Tuesday, September 7, 2010

More on the Group of Seven

From 1920 to 1931, the post-impressionistic Group of Seven rode a queer, largely self-generated wave of nationalism to become Canadian icons. They were widely derided as iconoclasts in their day, as future icons often are, but now their history is taught in the country’s art schools, and in junior-school art classes by way of giving kids something to be proud about.
But if you don’t know the real story, they’re a dusty lot. The average Canadian will have heard about them, and knows they’re painters, but thinks they’re something to do with either the Inuits or the Fathers of Confederation, those statesmen who dragged the pieces of the nation together 40 years before the Group of Seven existed. See the rest.

They say Thomas John Thomson was born on August 5, 1877, “near” Claremont, Ontario, although I’m not sure what the “near” means. Claremont’s pretty small already. At any rate he was only a baby when the family moved to “near” Leith, which really is “near” Owen Sound, hard by Georgian Bay.

Thomson failed to get into the army to fight in the Boer War and instead apprenticed as a machinist, then moved to Seattle, where his brother was at business college, and became proficient in design and lettering and worked in photo-engraving and commercial art for various local firms.

In 1907 Thomson joined Grip, where head designer JEH MacDonald gave him a boost and he and his would-be-painter co-workers began their weekend sketching trips to the countryside around Toronto.

Thomson had had early training as a naturalist, so in 1912 he knew what to look for when he made his first forays into the “far north”, to the Mississagi Forest Reserve near Sudbury and to Algonquin Park.

He did all kinds of sketches in oil on eight-by-10-inch birch panels specially made to fit into portable boxes, then when he got back to the studio he tried (not always successfully) to recapture the magic on a larger scale. A year later the provincial government bought his first major canvas, “Northern River”, seen here, and McCallum’s largesse got him painting full-time and bunking with AY Jackson.

There’s something I love about Thomson more than the others that has nothing to do with the mystique that grew up around him. At the McMichael, a security guard had to tell me to back off from his paintings, because I really wanted to get very close and peer at the grooves in the thick oil paint in his tiny, perfect pictures.

These are astonishing little inventions, slathered on a six-by-eight-inch board out in the forest somewhere or up on a hill in the angled sun. The cerulean of a tree trunk’s shadow stretching across the ivory white snow is a carefully isolated line – blue doesn’t touch white, and there might even be a hair’s breadth of board visible between the toothpaste rivulets of paint. The hues don’t mingle, they’re in lonely contrast. There’s a lot of this going on in the Group’s paintings, though nowhere more wondrously than in those of Tom Thomson.

The men who would become the Group of Seven sat around at the Arts and Letters Club over stew and sandwiches talking shop and politics, and the topics inevitably melded into stirring appeals for a National Art of Canada. Somewhere in that rough and tumble landscape they’d seen up north, they agreed, was the inspiration for a movement equal to that of France’s impressionism.
by Paul Dorsey

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