Art

PAINTINGS ROOTED IN THE LAND

Shows on the Group of Seven in the West and Tom Thomson are summer stunners

BRIAN BERGMAN July 1 2002
Art

PAINTINGS ROOTED IN THE LAND

Shows on the Group of Seven in the West and Tom Thomson are summer stunners

BRIAN BERGMAN July 1 2002

PAINTINGS ROOTED IN THE LAND

Shows on the Group of Seven in the West and Tom Thomson are summer stunners

Art

BRIAN BERGMAN

THEY WERE ROMANTICS, idealists and Canadian nationalists before such a notion existed. And while the founding members of the Group of Seven painters were all based in Toronto, their vision of this country, and the inspiration for their art, lay elsewhere. It first took root in Ontario’s rugged north country, where the windswept rivers, lakes and forests stirred something in their collective soul. Soon enough, the artists were travelling further afield, to the Prairies, the Rockies,

the West Coast and the Far North. Here, they found a canvas broad enough to accommodate their ambitions.

The sheer volume of work the Group of Seven did in Western Canada and the Arctic is astonishing. Over their lifetimes, the founding members—Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and F.H. Varley—along with the three other artists (A.J. Casson, L.L. Fitzgerald and Edwin Holgate) who later

joined the group, created more than 10,000 sketches, prints, watercolours and oil paintings inspired by their experience of these parts of Canada. They returned, time and again, to a region they repeatedly described in journals and correspondence as “paradise” and “the promised land.” Some even chose to make the West their home, most notably Varley, who left Toronto in 1926 to head up the department of drawing and painting at Vancouver’s new School of Art and Design, and

Harris, who moved to the same city in 1940 and stayed until his death 30 years later.

Yet for all of that, the artists who coalesced as the Group of Seven in 1920 and disbanded 12 years later are typically thought of as Central Canadians, with their western art never really considered in any depth. Until now, that is.

On July 13 (until Oct. 14), Calgary’s Glenbow Museum will unveil The Group of Seven In Western Canada, a visually stunning exhibition of nearly 200 works spanning the years 1914 to the mid-1960s. Among the highlights: the mountain art inspired by the Rockies, where almost all the Group members hiked and painted; Varley’s sojourn on the West Coast, where he captured the aching beauty of misty coastlines and alpine meadows; and Jackson’s exhaustive work in southern Alberta, which provided indelible renderings of the rolling prairie, coulees and foothills that define this expansive landscape.

Coincidentally, the Glenbow show starts a few weeks after the opening of a major retrospective on the work of Tom Thomson at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (June 7-Sept. 8). Thomson was a friend and role model for several members of the Group of Seven. He introduced them to the untamed splendour of Algonquin Provincial Park, 210 km north of Toronto, where Thomson worked as a fishing guide and forest ranger while embarking on a brief, but brilliant, career as a painter. His

bold use of colour, brushwork and texture opened up a new way of seeing the land. In 1917, at the age of 39, Thomson drowned in Algonquin’s Canoe Lake, but his influence on the artists and colleagues who formed the Group of Seven three years later endured. “He was the guide, the interpreter and we the guests,” said A.Y. Jackson upon hearing of Thomson’s untimely demise. “My debt to him is almost that of a new world, the north country and a true artist’s vision.”

The Calgary and Ottawa exhibitions— both of which embark on cross-country tours after they wrap up in their host cities this fall—reinforce what was a central tenet for all of these painters: art rooted in the land can help define a nation. This is true even when their creations bear little resemblance to the landscape that inspired them. After settling in Vancouver, Harris began increasingly to paint abstractions. Works such as Mountain Experience I (1946) and Nature Rhythms (1950) are, in the artist’s own words, attempts to depict nature in a “more expressive, moving and elevating” fashion than by representation. It’s instructive to know that Harris continued to hike in the Rockies well into the 1950s, trips that clearly replenished his spirit and informed his art. Like intrepid explorers, Harris and his colleagues knew the truth was out there, in the farthest reaches of Canada. Thanks to them, a little of that truth, and beauty, has been captured forever. 171