairie Life: Settlement & the Last Best West 1930-1955 an exhibition on view September 24 – January 29,2012.

At the turn of the 20th century the Canadian frontier was framed as a place for opportunity; a place of natural abundance that could be the foundation for a utopian society, or a blank slate where the individual could carve out their own destiny. The prairies were widely and convincingly framed as a promised land. The strength of this vision was irrevocably altered, however, with the massive impoverishment and dislocation brought about by the Great Depression and the Second World War.


Henry George Glyde, Back Gardens, Vegreville, Alberta, 1938, Watercolour on graphite paper Art Gallery of Alberta Collection, gift of H.G. Glyde

This exhibition traces 25 years on the Canadian prairies, from the “Dirty Thirties” to the middle of the 1950s, when the idea of the Canadian west went through a period of significant change. The vision of the west as a promised land has its roots in the 19th century and played a critical role in the rapid settlement of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The Great Depression marked a turning point in this vision and the beginning of a shift from a primarily rural to a primarily urban population. The role of the farm in both the region and the nation would never hold the same dominant position. By the end of this period Alberta’s fortunes lay in oil, not in agriculture.

Though the 1930s saw unprecedented economic hardship, it also was a time of positive change within the visual arts. Fine art schools, artist societies and museums were becoming well established. The National Gallery of Canada circulated more and more exhibitions throughout the region and there were new levels of investment in arts education. Artists engaging with modernism produced images newly attuned to everyday life. A more democratic engagement with themes, however, was coupled with an investment in the nature of painting itself. Artists emphasized visual strategies over a literal interpretation of their subject matter.

This exhibition features images of settlement on the prairies during a time when the Canadian frontier was undergoing irreversible change. Modernist artists such as Maxwell Bates, Fritz Brandter, Janet Mitchell, Bartley Robilliard Pragnell, John Snow and Ella May Walker interpreted the changing rural and urban landscape. Without nostalgia, they depict both abandoned and working farms, small towns and growing cities. The resulting works contrast anxiety with optimism, desolation with industriousness and decay with growth. Drawing from the Art Gallery of Alberta’s permanent collection, this exhibition features artists who were central to the history of modernism in this region.

Art Gallery of Alberta 2 Sir Winston Churchill Square, Edmonton AB T5J 2C1 Phone: 780.422.6223

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