1927 - 2023
acrylic on canvas
48 x 72 in 121.9 x 182.9 cm
Dorothy Knowles: Changing History
Modernism and landscape painting in Canada have been fused ever since Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven went outdoors to paint views of distinctively Canadian places. In doing so, the official story tells us, they forged a distinctively Canadian modern art. Add Emily Carr, David Milne and Goodridge Roberts to the lineage and it is impossible to ignore the importance of landscape to 20th century painting north of the 49th parallel. But this narrative depends almost exclusively on images of Ontario, Quebec and the West Coast. The vast expanses, brilliant light, and enormous skies of the Prairies are entirely absent from the story. And, of course, the only woman on this admittedly very abridged list is Emily Carr.
Fast forward to Dorothy Knowles, a life-long resident of Saskatoon, with a B.A. from the University of Saskatchewan, who also studied at the Goldsmith School of Art in London, and traveled a good deal in Canada, the U.S., France, and England. Knowles has been wholly committed to the stimulus of her native landscape since 1962, when she took part in an Emma Lake workshop led by Clement Greenberg. Her fellow participants, almost all male, were abstract artists—including her husband, William Perehudoff—but Knowles painted vigorous, uninhibited, often large perceptual landscapes as bold and ambitious as any of her colleagues’ abstractions (and as direct as the Group of Seven’s studies). Greenberg, famously a champion of abstraction, was impressed by her efforts and encouraged her to follow her instincts. (He often said that if he’d “had his druthers,” the best painting of his time would have been representational, so these free, recognizable images may have had special resonance for him.) Something similar was happening among New York artists of Knowles’s generation. In the late 1950s, when abstraction was deemed essential for serious artists, young painters such as Alex Katz and Lois Dodd, who had first worked abstractly, began to work from observations of nature, studying the landscape of Maine while they summered there.
For the past six decades, Knowles has explored the particulars of her surroundings. While she has sometimes traveled elsewhere to paint landscapes, her most frequent starting points are the dramatic river valley below her studio near Saskatoon, the region near the family cottage on Emma Lake and the broad expanses of Saskatchewan farmland dotted with reflective sloughs, under cloud-filled skies. Knowles is preternaturally sensitive to nuances of the seasons, time of day and weather, adapting both her palette and her touch to changing qualities of light and temperature. Yet specific as they are, her intimate watercolours and audacious canvases are never literal. They powerfully suggest the complexity and multiplicity of the natural world, but while we may be captured initially by their nominal subject, what ultimately compels and rewards our attention is the painting as painting. We are engaged by the picture’s rhythms, the big divisions of the composition, the scale of the brush-strokes and the evocative but often unexpected shifts of color.
Knowles has never had a single way of making a painting. She can lay on thick paint with generous swipes or fragment a scene into delicate touches that ultimately derive from Paul Cézanne’s modulated patches of transparent color. Whether working on canvas or on paper, she transubstantiates her medium into a potent metaphor for experience, remaining faithful to her acute perceptions of place while following the demands of the painting with as much awareness and determination as the most cerebral abstract painter. In claiming the prairies as a stimulus for ambitious art, she has altered the story of Canadian landscape painting and, as an uncompromising painter and as a woman, she has been an influential force on a generation of younger artists. If Dorothy Knowles were Japanese, she would be certified as a Living National Treasure.
New York, July 2022
Price: $46,000 CAD
Available for viewing at: Heffel Toronto – 135 Yorkville Ave
All prices are in Canadian Dollars
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