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Manitoba History: Review: Dan Ring, Guy Vanderhaeghe and George Melnyk, The Urban Prairie

by Sarah M. McKinnon
Department of History, University of Winnipeg

Number 28, Autumn 1994

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.

Dan Ring, Guy Vanderhaeghe and George Melnyk, The Urban Prairie. Saskatoon: Mendel Art Gallery and Fifth House Publishers, 1993. 160 pp., illus. ISBN 1-8956218-28-2 (bound), 1-895618-30-4 (pbk.).

The catalogue of an exhibition curated by Dan Ring for the Mendel Gallery in Saskatoon, this beautifully illustrated volume also stands on its own as an interesting set of essays on the subject of the history of urbanism on the Canadian Prairies. As the exhibition is currently touring in Western Canada, the book will be familiar to many art gallery patrons as well as intriguing to readers of Canadian history.

The Urban Prairie focuses on artistic representations of the growth of towns and cities on the Canadian Prairies from 1880-1960. It is the contention of the authors that, despite the significance of urban development in the history of the Canadian West, it is the image of farm and landscape that is the most familiar to many people. Such a common-place notion fails to recognize the growth and distinctiveness of prairie urbanity. This book does a great deal to refute the idea that prairies are primarily rural by presenting a fascinating variety of images—paintings, drawings, post cards, advertisements and maps—of Western Canadian cities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Agricultural College at the University of Manitoba painted by Victor Horwood, no date, from The Urban Prairie.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The book’s principal essay is written by the exhibition’s curator, Dan Ring. In it he highlights significant historical events that contributed to the formation of prairie urban culture. Of obvious importance was the development of the railway across the West; through it in the early twentieth century came the immigration that fuelled the growth of business and industry. This development in turn resulted in a proliferation of images inspired by the term “boosterism,” illustrations intended as advertising propaganda for growing cities. Such images emphasized space, progress and beauty in an attempt to recruit more investment and greater population. The Thirties saw not only the end of the utopian dream of prosperity but the resulting growth of social reorganization and regional political action as a response to the Depression. The War Years brought renewed vitality to prairie cities, an energy that led to a prosperity and modernity in the 1950s. In this latter period, the distinctiveness of prairie urbanism was weakened by strong influences from American popular culture. In addition, the trend towards internationalism in the arts tended to lessen the importance of regional subject matter such as specific cities like Winnipeg or Saskatoon.

A second essay by the writer Guy Vanderhaeghe summarizes the depiction of several Canadian prairie cities in the fiction of the twentieth century. In sum, writers were more likely to disguise the specific prairie city about which they were writing than to identify it specifically, as visual artists had done. Such a reaction was due to a lack of confidence in the validity of the experience of life in a Western Canadian city and a resulting desire to be vague about the nature of place. In a final essay, George Melnyk examines the five major cities of Western Canada (Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary and Edmonton) as counterparts to other ancient and modern city states, suggesting that the domination of the urban landscape in Canada is not reflected in the political reality of our age.

Interior of the Legislative Chamber of the Manitoba Legislative Building painted by Frank Simon, 1912, from The Urban Prairie.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The last two essays, although illustrated by images from the exhibition, are less directly linked to it. Instead they provide personal interpretations of some of the phenomena observed by Ring both in his selection of works to be exhibited and his commentary on them. For that reason, these contributions by Vanderhaeghe and Melnyk seem somewhat isolated from the book’s main theme, the visual depiction of the history of Western Canadian prairie cities. Perhaps an introduction that tied all three of the essays together might have strengthened the thesis of the work by emphasizing the importance of the visual component. Nevertheless, this is a well-written book containing a large number of reproductions of the images from the exhibition, many in colour. It will be of particular value to readers interested in the Canadian West, not only from the point of view of art and history, but also from that of geography and nostalgia as well.

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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