Title Image: Biriukova painting a portrait of then-Principal Rev. Dr. Cedric Sowby 1954 – Photo courtesy of Upper Canada College Archives
By Lachlan Boyle
As part of its celebrations marking the centenary of Canada’s famed Group of Seven painters, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection has launched an extraordinary exhibition entitled Uninvited:
Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment. As the name suggests, the exhibition profiles the impressive achievements of a diverse collection of Canadian women artists – from painters and photographers to weavers and beaders – whose work engaged with the Group of Seven movement.
One of the artists profiled in the exhibition is Yulia Biriukova, a White Russian émigré with a rich connection to the UCC community as one of the college’s art teachers for over twenty years. A foray into the UCC Archives reveals the remarkable life of a woman who left an enduring legacy to the college.
Born in 1895 in Vladivostok, Russia, Biriukova fled the turmoil of the 1917 Russian Revolution with her family, first to Hong Kong in 1920 and then Rome in 1922. After the passing of their parents, Biriukova and her sister, Alexandra, both settled in Canada in 1929. Biriukova arrived having already established a reputation as a skilled portraitist and was welcomed into, but not invited to join, the famed Group of Seven artistic circle, even painting two of its founding members, A.Y. Jackson and J.E.H. MacDonald.
Biriukova arrived at UCC in 1942 after numerous years teaching art privately and at Central Technical School. In her application letter to the College, she notes her excellent qualifications and experience while also emphasizing she feels “sure I could handle a class of boys, both as regards instruction and discipline.”
Based on materials in the UCC Archives, Biriukova immediately made her mark on the culture of the school. The 1943 Christmas issue of The College Times notes how in the “last two years, art has taken a more prominent and justifiable place in the school, largely owing to the efforts of Miss Biriukova.” This “growing zeal for art in the College,” the Times continues, was evident in the recently established “Sketching Club” overseen by Biriukova, along with the scenery and decorations for UCC’s annual Gilbert and Sullivan opera productions. Indeed, Biriukova was congratulated in The College Times review of the school’s 1947 production of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera H.M.S Pinafore. “Miss Biriukova might justly be proud of her art crew for without them the atmosphere could not have been created,” commended the publication.
In addition to her teaching, Biriukova also accepted commissions for portraits. One of her clients was UCC itself. Based on archival materials, the college is believed to have commissioned four separate portraits throughout the 1950s. Three of those portraits were of UCC teachers Major F.J. Mallet, Ralph M. “Pop” Law, and Sgt. Maj. F.N. Carpenter, while the fourth was of then-Principal Rev. Dr. Cedric Sowby.
In 1968, UCC opened the Yulia Biriukova Galley in recognition of the art teacher who had retired five years earlier. Although the gallery is no longer in existence, a plaque on the original site still honours Biriukova outside the Upper Dining Hall. After retirement, Biriukova settled in Thornhill with her partner Thoreau MacDonald, an accomplished artist in his own right and the son of Group of Seven Founder, J.E.H. MacDonald. Biriukova passed away in 1972.
The Uninvited exhibition shines valuable light on Biriukova’s work as she navigated the complex social, cultural, and artistic terrain of her adopted home. Working within the largely male-dominated art world at that time in Canada, Biriukova drew inspiration from many of the themes that energized the Group of Seven. Although she is not known to have personally ventured into the hinterlands of Canada, Biriukova sometimes, with permission, incorporated backdrop scenes from the works of other painters into her own distinctive portraits of men of the pioneering or labouring classes. This is the case with her 1935 work The Riverman, Frenchy Renaud, in which a J.E.H. MacDonald sketch of a Canadian timber raft and lumber camp becomes the contextual background for the imposing figure of a riverman. The result is a striking landscape portrait that blends Biriukova’s considerable skills in portraiture with the recognized landscapes characteristic of the Group of Seven, whose work defined and often overshadowed the accomplishments of the many talented but “uninvited” female artists working in diverse media at the time.
Yulia Biriukova (Canadian b. Russia 1897 – 1972), The Riverman, Frenchy Renaud 1935, oil on canvas, 122 × 107 cm, Art Gallery of Hamilton, Gift of Thoreau MacDonald, Esq., 1973, 74.43.2
McMichael Chief Curator Sarah Milroy also highlights the profoundly masculine themes and subjects of Biriukova’s work and the inspiration she took from her engagement with the Group of Seven movement. “I think she was simply looking around her at the iconography of the Group of Seven,” Milroy notes in an online curatorial talk, “and deciding ‘how do I fit in here, what is this art culture in Canada all about?’ and she identified it, clearly, as a masculinist obsession with men in the landscape and so makes that her subject.” “She has identified what is the prevailing ethos in the art world,” Milroy continues, “and she’s going right into the heart of it.”
Those who wish to further explore the “heart” of Biriukova’s work and legacy should visit the Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment exhibition, which runs until January 16, 2022, at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, in Kleinburg, just north of Toronto. Further information on both Biriukova and the exhibit’s many other talented women artists can also be found in a Virtual Curatorial Talk hosted by McMichael Chief Curator Sarah Milroy: Uninvited Virtual Curatorial Talk with Sarah Milroy.