Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Other Wilderness: On The Dionne Quintuplets.

The Great Canadian Wasteland.

The Dionne Quintuplets have been inspiring artists for generations. Notably, Diana Thorneycroft and Genevieve Thauvette have recently focused on them. Thorneycroft in particular locates them within the history of Canada's systematic abuse and exploitation of children. They cast their shadow over her recent body of work, standing, appropriately enough, where the Group Of Seven once stood as the anxious and slightly crazy icons of a de-familiarized Canada. The Quintuplets, of course, don't need to be made symbolic. Their upbringing was already a representation, a colossal work of public art that attempted to articulate the destiny of the nation. This may seem like a perverse claim, but it is nothing of the sort. Unlike African fetish objects or The Book of Kells or the Sistine Chapel, none of which were intended to be experienced as art in anything like the modern sense of the term, Quintland was specifically designed as a form of living museum filled with animate artifacts. It was a public exercise in the art of child rearing designed to demonstrate the most technologically advanced machinery and theoretically advanced care. And it was art in both the most ancient and modern sense of the term, operating as both cathartic image and ritual, exemplum and as aesthetic rival to reality that blurred any distinction between art and life. From the point of their birth onward they were inseparable from mediatization and presented as another distillation of Canadian utopia: A massive paedophilic fantasy that would presage both Canada's future as one of the world's leading destinations for child sex tourists and the torturous world of reality television.

In a very real way, they formed a (not entirely) complementary cultural function to the work of Canadian nationalist artists during the same period. It's already cliched to state that the entire event seemed constructed on the level of satire. The setting of Quintland was the borderline between the isolated French Canadian community in Northern Ontario and their English neighbours. The surrounding area was the most mythical space in Canada of the period: the Precambrian shield, which had been turned into the cardinal symbol of the country by the Group of Seven (which had officially disbanded one year before the Quint phenomena) and numerous advertising agencies (see here). Between 'inhuman' Algonquin Park and the mystical North was Quintland, deposited in this rocky 'wasteland' along with the popular obsession with racial purification. As a social experiment, it was a radical antecedent to the social welfare and heath care system that would eventually come to Canada.

Upon the fantasy of a completely depopulated and virginal territory that could give birth to a new race was superimposed a miraculous birth against all medical odds. Medicine functioned as a handmaid for the miraculous, in spite of the qualms of both the staunchly Catholic and Protestant peasants which it sought to doctor. And medicine came as a particularly explosive kind of technology, one which was intimately tied to publicity, to mediatization and to the glamour of image production [a]. In essence, the positive and negative aspects of Canada's nanny-state ideology were born in this process.[b]

Between 1934 and 1943, approximately three million people from all over North America made the trek to Quintland for a chance to stand in a processional line and file down a darkened tunnel to watch five identical girls play. On the way out, they could stop by the giant trough to pick up some 'fertility stones' which the highway department gathered from Lake Nippissing. The voyage which viewers would take allowed for the launching of one of the most successful tourist enterprises in history, completely salvaging the economic situation of northern Ontario in the pit of the Depression. A giant sign would read, "The Midwives to the Quintuplets bid you welcome" as you passed by a host of ramshackle rent-a-cabins and postcard stands. Thanks to journalists and various Hollywood productions, Callander, Corbeil and North Bay were the most internationally recognized and culturally significant spaces in Canada during the twentieth century. Nothing else produced in this country has drawn as much international attention, as much acclaim. The image of Canada was Quintland. Everything about them was carefully controlled to avoid having any "...negative reflection on the Canadian people." (PB 102) Twentieth Century Fox acknowledged the Quintuplets as having a greater draw and power than any of their other stars. For nearly a decade, five little girls were the principle starlets. [c]


It's worth remembering that Canada, in spite of being more racially uniform, was, heretical as it may sound, far more genuinely culturally diverse nearly a century ago. The increase in visible minorities has coincided with the substantial erosion of class differences and the almost total erasure of substantive political divergence. Back then, a third of the male population were unemployed drifters. Only eight percent of the province of Ontario had as much as an eighth grade education (most Francophones substantially less), North Bay had active communists, and the area was divided along strictly polarized lines: peasants against bourgeois, Catholics against Protestants, rural against urban and French against English. The significance of the children was caught up not only in the racial divide but the class one as well. [d] As long as there was money in it, the media wasted no time in betraying their allegiance to the elites of Toronto and the Quints became a kind of wedge to be used by the rise of the new urban classes against the poor outlanders. [e] It wasn't just the destruction of their French and Catholic heritage that their father, Oliva Dionne, had to fear, it was also the erasure of the sisters' identity with their class. (In Dionne's case this was further problematized because he was bilingual, better educated and more well-to-do than the majority of Francophones). It was popularly believed by Anglophones that the French were in a race to 'outbreed' them and destroy their society. [f] The monstrousness of the Dionnes was avidly played up in the media who portrayed them as an inferior species. When journeying to cities, Dionne was known to be followed by small crowds into the bathroom so that people could catch a sight of his supposedly abnormal genitalia.

From the beginning, there were always suggestions that the whole thing was a freak show. The fact that they family was embroiled in the attempt by a lubricant dealer to show them at a fair only fuelled this. When the state took over, in one of the most radical demonstrations of dubiously legal state intervention in Canadian history, they made sure that the whole thing was cast in as 'normalizing' a fashion as possible. "The miracle was that the quintuplets were 'normal'. The press said so; the official guardianship said so; Dr. Dafoe said so; normal and healthy in every way." (PB16) There was a great paradox in this normalcy born from the monstrous. The most hyper normal child was existing in a completely anti-septic environment that was more sterile than the arctic. If the normal were walled up in a hospital and bereft of a private existence, what did this say about those who put them there and those who came to see them? [g]

The segregation of the children and the sterilization that surrounded them directly mimics that which has historically accompanied any kind of Sovereign life. Although this may never have been understood in anthropological terms, it was certainly appreciated symbolically by the actors involved. They were normal (they were the all) but they were not ordinary (they were singular and still multiple). Normal but simultaneously extraordinary. Dafoe said as much, "...there isn't any point in bringing them up as ordinary children. They must have the special training of Royalty, to give them reserve and stamina and calm acceptance of the interest and curiosity of the multitude." (PB 131) The minster in charge of their welfare referred to them as "our own royal family' (PB 104) and The New York Sun would write of them in comparable terms.

This was an unusual situation for any child not born of royal blood. Their entire childhood was completely ritualized and they were divorced from any sense of personal life, something which would haunt them into adulthood. This was only extended by their interchangeable appearances. Although they were five, they were regarded as singular for all but tax purposes[h]. Any change among them, in differentiation in terms of dress and even behaviour was viewed by the public with a certain horror. Such things would seemingly reduce them to the level of human personality. It was this level that has always been an ambivalent issue in the history of childhood[i]. For the most part, "...children were property to be protected and controlled like domestic animals and sometimes to be profited from." (PB 24) Given the child rearing standards in the country, they were likely the only children not being regularly beaten by their parents and teachers, although their nurses did their best to make them ashamed of their bodies.

The reason that the children were kept from their parents for so long came from below. Any hint that they might be separated from the ultra-modern childcare facility smacked of 'barbarism'. This patriotic insistence on keeping the sovereign children in common, combined with the enormous financial value they had, kept a swath of the public vociferously on the government's case about keeping the family separate. "As in so many cases of hero worship or celebrity worship, the public cared very little about the privacy or personal welfare of popular deities." (PB 163) This paedophilic romance countered the austerity of the family romance and shocked some American critics. At a symposium about the Quints which included 200 child educators, the majority of American attendees advocated the rights of the family over the state. Their Canadian hosts decried this as absurdly sentimental. Subsequent generations of Canadian scholars and doctors would gravitate to the American attitude.

One of the key problems of the family vs state argument is that it generally makes the fallacious assumption that the state, whether it be an orphanage or a residential school, is somehow the less 'natural' institution. What the Quint experiment did was question the ultimate despotic authority of the parents over children in a radical way. All things considered, if by some bizarre twist of fate they had survived more than a few weeks, they would have likely grown up as local freaks, and, with their exceptionally weak physical constitutions, died early or tormented. 

At mid-point in the story, the press jumped on the bandwagon of the parents, in part to keep the story alive and the dwindling returns on the issue flowing. Familialism came in again and one lauding of authoritarianism was exchanged for another. As Berton notes, the whole thing was inseparable from the public obsession with authoritarian figures in the politics of the time. This latter flip is still the one that persists today. Even in recent work done on the whole phenomenon, a familial bias is nearly unquestioned, particularly by feminist historians[]. This is odd given the insistence of the Quints themselves in their autobiography that the only time they were actually happy or fulfilled was when they were separated from their parents. Whether they would have been better off raised by their parents or not is unanswerable. However, their statements radically undermine attempts to rehabilitate the 'natural' significance of their family and the idea that their being separated from them was as tragic as is often claimed.

As stated previously, the image of Canada was Quintland. The postcard industry which spouted up around them was as iconically significant and, ultimately as artistically significant, as the works of Emily Carr and the Group of Seven. The Quints duplicate much of the psychic structure that the wilderness phenomena relied upon. Rather than cottage country being depicted as the territory 'beyond good and evil', it was related in all of its banality. The real wilderness was actually the hospital where these orphan wards of the state could serve as living demonstrations of what the future of the nation could hold. Within the products of the Quint culture industry, one can see something of the attitude outlined byCousineau-Levine in the history of Canadian photography: The wasteland, the sense of captivity, the rejection of the bad mother and father, the institutionalism, the sense of monstrosity, the doubling and reflections and the negation of development.


Canadian art of the period had a hard time with what could be labelled 'overt' political content. It was openly disapproved of within the artistic community and outright loathed by politicians who could have promoted its funding. This does not mean that the wilderness obsession of the previous years was apolitical, far from it. It just had to be a little more subtle. The landscape obsession of the period is curiously thrown off balance by the swelter of equally popular work produced around the Quints which, along with the paintings of Prudence Heward, is probably the most memorable figurative art produced in Canada in the first half of the twentieth century. While their barren ambient territory, depicted in films like "The Country Doctor," worried some that they would be a turn-off to the tourist trade, the images of the children themselves were gold.

The strangeness of Canada's 'avant garde' was that it was more defensive than progressive. The strangeness of its popular culture was that it was defensively progressive. The nationalistic importance of the five sisters was never hidden. This five headed beast thrived in a perfectly sterile environment, ritualistically organized for public display from the moment their eyes opened to when they closed. This artificial bubble was mirrored in the stream of postcards, publicity shots and advertisements they were featured in. Soft and saccharine as the images are, it would be a mistake to see them simply as kitsch. Rather, to believe in kitsch is to accept a specific narrative of Modernism, one which any serious engagement with Canadian art history ought to negate. Unlike the chocolate box decoration they frequently suggest, these were some of the most radically political images ever produced in Canada. They were advertisements for a new way of life, a new approach to producing people.

The images are brightly hued with a hideous, hand-colouring style finish that makes them suggest the Victorian, that great period of the industrialization and sanctification of childhood. Garish and dominated by primary colours, the Quints are always wide-eyed with mouths open and cheeks painted pink. Completely unlikely tourist postcards depicted them hiking through the wilderness; an endless stream of ads for Palmolive traded on their purity, readily set alongside the ads for the Castor oil that supposedly purified their insides. In one ad the sisters were depicted with a broad smiling chef and a text which read: "Nursed! coaxed! guarded from seed to sealing-time with watchful care, Heinz offers you tomato products of unmatched quality, healthful purity and rare flavour." Paper dolls could be dressed or undressed at will, allowing anyone the chance to play with them by themselves. Toothpaste ads had symbolic significance of course. Terms for dental hygiene were the first English words to be compulsorily learned by immigrants to the United States. The failure to spit them out made you a social outcast and marked you as backward peasant. The Quints were the super Modern. Miracles of modern science rescued from monsters and suspended in a picaresque, virginal wasteland.

Although Canada never had Socialist Realism, that much maligned movement that was spread across self-identified socialist countries as official art, it did have the Quintuplets. For the Soviets it was the new man, for Canada it was the Quins. While it has become a cliche lately in the art world to talk about 'the return of craft and skill' etc etc, it's rarely pointed out that all of the things that are now most contemporary (craft, narrative, social problems, sincerity etc) were the backbone of socialist realism. The cultic significance that these things have in art was also exuded by Quintland. It was, after all, quite explicitly a sort of fertility cult in the peak of economic sterility.

The images have more in common with socialist realism too. They almost entirely concern groups (obviously) and operate through a staggering or cascading of affective investment, one which continuously circles back on itself. When shown as five faces, suspended in space, they gain the stature of an absolute empathic command. Otherwise they are shown in full body poses (as was generally demanded of social realists in Russia) and they are depicted working in ultra modern facilities. These images of the sisters, most often in the form of postcards or calendars, blur the distinctions between social genre images and historical ones. The former rely on the interrelation of characters as actors in a broader (implied) sphere; the latter relies on the depiction of an event of which the characters are only an aspect. While they have a superficial resemblance to social genre work, they are far closer to history painting by virtue of their iconic value and context. They never become personalities, even if they were often accorded proper names within the image itself.

As mentioned above, the Quints were, legally and symbolically, treated as an individual, but not, one should insist, as a personality. In the great age of personality cults that they came from (whether in Hollywood or with the fascists), they were unusual in this regard. Their particular power as images came from the amorphous power of the multiple and the ambivalence which it acquires. They were more like a corporate body or a people. They were a crowd. A rival to the anonymous crowd of the public, they were an identical crowd (and, therefore, anonymous in a very different way), one which resonated within itself as it remained hermetically sealed from the world. This kind of abstracted and idealized identity, fundamentally both a product of industry and a symbolic negation of it, also doubles the idealization of landscape that was so prevalent. They were not a successful conjuring of the two things, however.

The Quint industry, even with its simplified rendering of houses and landscapes around Quintland, echoed the imaginary wilderness of painters in its harsh colours and violent greens but rendered them as quaint, manicured, humanized and avidly 'Good' rather than 'beyond good and evil'. They returned the landscape once again to the kind of imagery which it had in early colonial painting. Ironically, at the same moment that the avant garde of Paris was seeking to 'recolonize' an imaginary childhood as part of a utopian dream, the tourist industry of Canada was doing much the same thing, albeit through very different means. The result was no less surreal and more fundamentally radical, questioning both social institutions and the nature of art to a greater degree than anyone else dared to do.


All references to PB are to Pierre Berton's The Dionne Years: A Thirties Melodrama.

[a] The distinction between natural and artificial was inextricably tied to every aspect of the phenomenon.

In their struggle to regain custody of the children and to replace Blatz with Catholic and French - speaking teachers, Oliva and Elzire Dionne drew on a different set of discourses, comparing the Quintuplets to their other children and to "ordinary" families in the French - Canadian community where they lived. They were able to mobilize growing popular support by contrasting the unnatural and scientific environment and child - rearing regime of the nursery with a notion of the natural and authentic family. (Dehli, K. (1994). Fictions of the Scientific Imagination: Researching the Dionne Quintuplets. Journal of Canadian Studies, 29(4), 86-110. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/203531719?accountid=14771)
[b]  A close analysis of the government documents on the Dionne case reveals that the Quintuplets were not dealt with as children in need of state protection: the Children's Aid Society was not involved. Rather, they were managed as natural resources or scenic wonders requiring nationalization. In other words, the guardianship of the five little girls had very little to do with child welfare or family policy; rather, it became an aspect of provincial economic policy. Just as the "natural beauty" of Niagara Falls has been sold to tourists and exploited by Ontario Hydro, so too the apparently priceless Quintuplets were economically exploited by their legal father, the government of Ontario. (Valverde, M. (1994). Families, Private Property, and the State: The Dionnes and the Toronto Stork Derby. Journal of Canadian Studies, 29(4), 15-35. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/203551411?accountid=14771)

[c] The Quintuplets were exhibited to tourists twice a day. The crowds were supposedly contained behind one - way glass, but the girls later said that although the glass did not allow them to see their visitors well, they were aware of them and "performed" accordingly. It is, of course, not possible to generalize about the motives of the hundreds of thousands of people who used the relatively new leisure activity of motoring to visit Quintland. One can nevertheless speculate that the Quintuplets offered North American middle - class families on holidays a certain Shirley Temple cuteness combined with a uniquely Canadian emphasis on scenic rural ruggedness (symbolized by the stained logs covering the exterior of the nursery building). (Valverde)
[d] Gender, culture, knowledge and power were implicated in this dispute, not as some external imposition on an otherwise neutral scientific endeavour, but as integral and constituent features of the research itself. (Dehli)
[e] From outside the guardianship, Munro was supported and pressured by manufacturers holding Quintuplet contracts, as shown in a letter from the American Grocers' Association: "Everyone with whom I talked tells me that the children are going to be much more valuable from an advertising standpoint after they have learned to speak English.... This is straight from the shoulder, Keith. But they [advertising executives] informed me: 'Get these kids speaking English, and they'll have great advertising value!"' (Valverde)
[f] A bachelor writing to the Star stated that "The shade of Theodore Roosevelt could delight in the pictures of large healthy families, rather than race suicide. Is Ontario to suffer in comparison with Quebec? There large families are very common. (Valerede)
[g] One of the other great paradoxes was this:

The Dionne Quintuplets' tragedy is that, while their mass - produced photographs are still considered to be the ideal representation of 1930s childhood, they were not themselves considered to be children. Like Mickey Mouse in Disneyland (who represents animals but is not an animal), the girls in Quintland were icons of "modern" childhood who were not treated as children. (Valverde)
[h] In the thousands of pages of documents in the official guardian's files, it is difficult to discover the Quintuplets' names. They are always treated as a single entity -- with the significant exception of the "Income tax" file (by far the fattest in the collection). Wilson thought that if the girls were considered to be individuals for income tax purposes, then the trust fund would be subject to a lower rate of income tax. (Valverde)
[i] See the works of Lloyd deMause.
[j] For instance see: Regulating Womanhood (London: Routledge, 1992) and Childhood and Family in Canadian History [Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982].

[k] Barry Lord notes the failure of socialist realism to take hold in The History of Painting In Canada. Even Paraskeva Clark wound up making bland landscape paintings.

Images taken from The Dionne Quintuplet Digitization Project.

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