As Canadians, we tend to overlook our own history of modern art, eclipsed as it was by the advances toward Modernism in Europe and America early in the 20th century. The 1913 New York Armory show scandalized the American art world, introducing work by Duchamp and the Impressionists, but such events never really reached Canada, where art developed on a much more conservative level.
In Toronto, the sculptors Frances Loring and Florence Wyle defined much of our early art history, creating classical works and monuments over careers that spanned nearly a century. Unfortunately, once the 1960s arrived and a new generation of Modernist sculptors emerged – led by the British artist Henry Moore – Loring and Wyle’s classical monuments were brutally dismissed by critics, the government, and the public. This book restores a long-forgotten, and important, cultural history.
Loring and Wyle, known as “The Girls,” were very much a pair, shocking Toronto society with their eccentric behaviour, but Elspeth Cameron – well known for her biographies of Canadian literary figures such as Hugh McLennan and Irving Layton, as well as for her 1997 memoir No Previous Experience – rightly portrays them as two vastly different personalities. Florence Wyle – intense, principled, a lover of animals – was the more advanced artist, but was intolerant of all but the most classical sculpture. Cameron clearly prefers Loring’s work, and indeed Loring – well travelled, the daughter of a mining engineer, and heavyset with a mothering warmth – seems to have ultimately made the bigger impression, having co-founded the Sculptors Society of Canada and promoted sculpture widely as a significant art form.
Cameron enhances her clear, straightforward style by taking a filmic approach toward her subjects, comparing the experience of viewing sculpture to the way film is viewed today. She combines “close-ups” of The Girls’ lives with panorama-like descriptions of the broader contexts in which they worked, from the bohemian enclave of New York’s Greenwich Village to their heady student days at the Art Institute of Chicago (where they were among the first female sculptors) to puritanical, conservative Toronto. The two were life partners – though we remain unclear as to their sexuality – and, as emerges toward the book’s end, true soulmates, absolutely integral to each other’s lives.