National Gallery of Canada opens Margaret Watkins. Domestic Symphonies

National Gallery of Canada presents Margaret Watkins: Domestic Symphonies, an exhibition on view 05 Oct 2012 – 06 Jan 2013.


Margaret Watkins Domestic Symphony(detail), 1919. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Purchased 1984 with the assistance of a grant from the Government of Canada under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act .

Margaret Watkins. Watkins gained a reputation in the world of art and advertising during the 1920s, with her images of everyday objects such as a sink filled with unwashed dishes, eggs on the edge of a draining board, a shower hose and a bar of soap. The exhibition, titled Margaret Watkins: Domestic Symphonies, will run until January 6, 2013, and is comprised of 108 works created between 1914 and 1937, seven of which are part of the NGC’s collection.

Although Watkins started working in a Pictorialist style of photography, making soft-focused images of literary and sometimes sentimental subjects, she continued to push the boundaries of what was acceptable in terms of subject matter. Her images of ordinary domestic objects set new standards for the genre of still-life photography and she was one of the earliest photographers whose art also found a purpose in the world of advertising.

“Margaret Watkins pushed the limits of modern photography in 1920s New York. We are delighted to provide the public with an opportunity to discover the work of this remarkable but largely forgotten Canadian artist,” said NGC Director Marc Mayer. “Thanks to Joseph Mulholland, former neighbour and friend, who has looked after Watkins’ photographs since her death in 1969, we can now appreciate the full measure of her art and her place within the history of photography”

The sub-title of the exhibition, Domestic Symphonies, refers to one of Watkins’ still life scenes, an elegant study of three eggs on an enamel draining board, made in 1919, that she titled Domestic Symphony. The show traces Watkins’ career path, from her early days in Boston, where she was hired as an assistant in a commercial photography studio, to her life in New York, where she taught at the famous Clarence H. White School of Photography, and subsequently to Paris, Cologne, the USSR and Glasgow, where she settled in 1928.

The exhibition opens with a series of portraits of the artist. It goes on to explore the period between 1915 and 1928, during which she studied photography at the Clarence H. White School and eventually began to secure contracts from major advertising agencies such as the J. Walter Thompson company. In 1921, the magazine Vanity Fair featured Watkins’ photographs in an article about the artist and her work, praising her “Modernist’ and “Cubist” images. Margaret Watkins: Domestic Symphonies also includes photographs produced while she lived in Scotland from 1928 onwards, when she travelled to Germany and France and began to do street photography using storefronts, their display models and luxury items as subjects. Visitors will also have a chance to view remarkable works created in the USSR, during a visit there in 1933.

The National Gallery of Canada is home to the most important collections of historical and contemporary Canadian art, including the extensive collection of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography. The Gallery also maintains Canada’s premier collection of European Art from the 14th to the 21st century, as well as important works of American, Asian and Indigenous Art and renowned international collections of prints, drawings and photographs. Created in 1880, the National Gallery of Canada has played a key role in Canadian culture for well over a century. Among its principal missions is to increase access to excellent works of art for all Canadians. To do so, it maintains an extensive touring art exhibition programme. For more information: www.gallery.ca

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