McMichael Gallery features work of former UCC teacher

Yulia Biriukova (1897-1972), who taught art at Upper Canada College from 1942 to 1963, is one of the artists featured in the McMichael Gallery’s new exhibition, Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Movement.

The exhibition coincides with, and offers commentary on, the centenary celebration of the Group of Seven and provides a snapshot of women who took part in this movement.

Biriukova studied at the Imperial Academy of the Arts in St. Petersburg, but left with her family for Vladivostok during the Russian Revolution. She studied in Hong Kong and Japan in the early 1920s, before following her family to Rome in 1922 where she was able to hone her skills as a portrait artist. She and her sister, Alexandra, an architect, moved to Canada in 1929 to seek professional opportunities.

During the 1930s, subjects for her portraits included A.Y. Jackson and J.E.H. MacDonald, members of the Group of Seven. In fact, her sister designed Lawren Harris’s Art Deco home on Ava Crescent in Toronto and Yulia worked in the Studio Building that Harris owned.

The Depression made it harder to get commissions to paint portraits, so Biriukova turned to painting working people who were not generally immortalized in such fashion. Her works include paintings of boat captains, farmers and log drivers, and according to art researcher, John Geoghegan, captured the spirit of working people in Canada, something that didn’t concern most artists at the time. Ian A.C. Dejardin, executive director of the McMichael Gallery, notes that she was especially skilled at presenting a " 'portrait in a landscape,' " where the landscape is a crucial descriptive element providing biographical context."

Upper Canada College is fortunate to have seven of Biriukova’s paintings in its collection, including the work pictured here, a portrait of Ontario farmer Ed Seager of Thornhill, painted around 1937.

As Geoghegan notes, Biriukova "renders her subjects with a dignity rarely granted to those outside the political or social elite."

Don’t miss the opportunity to see Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Movement, which runs through Jan. 16, 2022. You can learn more here.
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