The Argument: the Group of Seven has finally been set free (with help from art-obsessed London)
As a native Torontonian who has spent the better part of the past decade living in London, England, I get two questions on visits home: 1) Isn’t it expensive there? And 2) What do they think of us?
The answer to the first is, it isn’t too bad if you factor in cheap booze and avoid taking taxis. As for what the British think of us, the answer is, they don’t.
Of our many collective insecurities, the enduring Canadian obsession with how other cultures view us is by far the most cringingly parochial and self-defeating. And, as they like to say in London, it really gets on my tits. We’re like the anxious party guests sweating silently in the corner. Our palpable desperation to be liked precludes the very thing we want most, which is serious attention and respect from places more populated and historied than our own.
You can understand, then, the extreme trepidation with which I approached Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, an exhibit at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London. Yes, I was glad the Group of Seven had finally commanded a large-scale show in a major European gallery—and it is, without question, the group’s most important international exhibition to date. At the same time, I was determined not to be reduced to a state of slathering patriotic gratitude by the mere fact of its existence.
I took along an art-loving English friend, someone who knew nothing about the Group’s work. I did my best to act nonchalant as he and the crowd of South Londoners studied Tom Thomson’s iconic Jack Pine, a painting so emblazoned on Canada’s national psyche I wasn’t sure whether to shrug or burst into homesick tears at the sight of it—in the end, I did both. My friend’s reaction to the exhibition was suitably English. “How lovely,” he said. And then, about 10 minutes later: “Rather splendid.” And finally: “There aren’t many people in them, are there? Turner usually puts in a boat or a farmer somewhere.”
This is true—there aren’t many people in Group of Seven paintings. That’s because the vast and cruel enormity of the landscape is the whole point. (I explained this to my English friend, who, being English, was unmoved.)
Why has it taken so long for the Group to get its international due? At home, of course, Thomson and company rank as national treasures somewhere between Margaret Atwood’s Twitter feed and Peter Gzowski’s ashtray. Their paintings fetch astounding prices at domestic auctions and have inspired a new generation of landscape impressionists—most notably Peter Doig, a painter who was born in Scotland but spent much of his childhood on a farm in Grafton, Ontario, a place reflected in much of his early work.
Despite our worship of the Group, the international art world has essentially the same awareness of them as my English friend. The director of the Dulwich gallery, Ian Dejardin, admitted that, prior to stumbling across a cache of old books about the Group of Seven, he’d never heard of them. “No one ever told me there were any painters at all in Canada, ever,” he said.
The Group’s obscurity abroad prompts a lot of agonized questioning in their native land as to whether they were objectively any good or just a bunch of foliage-obsessed proto-hippie nationalists. Granted, some members of the Group spent decades basking in the warm glow of sacred cow–dom—after the initial breakout in the 1920s, their controversial status and boundary-pushing aesthetic quickly waned—but by any standard, they were painters in command of their craft. At the top of their game, the work is sublime.
Once Dejardin discovered the Group, he became obsessed with the idea of putting together an exhibition devoted to Canadian landscape painting. But it wasn’t until late 2008 that the opportunity presented itself. The catalyst was a meeting he had with the Canadian billionaire and art patron David Thomson (no relation to Tom) at the London storage space for the Thomson family’s sizable private collection. While waiting for Thomson, Dejardin found himself riveted by a hot-off-the-presses catalogue for the AGO’s Thomson Collection, which includes some Group of Seven work. Thomson overheard Dejardin raving to some colleagues about The Rapids, a 1917 oil sketch by Tom Thomson, and offered to introduce him to key collectors. (In addition to loans from the Thomson family and major galleries, the show includes pieces from the renowned private stashes of notable Torontonians like Ash Prakash.)
Critical reception of the Dulwich show has been positive, if not widespread. It received a glowing mention in The Independent, and the London Evening Standard’s art critic Brian Sewell declared, “Above all elements Canadian, these are painters who knew how to handle paint and colour, and how to turn a small sketch executed on the spot into a high-pitched studio masterpiece.”
Seen outside Canada, these landscapes—so specifically representative to me of home—could be from any number of places. Varley’s Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay evokes the grim majesty of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. The quiet bleakness of Jackson’s First Snow, Algoma brings to mind the hardscrabble hills of the Welsh countryside. MacDonald’s Falls, Montreal River could be a snapshot of rural Sweden or Norway.
This is not to say the paintings seem generic or bland—on the contrary, they are all the more dazzling when seen outside of Canada, in a venue like the Dulwich, England’s first purpose-built public art gallery, one filled with work by Van Dyk, Watteau, Rembrandt and Rubens.
Once you divest the Group of Seven of the baggage of being National Symbols of Canadian Culture, a more universal beauty emerges, one that’s less concerned with depicting our country than with the awesome grandeur of the earth itself. In this sense, the Dulwich hasn’t just raised the Group of Seven’s international profile—it has finally set them free.
Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and The Group of Seven
to Jan. 8
Dulwich Picture Gallery (London, England)