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By Karen Herland
A three-day symposium and exhibit at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom co-sponsored by the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies celebrated the legacy of Montreal’s Jewish artists of the 1930s and 1940s.
The event, organized by Loren Lerner, chair of Concordia’s Art History Department, coincides with an exhibit curated by Esther Trépanier that is currently at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec. Many of the artists featured had ties to Concordia University, and Sir George Williams before it.
Trépanier, in a lecture on March 20, discussed the artists and their role in developing a modernist style in Montreal. Two days later, while moderating a panel discussion featuring painters Sylvia Ary and Rita Briansky and the relatives of other artists who have passed away, she underscored the interrelationships of the 15 artists she features in her show.
Besides sharing resources, training each other and teaching alongside each other, the artists were all “masters in representing the city of the time,” according to Trépanier, who is an art history professor at UQAM and a member of Concordia’s Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art.
Their works, a handful of which were on display at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, range from figure studies to then less common images of the slums around Clark, St. Dominique and Craig Sts, as well as the nightlife and cafés of the Main.
Many of the panellists remembered watching the artists in their families work, and the community life they experienced at the time — playing on Fletcher’s Field and shopping on the Main. Joyce Borenstein recalled her father (Sam) taking her and her sister to the museum every weekend, instead of to synagogue.
Several of the artists studied with Anne Savage, who later taught at Sir George and whose papers were bequeathed to Concordia University. Sylvia Ary, one of the few surviving artists of the era, recalled painting in Norman Bethune’s studio as a child. Other painters had worked with Max Stern when he returned to dealing art in Montreal after fleeing the Nazis.
Lillian Reinblatt, widow of Moe, said that “fascism was alive and healthy in Quebec” in the ’30s. She recalled fascist speeches and the padlock law used against suspected members of the Communist Party. This politicized the work of some of the artists, among them Ghitta Caiserman.
Caiserman was described by her daughter Kathe Roth as a “socialist by politics, capitalist and breadwinner by trade.” Caiserman, along with Roth’s father, Alfred Pinsky, opened the Montreal Artists School in the late 1940s. Although that project was short-lived, both went on to teach at Sir George Williams University.
Pinsky became the first chair of Sir George’s Fine Arts Department in 1962 and eventually helped inaugurate the first Master’s program in Fine Arts. In 1974, he became the first Dean of the Fine Arts Faculty of what had become Concordia University. He retired in 1996.
Current Art History professor Sandra Paikowsky contributed a short biography of Pinsky to the Quebec exhibit’s catalogue, Jewish Painters of Montreal: Witnesses of their Time 1930-1948. Lerner and François-Marc Gagnon, currently Director of the Gail and Stephen Jarislowsky Institute, also contributed biographies to the tome, which features hundreds of color plates of the artists’ work.