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Published 08/12/2011 email E-MAIL print PRINT

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Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven

The Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
19 October 2011–8 January 2012

National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo, Norway
29 January–13 May 2012

The Groninger Museum, Groningen, the Netherlands
3/6 June–28 October 2012

by EMMA ENDERBY

This winter, The Dulwich Picture Gallery takes us on a tour of the seductive world of Canada’s vast and wild landscape. The galleries are devoted to a group of early 20th-century pioneer artists, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, who set out to change the existing style of Canadian art. These artists painted a landscape previously believed too harsh to be rendered sublime – the 19th-century ideal and the preferred aesthetic for rendering landscape.

In America these values were aspired to by the Hudson River School. The untamed Canadian landscape, seemingly devoid of majesty, could not therefore achieve an art of consummate beauty. United by a common aim to challenge accepted authority, the modus operandi of Thomson and the group was to create a visual language and artistic identity to express the Canadian landscape, breaking all previous moulds. From the Canoe Lake to the Rockies and British Columbia, each room in the exhibition is dedicated to a different region, covering a vast expanse of Canada, illustrating how this new language and vision was rendered for such a wide variety of landscapes: mountains, prairies, lakes and rivers. However, we also gauge from the work how these artists were interested in exploring and grappling with the desire for a new artistic identity through experimentation with style, such as (post) impressionism and fauvism.

In Canada, Thomson is revered as one of the greatest artists to emerge from North America. This exhibition is the first of its kind in Britain since the 1920s that explores these artists’ dedicated approach to a Canadian Utopia.

Although the artists who comprise the Seven had been working throughout the early 20th century, the Group was officially formed one March evening in 1920 at Lawren Harris’s mansion. At the time, the seven were Lawren Harris, JEH MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, FH Varley, Frank Johnston, Franklin Carmichael, and AY Jackson, who was away painting but was granted a membership through proxy. Tom Thomson, the artist who paved the way for this collective, was sadly not present at this fateful meeting, having mysteriously died in 1917, just 39 years old. His death remains unexplained, after a canoeing accident on Algonquin Park’s Canoe Lake, some 185 miles north of Toronto. However, as Lawren Harris wrote, Thomson was “part of the movement before we pinned a label on it”1 and between 1914 and 1917 his prolific production of sketches and paintings that formed the unique visions of Canada had a profound and lasting effect on how the Seven would continue to tackle the vast wilderness of harsh and beautiful landscape.

On entering the exhibition the first room is dedicated to Algonquin Provincial Park, and it is within this room that Thomson’s The Jack Pine (1917) and The West Wind (1917), both painted in the artist’s last winter, are shown. Both iconic paintings, they are two of the most famous and revered paintings to emerge from Canada. If the Group’s aim was to create a new visual language, to depict a Canadian experience of nature, these paintings surely set a bold precedent as they subsequently became the iconic images of the country's landscape. As the title indicates, the protagonist of The Jack Pine is the tree itself – the most broadly distributed pine in Canada, and thus the ideal subject for creating a common Canadian identity within the landscape. The solitary Jack Pine, which sits monumentally silhouetted against a vast plain and the yellow, green, purple, blue of a sunset, is both abstract and decorative in form.

We thus see in this work Thomson’s effortless combination of the decorative, which he developed early in his career as a graphic designer, and his interest in European movements, predominately the (post) impressionists, in creating a contrasting, colourful yet sparse environment. The vermilion red undertones Thomson used and allowed to show through the long, often horizontal brush strokes, create a distinctly rich, autumn scene, as if the colour pulsed out of the hills, the tree, the rocky terrain. Whilst one’s attention is brought to the Jack Pine, with its bare, somewhat eccentric branches stretching across the canvas, the eye is still drawn down to the rocky foreground, and back to the lake, the twilight sky and hills beyond. The colours and brushstrokes evoke vibrancy; the stationary tree, lake and hills create a sense of stillness, and of vastness, key aspects of the Canadian landscape.

The West Wind, the second of these two great paintings, and the last of Thomson’s, is of a similar stylistic and visual composition, the solitary Jack Pine dominates the picture plane without obscuring the uninhabited scene beyond. Thomson used the same technique of a vermilion undercoat in creating a dramatic contrast with the greens and blues of the tree and hills. Like The Pine Tree, Thomson builds up the scene with bricked slabs of paint, echoing pointillist technique, however with a distinctive decorative style. We see his use of pointillism employed most effectively in The Pointers (1916-17), a painting rich with pigment and exciting dabs of the brush, where the simple downward brush strokes create an abstract illusion of a richly dense autumn forest cascading down the hill. Also on show is a great number of original sketches, occasionally paired with the final works, and it is a great advantage to have these exhibited for they illuminate the artist’s method.

For The Pine Tree, the sketch illustrates the basic atmosphere and subject, but lacks the monumental and iconic qualities of the pine tree that we find in the final work. This is typical of his other sketches on display, such as the 20 lining the wall in the second room. Working from a portable sketchbook, Thomson gained access to a world where board and easel could not be carried. He worked quickly and effectively through the summer months to capture the colour, form and feeling. In the winter he would develop and enlarge, into iconic and carefully rendered images.

Painting Canada shows a beautiful land without human or animal life, and thus presents the unchartered territory as lonely and foreboding. As a stylistic choice it was adopted repeatedly by the Seven to emphasise their respective personal vision. Throughout the exhibition there are only occasional signs of habitation in the form of a tent, a path, a cabin. The absence of human life presents landscape as protagonist; it also used to emphasise the vastness of the new land and the trepidation experienced by explorers and settlers there. In Thomson’s Burnt Land (1915), as the title suggests, we see a pile of tumbled, burnt trees with only a few standing stark and bare against the line of a blue mountain range. Later in the exhibition, AY Jackson’s First Snow Algoma (c1919–20), reveals a dark and curling sky looking down on a barren red fire-like landscape: snow falls but does not settle. In these paintings we see a transition from the sad to the sublime; the vastness is at peace with the barren and desolate winter.

In early 1925, the Group of Seven Exhibition was held at the Art Gallery of Toronto, and visitors witnessed a new direction and region, the Rockies. As a reviewer for the Star Weekly noted: “The painters [Group of Seven] certainly are evolving. They have been successively, and generally successfully, house-haunted, tree-mad, lake-lunatic, river-ridden, birch-bed lamed, apsen-addled and rock-cracked. This year they are mountain mad.”2 Mountain “madness” was certainly seized by certain members of the Group, particularly by Harris and Jackson, who were both organising expeditions into the harsh mountain range to form a new vision; as the group moved into the 1920s, the style inevitably progressed and moved away from Thomson’s hold on the stylistic form.

For Harris, the attraction of mountains was the need for a landscape that could reflect an awe-inspiring, exalted view of nature. His interest in the spiritual and transcendental, as well as with a new artistic direction, that of abstraction, found form in the Canadian wilderness. In the 1930s a perfect opportunity came to fruition for Harris to execute his new vision and style which would later (after the group’s dissolution in 1933) become fully abstract. Harris and Jackson were both invited by the Government to paint the Arctic North, and in the last rooms of the exhibition we enter the cold and see a sculptured vision of this terrain. No longer are the trees reduced to a multitude of brushes of colour, or the contours of the mountains disappearing within one blue space, as in a post-impressionist vision. Here the Arctic is stripped of an impressionist aesthetic of the land and is replaced with an abstract boldness of shapes and simple form. Harris’ belief in the purity of the northern landscape, and his own artistic endeavours into abstraction, led him to understand that pure colour and form were the only means by which to render the spiritual truth of the Arctic. These paintings are monumental in scale and form. Although in these cold rooms I missed the earlier vivid brush strokes and colours, where form sinks into colour, it was informative to see how it was the landscape itself produced the father of abstraction in Canada, and it was the dialogue with the imposing mountainous forms of Canada that enabled Harris to become a fully fledged abstract artist.

This beautiful exhibition presents over 120 paintings that changed and informed the way in which landscape could be painted, creating a new vision of the sublime, one that can be both alive with colour and apocalyptic in scale. These paintings not only changed the way in which artists viewed the pictorial tradition of depicting landscape, but also taught Canadians how to understand their own landscape, and to cherish it. The vision of Thomson and the Seven continues to inform the way Canadians and visitors comprehend the Canadian wilderness.

References

1. David P. Silcox, The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson (Firefly Books Ltd, 2011) p. 11

2. Quoted in the exhibition.



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