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Manitoba History: Review: Virginia G. Berry (curator), A Boundless Horizon: Visual Records of Exploration and Settlement in the Manitoba Region 1924-1874

by W. Martha E. Cooke
Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 8, Autumn 1984

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

A Boundless Horizon: Visual Records of Exploration and Settlement in the Manitoba Region 1624-1874. An exhibition organized by Dr. Virginia G. Berry, guest curator, for the Winnipeg Art Gallery, September 15 - October 30, 1983.

A Boundless Horizon, being an historical exhibition, differs from its predecessor, 150 Years of Art in Manitoba, organized for Manitoba’s centennial in 1970 by Dr. Ferdinand Eckhardt, Director Emeritus of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The latter emphasized art with some concessions to works of historical value. Regardless of the stated differences in focus, at least 35 works in 150 Years are duplicated in A Boundless Horizon for the period from about 1820 to 1874 when the two exhibitions overlap. To some, this may be a point of criticism. It does illustrate that the fine line sometimes drawn to distinguish between “works of art” per se and “historical works of art” is a fuzzy one. Making such a distinction is at best, subjective, sometimes superficial, and at worst, snobbish. Many historical documents have intrinsic artistic merit whether or not their creators perceived them as works of art.

Berry was an assistant to Eckhardt and honorary research chairman for the 150 Years exhibition. Her ambition and talent in extending her horizon during the past decade to delve into the visual heritage of the 17th and 18th centuries have been boundless. The Canada Council has supported her research for several years. The cornucopia of treasures in this exhibition are both her and our reward.

A Boundless Horizon is in fact crammed with stimulating material: maps, a wide variety of prints (sometimes based more on imagination than fact) including book and periodical illustrations, sketches drawn on the spot, watercolours, studio paintings, and photographs. I would like to comment on a few works.

The novice and specialist will find several maps of interest. For example, the 18th century manuscript maps of Samuel Hearne, such as A Map of Some of the principal Lakes, Rivers, & c., Leading from YF to Basquiaw ... (no. 20) and Andrew Graham’s A Plan of Part of Hudson’s Bay & Rivers communicating with the Principal Settlements (no. 16) are noteworthy as much for their fine draughtmanship as content. Jens Munck’s Map of Churchill Harbour (no. 7) published in 1624 is a charming picture map with multiple scenes of life on the shores of Hudson Bay.

A memorable image is achieved in The White Bear from Hudson’s Bay (no. 27) engraved by P. Mazell in 1766. The scene is dominated by the strong, simple lines of a polar bear with a deceptively friendly eye that belies its true disposition. The juxtaposition of the polar bear at home in its surroundings with the disabled ship trapped in the ice is an effective contrast of images that reinforces a message of the hazards to be overcome in the north.

A sense of humour was a good weapon for enduring the harsh environment of Red River in 1846-8 judging by the caricaturish, pen and ink drawings by Captain H. C. B. Moody of the Royal Engineers. The term “rub-a-boo” to describe the pot of grub over the fire in En route to Red River July 1846 (no. 162) sounds more like a linament for aching muscles than an edible food! The artist seems to be poking fun at the standing gentleman in coat and top hat sporting an upraised umbrella to ward off only he knows what. Captain George Finlay who was in Red River for the same period injects a similar humour into his drawings.

The exhibition is “designed to show various ways in which this region and its inhabitants were perceived during two and a half centuries, from the start of exploration in Hudson’s Bay to the major push of Canada into the area (1624-1874).” A chronologically oriented discussion of the works is provided in a tastefully designed and well illustrated catalogue under the following headings: the 17th century, the 18th century, the early 19th century, sharing a boundary with the United States, mid-century, and a time of transition. The complete absence of corresponding sub-headings or directionals of any kind in the exhibition area to guide the viewer was a serious omission. It would have been preferable to number the works consecutively according to the more or less chronological discussion of them in the main text of the catalogue. For example, the Briggs/Button map of The North Part of America would have been number 1 (rather than 2), followed by Munck’s Navigatio Septentrionalis as number 2 (rather than 7), and so on. This approach would have facilitated viewing the exhibition within a readily comprehensible, chronological framework without requiring the catalogue for clarification.

Had this approach been used, the “biographies and works in the exhibition” in the catalogue could have been divided into separate sections. The biographies would function better by abandoning the existing three chronological sub-divisions by century and replacing them with a strictly alphabetical arrangement with the relevant catalogue numbers accompanying each biography for easy cross-reference to the list of works. Two minor comments related to this section are in order. The use of a larger typeface for the abovementioned chronological sub-divisions would have helped set them apart from the names. It is unclear why the biographies for the last four chapters are lumped together under the “the nineteenth century.”

A survey exhibition can be many things. It can be composed of a small, but judiciously selected number of works that convey a particular theme/storyline. The curator, rather than displaying several examples of an artifact or works by an artist, chooses one that best illustrates the point. The opposite extreme would be to show as many examples as possible for comparison and evaluation.

A Boundless Horizon is closer to the latter in concept. Berry has succeeded very well, however, in providing an overview in the catalogue. On the whole, there is a balance between the need to be concise and informative. One exception is the description of A. J. Miller’s Breaking Up Camp at Sunrise (no. 161) as capturing “the feeling of the hour, the stir as the group prepares to set out.” Miller’s intent has been oversimplified, if not distorted, judging by the artist’s words:

A strong contrast is visible between the white and red man. While all is activity and bustle with the descendant of the Anglo-Saxon to get off in good time, as if he feared the Rocky Mountains would not wait for him, the Indian lingers to the last moment around the camp fire; he neither enters into, nor sympathises with, the diligence of the former, and seems to regret that stern necessity forces him to proceed.

In describing Miller’s Prairie on Fire (no. 160) as “a dramatic view of a much dreaded prairie phenomenon,” Berry fails to supply the viewer with the tools to interpret the image. Miller gives an excellent account:

At the first appearance on the horizon of this dangerous visitor, the whole camp is aroused. The fire travels with the speed of a race-horse ... It is sometimes the result of accident, more frequently the work of Indians, and occurs in the fall, when the grass, being very long and dry, burns like tinder. No time is to be lost if the camp is to be saved, the order being given to set fire to the grass in the camp. While one party is setting fire to the grass, another follows closely, threshing out the flames to prevent them gaining too much headway, soon forming a burnt space, to which the horses and mules are hurried and closely picketed. They behave as badly as possible on such occasions, and give rise, on the part of the Trappers, to all manner of wicked expletives in French and English. When they are all secure, the same process is used to save the waggons; finally, the grass on the side of the camp nearest the approaching fire is lighted, in order to meet it. The remedy is effectual, and attended with less danger than an attempt to retreat.

The pitfalls of generalization and brevity are difficult to avoid in an exhibition of this wide scope for which the curator is endeavouring to establish a linking thread.

The overall presentation of this exhibition did not create an impression of thoughtful planning and design. In failing to do so, it did a disservice to the excellent content. The design component seemed to start and to end with the title panel (which was a good one) and the free hand-out at the entrance. The latter was well written and designed, but unfortunately neglected to mention the Winnipeg Art Gallery as the organizer and the location and dates of the exhibition. The vast gallery space, with its grey floors, white walls, and the ineffective placement of freestanding wall barriers, created an uninviting atmosphere for the display of the majority of the works in this exhibition. One solution would have been to build a series of small to medium sized, adjoining rooms within the existing gallery. The result would have provided an intimate setting more becoming to the works. Walls, labels, and display cases would have had to have been colour coordinated. In this exhibition, the dusty rose of the title panel was the keynote, but its use in the exhibition room appeared random. The light blue lining in the display cases gave every appearance of being a carry over from a bygone exhibition.

There were some instances where the captions were placed one above the other and it was not always clear with which pictures they were associated. The white, in-house frames of the Winnipeg Art Gallery actively detracted from many works both within the frames and nearby. The choice was insensitive to the historical and aesthetic context of the works.

A handsomely designed and produced poster was distributed liberally to advertise the exhibition. One might quibble about the choice of W. F. Lynn’s The Dakota Boat as the colour illustration on the poster. It is reproduced in colour in the catalogues to this exhibition and 150 Years. The painting was produced after 1870 by a professional artist who lived in Winnipeg from 1872 to 1906. In my opinion, it scarcely reflects the main thrust, strengths, and uniqueness of this exhibition. There are other equally strong images. My short list includes Peter Rindisbacher’s Buffalo (no. 201) standing boldly against a boundless horizon. Today, as an official symbol of the province of Manitoba, the buffalo reminds us of the buffalo hunt, a way of life gone forever, but not forgotten.

Buffalo, by Peter Rindisbacher
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Of the 250 works in A Boundless Horizon exhibition, 97 per cent were borrowed from more than 25 different sources (anonymous private sources are excluded) located in Canada, the United States, England, and France. These statistics are revealing. Revealing because the Winnipeg Art Gallery clearly believes its mandate includes mounting a major historical exhibition on this subject notwithstanding an enormous gap within its permanent collection of works dating to this visual survey. The commitment of the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the generous assistance of the Winnipeg Foundation and Agnes M. Benidickson toward achieving this goal are commendable and congratulations are deserved. A widespread promotional campaign seemingly paid off in high attendance figures. The enthusiasm of school children clutching assignment sheets was as good an indication as any that the exhibition was well received.

One question should be addressed. Having spent great energy, time, and money in organizing A Boundless Horizon, did the Winnipeg Art Gallery exercise good judgement in failing to explore the possibility of touring this exhibition, intact or on a reduced scale? Conservation of the works was cited as the major obstacle. I have had many years experience with the custodial care and travelling exhibitions of historical works of art, especially those on paper, and I empathize with the expressed concern. Each loan request, however, must be judged on an individual basis, a practice which most institutions, curators and conservators follow. It is highly unlikely that the conservation criteria that governed the lenders’ decisions to allow a work to travel to Winnipeg would have prohibited further travel to one or two comparable Canadian centres over a six-month period.

The decision not to tour the exhibition was also strongly based on the belief that an historical exhibition comprised of the visual heritage of Manitoba is only of interest to Manitobans. To apply this logic consistently would be to restrict Manitobans to exhibitions of “made in” or “about” Manitoba art exclusively. We would be asked to put on our blinkers to shut out the rest of the word—past, present and future—as if it had no bearing on our lives. Such reasoning is parochial and incompatible with the omnipresent, technological sophistication of visual communications today. There may be justification for not travelling this exhibition, but to rule out the possibility for the above two reasons is unforgivable.

A Boundless Horizon exhibition and the accompanying catalogue made an important contribution to our knowledge and appreciation of the visual records of the Manitoba region for the two and a half centuries under review. It is regrettable that local residents and those able to visit Winnipeg during its presentation at the Winnipeg Art Gallery are the only people who had the opportunity to enjoy the experience.

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