Friday, October 21, 2011

The Jack Pine

Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven is another superb exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, following others I've described on this blog: Salvator Rosa, Paul Nash, Adam Elsheimer.  Reviewers (like Brian Sewell) will inevitably have to provide some background information on the Group of Seven, whose work has not often been seen in the UK.  In Canada, as Ian A. C. Dejardin says in the catalogue, their work has been endlessly discussed 'to the point of exhaustion.  Yet their visual legacy remains supremely powerful: many Canadians, raised with reproductions of the Group of Seven's most famous paintings on their classroom walls, still see their own country through the Group's eyes ... Few of us in Europe could point more than vaguely on a map to any of the locations these artists depicted.  These are painted woods, trees, lakes and mountains only.  Nonetheless, non-Canadians should be aware: we are on holy ground.'  As I know some readers of this blog are Canadian (see comments on my last post...) I'd better admit that a lot of these paintings were completely new to me.  

Tom Thomson in Algonquin Provincial Park, 1914-16
Source (all images here): Wikimedia Commons 

At the start of the exhibition, there is a quotation from Fred Housser, who wrote the first book about the Group of Seven in 1926: "This task [of expressing the spirit of the Canadian landscape in paint] demands a new type of artist; one who divests himself of the velvet coat and flowing tie of his caste, puts on the outfit of the bushwacker and prospector; closes with his environment; paddles, portages and makes camp; sleeps in the out-of-doors under the stars; climbs mountains with his sketch box on his back."  The idea of an artist who 'closes with the environment' reminds me of recent British land artists who have walked in Algonquin Park and other landscapes explored by the Group of Seven.

When Tom Thomson died in 1917, his memorial described him as 'artist woodsman and guide'.  Photographs show him fishing and canoeing; one of these was the basis for Peter Doig's White Canoe (1992) (see also my earlier post on Doig's Figure in a Mountain Landscape paintings).  However, as Dejardin points out in the catalogue, Thomson was actually rather a snappy dresser when out and about in Toronto and he made a point of adding some expensive cobalt blue to the marine grey used in painting his canoe.  In 1919 the wealthiest of the group, Lawren Harris, had a boxcar fitted out as a travelling studio for a trip north on the Algoma Central Railway.  It sounds more comfortable than the floating studios of the Impressionists, but this didn't detain some of the artists: as A. Y. Jackson observed, sitting in the boxcar, 'the other chaps are all out sketching under umbrellas.  They are all trying to turn out four a day and can't stop if it rains.'

 Tom Thomson, The Jack Pine, 1916

Tom Thomson's most famous paintings, The Jack Pine and The West Wind, are shown alongside their original sketches in the exhibition's first room.  Each is a majestic landscape visible behind the drooping form of a pine tree, its branches seemingly surrounded by a faint aura.  Pine trees seem to have inspired poets and artists all over the world so it seems surprising in retrospect that (according to Housser) the Canadian artistic establishment, unable to see beyond European and Hudson River landscape visions, considered their native Jack Pine trees unpaintable before Thomson came along.  There is a Pine Island in Georgian Bay (part of Lake Huron) and this exhibition includes two 1914 sketches of it by Thomson and a night scene by Jackson, where the trees stand over a pool of deep blue in which you can see the reflections of stars.
Six of the Group of Seven, plus their friend Barker Fairley, in 1920
From left to right: Frederick Varley, A. Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris,
Fairley, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, and J. E. H. MacDonald.

In 1925 a critic noted that the Group had been 'tree mad', but also, successively, 'lake-lunatic, river-ridden, birch-bedlamed, aspen addled, and rock-cracked.  This year they are mountain mad.'  The exhibition's room of mountain views includes Frederick Varley's Hodleresque The Cloud, Red Mountain (1927-8) and Lawren Harris's stylised, almost art deco Mt Lefroy (1930), although I preferred the more direct, less abstract approach of J. E. H. MacDonald, especially a view of a small turquoise lake in the gathering snow with the Japanese-sounding title, Mountain Solitude (Lake Oesa) (1932).  The final room collects more of Harris's Theosophically-inspired landscapes from the late twenties - radically simplified mountains and ice bergs under grey skies, sometimes parted with shafts of light, reflecting his search for those 'moments in the North when the outward aspect of nature becomes for a while full luminous to her informing spirit - and man, nature and spirit are one.'


Gardener in the Distance said...

These artists and their work are all new to me, and I'm in awe. The sincerity, commitment and closeness to nature are hugely inspirational. Thankyou, Plinius, I'm wanting to find out more.

The Clever Pup said...

As a woman who grew up on Georgian Bay, I'm glad you like them. Good article.

Plinius said...

These paintings will be new to a lot of people in Britain. There has never been an exhibition of the Group of Seven painters here before. I just looked through the catalogue: there are 124 paintings in it and every single one is in a Canadian or private collection.

I didn't talk here much about individual paintings because you really need to know them already or be able to see them. For example, they have a whole wall of Tom Thomson's wonderfully vivid oil sketches - 'Ragged Oaks', 'Northern Lights', 'Winter Thaw in the Woods', 'Spring in Algonquin Park'... There's a letter from MacDonald to Jackson in 1914 where he says "Tom is doing some exciting stuff" and you can see why the other artists were so impressed with the progress he was making.