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The Life of Frances Loring

and Florence Wyle

By Elspeth Cameron

Cormorant, 528 pages, $36.95

Elspeth Cameron's And Beauty Answers is a scholarly examination of the lives and work of two sculptors who made an indelible mark on Canadian art during the middle decades of the last century. Frances Loring and Florence Wyle were well-known figures in midtown Toronto: tall, ample Frances in her velvet cloaks and turbans, crop-haired Florence, dressed like a little man in the old grey flannel suit that was her out-and-about costume for the later years of her life. The works these women produced adorn churches and buildings and monuments, and can be seen in public spaces and cultural institutions, not only in the city where they lived but in many centres in their chosen country.

The portraits Loring and Wyle sculpted of one another as young women sit on plinths in a small park on St. Clair Avenue in Toronto. "The Girls," as they were affectionately called, were committed artists and genuine eccentrics. Wyle was 24 and Loring 18 when they met in 1905, as students at the Art Institute of Chicago, and it was there that they developed an aesthetic to which they would adhere for the rest of their lives: Art should above all be beautiful, and it should delight rather than educate.

The two moved to Toronto just when Modernism was getting under way. Cameron questions more than once how their work might have been affected had they stayed in the United States long enough to see the hugely influential 1913 New York Armory Show, with its sampling of European Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, the work of Matisse and the Fauves, and the German Expressionists.

Buttoned-up Toronto turned out to be the right place for them, though, and the First World War provided something of a sculptural bonanza when Ottawa began patronizing war art with public money. Both artists modelled figures, mostly of women in overalls and boots, representing industrial and agricultural workers. As sculptors, Loring and Wyle themselves were not unfamiliar with hard labour. Over the years, they worked in all the traditional sculptural mediums and on every scale, from the small maquette to the heroic. They supervised enormous bronze castings and the mounting of massive works in public places, in an era when it was still put about that serious mental or physical labour could bring on fevers in the undersized female brain.

Were Florence and Frances lesbians? They were assumed to be by some, although Frances was said to have had flings with men and Florence had been in love with a married male teacher in Chicago. In any case, those were the days when people in Toronto (and probably elsewhere) found it convenient to pretend there was no such thing as homosexuality. Cameron points out that what really mattered was that the two were soulmates, and that they challenged gender stereotypes.

In 1920, the two women moved into a building that became known as The Church, a weathered, unheated structure set on blocks on an unpaved street in Toronto's tony Moore Park, where they outraged neighbours by keeping chickens and feeding the pigeons. Cameron says, "They had become Toronto characters. And they remained Toronto characters from then on." They developed wide social and artistic connections in the city, and The Church was gradually transformed into a comfortable studio and home where they threw expansive pot-luck parties for artists and friends and patrons, housed stray animals and gave lessons to children.

Commissions were sought and completed to enthusiastic accolades. The Church became the hub of Toronto's artistic community, and Loring and Wyle were lionized, if in a restrained Toronto manner, by people with money and social status. A 1935 event at the Women's Art Association featured "some fine exhibits in sculpturing by Miss Florence Wyle and Miss Frances Loring, drawings by Carl Schaefer, special music by Healy Willan, a violin performance by Miss Isabel Ericson and tea readings."

Although Loring took an early interest in the work of indigenous artists, and was active in the inception of what was to become the Canada Council for the Arts, interest in the two women and their work had begun to flag by the 1950s. Loring was known as the grande dame of Canadian sculpture, but Robert Fulford, then art critic of the Toronto Star, declared that there was nothing either beautiful or stimulating in her work, and that her contribution to art was about on a par with president Dwight D. Eisenhower's contribution to political oratory.

Cameron maintains a cool observer's voice through most of the book, but her affection for her subjects comes through in a late section in which she describes, with palpable emotion and chagrin, a CBC-TV documentary about them aired in 1965. The host, Fletcher Markle, "an unctuous man with hair slicked neatly back," speaks in the "mid-Atlantic accent favoured at the time." He introduces the "two marvellous young ladies who set up a salon in the romantic Church ... a prolific partnership that has enriched Canadian sculpture with scores of radiant works."

The camera pans around the "romantic Church," which, like its inhabitants, is now a dilapidated semi-ruin. Frances hobbles on two canes before lowering her 200-pound bulk into a chair, from which she speaks slowly, sounding exhausted. Florence performs bravely for the camera, chiselling away at a piece of work with a mallet, but what she says doesn't make much sense. Markle mentions her frequent use of the female form, to which she replies vaguely that, after all, the female is the mother of the race and that the Greeks used it as well. Markle says, "Hmmm." Frances struggles to her feet to demonstrate the arrested motion that makes the Discus Thrower so effective.

"What went unsaid," Cameron writes, "was that this program was a heart-wrenching look at two artists whose ideas and work had scarcely changed in the over fifty years they had lived together, and that Loring now dominates Wyle ... partly because Wyle was scarcely able to function."

The pages of And Beauty Answers are densely packed with names of artists, dates, venues, dealers, critics, institutions and political figures. Keeping track of them in their various contexts can sometimes be uphill work, even for one to whom they are familiar. Cameron's research and documentation are rigorous and exhaustive. She concludes her biography with more than 150 pages of acknowledgments, notes, comprehensive lists of the works of both artists, a bibliography and an index.

The book will undoubtedly find its way into the libraries of academic institutions, but it is written in a straightforward and engaging manner that would make it enjoyable reading for anyone interested in this phase of our cultural history. Thirty-two pages of photographs of The Girls and their work are a welcome addition to the text.

Art is long, life is short. Loring and Wyle ended up in rooms on separate floors of an old-age facility in Newmarket, Ont. They were more or less poor for most of their lives, but prices for their work rose steeply after their deaths, which came just three weeks apart in 1968.

Helen McLean's forthcoming book, Just Looking and Other Essays, is a collection of observations and meditations on art and life and the business of seeing.