By Lee Edge | Published on DPG website 23 Dec 2011
In keeping with the great writer, adventurer, soldier, freethinker, con man, gambler, gourmand, violinist, spy and legendary seducer, that was Casanova; I would like to open this review with a brief synopsis of myself, as only then will you be able to fully appreciate the – what I hope to be, insightful and cathartic – prose that lies before you.
Having had a passion throughout my younger years for art I obviously chose, as any aspiring artist would, to down brushes and enter the London corporate establishment. The lauded draw of the strong career prospects and a reasonable salary outweighing the ‘draw’ of my pencils.
There was always a creative calling inside me fighting against this self-induced tyranny. I eventually realised that art was my true calling and have since been focusing all my energies in this area of my life. The Tao Te Ching (6th Century BC Chinese philosophy) states that if you follow your true destiny, the world will conspire to help you on your way. With this in mind, it was in a day lost in the wonders of Dulwich Picture Gallery, that an opportunity to write this review presented itself…
In the early 1900’s only 7 million people lived in Canada although it was the second largest country in the world geographically. It was during this time a group of artists started to engage with the Canadian wilderness; a landscape previously considered to be too wild and untamed to inspire true art. This Group consisted of Tom Thomson, Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, A.Y. Jackson, Franklin Carmichael, Fredrick Horseman Varley, Frank Johnston and Arthur Lismer. Most of the Group were professional graphic designers, and had at some point worked at the same firm ‘Gripp Ltd’, after studying in Europe.
In my mind, I see these intrepid painters riding across the Canadian frontier like Billy the Kid and his gang – Sheriff Thomson and the Magnificent 7! Paint slinging rather than gun slinging. The Canadian art establishment did not warm to Tom and the Group’s work. A critic once said of one of MacDonald’s paintings it reminded him of the ‘…inside of a drunkards stomach’. Another described the Group as ‘Hot mush school’. So, let’s now go and explore the hot mush of these drunkards’ stomachs!
The first room is dedicated to Tom Thomson who only started painting in his 30’-s and had little or no training. Thomson was as an outdoorsman; he had a reputation as a keen fisherman and a skilled canoeist. He had an inner connection with Algonquin National Park and was drawn to its wild beauty.
‘Exhilarating sense of direct communication with nature…thrill of eternal aspiration in this fondness for great, open spaces, and the magic radiance of the arctic aurora’ (Painting Canada)
The sketch box he used, when hiking, is on show on your left as you enter the room. To me it is a work of art in itself, nothing captures the roller coaster ride of emotions a painter experiences throughout a piece of work than the palette itself. The sketch box for me is an extension of Tom and I spent 10 minutes looking at every visible colour and stroke.
There were 7 of Thomson’s paintings that stood out from the rest of his work. The first – though not my favourite – sums up Tom’s approach to his work, while it also has a dark side as this is the lake he drowned in under suspicious circumstances, in 1917.
Evening, Canoe Lake was completed with strong brush strokes and thick paint. I could almost picture myself stood next to him as he painted the scene, wind whipping around him, an overcast day with a melancholy dampness in the air. It surprises me how much I like it, as like many of the pieces in the exhibition it is more abstract than my usual tastes (although as I am trying to move away from photorealistic work myself, I am starting to appreciate deviations more). This is probably compounded by the fact it isn’t at face value a very attractive scene or composition and there is a purple tone to it, which has not been my favourite colour since I was forced to wear an awful purple shirt as a child! But it reminds me of a quote from The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzatti written in the 1930s:
‘Only the poet or the saint can water an asphalt pavement in the confident anticipation that lilies will reward his labour’ (Dino Buzzati)
(Evening, Canoe Lake, 1915–16, Oil on canvas, 41.3 x 51.5 cm)
The next painting is Burnt Land which was tidied up from the original sketch with Tom removing some of the trees to present a stronger final composition. The scene reminds me of the Tartar Steppe desert within Dino Buzzati’s novel; which was a sparse, desolate, open, isolated, wilderness that drew you in with its mystery and magic. The yellowy sky and dark silhouetted mountains present a strong backdrop only broken by the bare trunks of a few trees.
We now come to my favourite two pieces by Thomson: Northern Lights and Yellow Sunset. There are some painters who deal with the play of light as the most graceful thing that exists. Thomson does this by:
Weaving moonbeams with his fancy (W. Somerset Maugham), Northern Lights has an ethereal beauty due to the dark blues of the landscape shrouded in shadows and the chill of the starry night sky, separated by a spectacular green aurora borealis. Yellow Sunset in contrast fills you with a feeling of warmth, the enticing yellows dominating a third of the composition, with a fantastic silhouetted landscape covering the rest.
The final three pieces (Winter in the Woods, Path Behind Mount Lodge and Winter Thaw in the Woods) from Thomson have a related theme; they are all tight compositions of woodland. They give you an instant feeling of being lost in deep winter within the Canadian woodland. He uses the contrast of light and dark majestically to portray the winter sunlight and the long shadows. Tom Thomson was in the ideal frame of mind for an artist, his objective was not to make art, but to be in the wondrous state that made art inevitable!
(The Group of Seven seated around a table at the Arts & Letters Club, Toronto, c. 1920)MacDonald has a stronger intensity of colour in his sketches and actually steps down the palette for the final canvas of one of his best pieces The Beaver Dam. I actually prefer the colours used and the more haphazardly daubed oil work in the sketch. Maybe he was conscious of not wanting to emulate Thomson too closely. Although I preferred the more abstract Beaver Dam, his painting in Algoma Falls, Montreal River is exquisite with its background detail. It is another skyless image; that prompted me to do a quick re-examination of the Group’s work, which allowed me to notice that the sky is either absent from compositions or forms an elaborate patchwork quilt of colours. At no point is it in frame and plain like in many present day landscapes.
Carmichael in my opinion was more polished than MacDonald, his colour palette was warmer and he used his foreground detail to greater effect. Although the foreground in October Gold contrasts with the Harris-esk abstraction of the background, it is a powerful piece. The depth of the background could have been achieved more successfully had he gradually toned it down but its almost cartoon feeling achieves it in a different way. But by far my favourite piece of Carmichael’s is Grace Lake, with its outstanding composition and use of central detail to hold your gaze.
On viewing Jackson’s First Snow, Algoma I was struck by how hard the silhouetted trees are to pick out. They are like the figures in an old tapestry; they do not separate themselves from the background, and at a distance seem to lose their pattern, so that you end up with a small but pleasing patch of colour on the overall canvas. Night, Pine Island is a much improved piece of work, although to me it is a little too symmetrical and resembles a melted face viewed from chin up. Some of my favourite paintings in the collection were produced by Jackson 6yrs + after First Snow. Winter, Quebec and Le Calvaire or Wayside Cross, Saint-Urbain are fantastic works and remind me of the paintings by Flemish renaissance painter Bruegel the Elder. His A Quebec Farm held me spellbound by the use of the contours of the field to lead you to the farmhouse and the way the sky holds you there.
(The Fire Ranger, 1921, oil on canvas, 123 x 153.2 cm)
Lismer’s Evening Silhouette is striking and reminds me of the artwork on an animated film. The use of the cloud formation to sweep the eye from top left to the right and into the centre via the tree line is sublime to the senses.
Varley’s Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay is a wind-swept gem transporting the viewer into the tumultuous grasp of nature. He drops this fierce element for his Autumn Prelude, which is softer and calming, and together the two senses tease and tantalise.
(Frederick Horsman Varley, Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay, 1921 Oil on canvas, 132.6 x 162.8 cm)
There is a distinct difference in Harris’s earlier works and his Mountain Mad phase (the final room within the exhibition). His later work seems to have been completed with the directness of a fanatic and the ferocity of an apostle. I imagine Harris to have been an affluent, extroverted, single-minded risk taker. This was illustrated by him following Mondrian in the 1930s by going abstract, stripping down forms to spiritual power (becoming a theosophist). The final room in the exhibition can only be described as magnificent, sublime and infinite to the senses.
Beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist seeks to fashion out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his own soul (this is a subject I have been exploring on my blog recently). To fully recognise it, you must repeat the adventure like Julian Beecroft did for his great article on the Guardian website.
(Isolation Peak, 1930, 106.7 x 127 cm)
All the pieces within the final room are outstanding Icebergs, Davis Strait, Untitled Mountain Landscape, Lake Superior, Isolation Peak and Mount Lefroy. All have been broken down to their basic constituent elements through use of strong compartmentalised colours and smooth lines. They are calming, striking and present the viewer with a glimpse of contentment for the time they spend in their company. They remind me of sumptuous scenes from the new wave of computer-animated films, withUntitled Mountain Landscape resembling a face basking in the sun.
In summary the Group effectively taught Canadian’s how to see their country in a new way.
‘Artistic expression is a spirit not a method. A pursuit , not a settled goal, an instinct, not a body of rules.’ (foreword to their catalogue for the second exhibition)
Viewing this collection is like being in a constant circadian cycle – that magical dream state between wakefulness and deep sleep! After imbibing all the wonderful imagery within the exhibition and my subsequent research, I suggest to you that Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven took life as it came; drank liquid elixir from the cup of their collective passion and lost themselves in their al fresco brush strokes. They consciously extricated themselves from the humdrum of society, transporting themselves into the vast unchartered frontiers of the Canadian wilderness, where Mother Nature rules with an iron fist hidden inside a silk glove.
‘Man’s desire for the approval of his fellows is so strong, his dread of their censure so violent, that himself has brought his enemy within his gates; and it keeps watch over him, vigilant always in the interests of it’s master to crush any half formed desire to break away from the herd’ (W. Somerset Maugham)
The Group blazed their own trails and were not driven by the desire for approval from the art establishment. The Tao Te Ching states that you will not attain personal contentment, unless you are happy in the present and desire nothing. Perhaps this is the reason why the group were able to express themselves so vividly as a collective, because they were vibrating at the same frequency as mother nature, which allowed them to connect with the Canadian wilderness like no other before or after. Harris confirms this notion in the following quote:
‘We had commenced our great adventure. We lived in a continuous blaze of enthusiasm…. Above all we loved our country and loved exploring and painting it’
The Rage Against the Machine, Citizen Smith (power to the people), far-side cartoon (where the sheep stands upright and says ‘Wait a minute… we don’t have to be just sheep’), non-conformist in me feels a deep affinity with the Group. The Group are kindred spirits from a bygone era, Canadian rebel brothers from other mothers.
(Tom Thomson, The West Wind, 1917, Oil on canvas, 120.7 x 137.2 cm)
Experts are entrenched within their rivers of thinking and can find it difficult to embrace new innovative thoughts and techniques. This may suggest why the Group’s works received bad press in Canada. Perhaps over exposure to the images also allowed the Canadian Society to ultimately fathom the works of art…
‘A book lives, as long as it is unfathomed. Once it is fathomed, once it is known and it’s meaning established, it is dead’ (D.H Lawrence)
…while in the UK they were, and still are, just paintings embraced for their mystery and magic – the UK is so far removed from this Canadian wilderness we will never fathom out the relationships these painter had with the landscape! Visitors to Dulwich Picture Gallery are applauding the artwork once again, in the UK they will never die.
Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven is at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 8 January 2012.
The cathartic musings of a CRE8IV mind, living at the EDGE of chaos.