Blind Contour Homage: “Reclining Nude” Kathleen Munn
The ironic consequence of being a “pioneering” female artist in early twentieth century Canada may be that her art is rarely appreciated. Such was the case for Kathleen Munn, one of the first Canadians to experiment with Cubism.
Born in Toronto in 1887, Munn was the youngest of six children to well-off parents who owned a jewellery store at the intersection of Yonge and Bloor. Her mother and father were supportive of her art interests, encouraging Munn as she explored her talents at the Westbourne School from 1904, and financing her later education in Philadelphia and New York City, where she studied at the renowned Art Students League—an institute that both inspired and recognized Munn’s talent: she received a first place prize for her work.
But when Munn returned to Canada and set up her Spadina Street studio in a home shared with her siblings William and May, she was met with a disinterested public. Having travelled to Europe and encountered the modernist works of artists like Paul Cezanne, Munn was fervently moving forward with European trends, like Cubism, at a time when Canadian audiences were still entrenched in a passion for landscape painting. Even as her obvious skill was recognized—she exhibited with the Group of Seven in 1928 and 1930—hostile critics tended to suggest that Munn would be better off exhibiting outside of Canada. Her interests were considered too “radical.”
Indeed, Munn “shaped her own vision” rather than follow the styles pursued by more popular Canadian artists. By the late 1920s and 30s, she turned from drawings of female bodies, still lifes, and livestock paintings (all executed with startling colours and cubed or triangular shapes) to her final and most enduring subject: the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Though neither she nor her family were religious, she wrote in a journal that the “subjects for the pen and ink series came up irresistibly. I found my drawings suggested religious subjects from some depth in myself.” Throughout this decade, she experimented with perfection, drawing hundreds of pieces in her Passion series, deeply influenced by Jay Hambridge’s theory of dynamic symmetry. She explained the relationship between spiritual equilibrium and art like this: “Perfect beauty is the expression of perfect order, balance, harmony, rhythm. Beauty is a supreme instance of order intuitively felt, instinctively appreciated.” And, after curating her favourite pieces from this series, she contacted the Ontario Art Gallery and offered two for sale.
Although the Gallery accepted her offer, this was the final major sale of Munn’s work during her lifetime. In 1939, discouraged by the interest in her art and impacted by major changes in her personal life (her parents and brother died, her sister needed physical care, and the jewellery store became Munn’s responsibility), Munn stopped drawing. Not until decades later—in 1974—was interest in Munn’s work reignited. Yet, just before negotiating a major sale, Munn died. She never lived to see her work move out of the margins, or to know that she would become one of the most celebrated artists in Canadian history—a “pioneer” of modernism whose innovations were recognized far too late.
1887 – Toronto, ON
1974 – Toronto, ON
Uhlyarik, Georgiana. “Kathleen Munn.” Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, 2019.
—. Kathleen Munn: Life and Work. Art Canada Institute, 2014.
Whyte, Murray. “A Passion Rediscovered; Kathleen Munn Faded from Toronto Art History; and Now She’s Back.” The Toronto Star, 5 July 2011.