Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven


I know absolutely nothing about art, technically. History, brush strokes, artists, styles, I’m learning, but what I do know is far outweighed than by what I do not – and usually acquired incidentally, here and there. And I have to admit, I’m not super interested in actively learning much more. Like that old saying goes, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like”. Being an outdoors person, I’m obviously drawn to a certain subject matter. Being human, I read more into the paint brushed on the canvas. Being a unique human outdoors person, I might read into things differently than someone else might. Just like everyone else.

The Jack Pine (1916-17) and The West Wind (1917)

The Jack Pine (1916-17) and The West Wind (1917) – in the same room!

You gotta go

What I do know is that there is an exhibit going on right now at the McMichael Gallery that is a must see for any art or outdoor person. Sadly, it’s only on until January 6th, 2013. “Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven” is a sort of a “best of” The Group’s work, including many pieces that are normally stored in different galleries and private collections throughout the country. That’s the most important reason to go: In order to see the same paintings, it would cost a lot of gas and travel time, not to mention that some in the private collections will never be shown again (to you and me, at least). It was originally put together for exhibition in London, England, then traveled to Norway and the Netherlands. Because of the success abroad, they decided to extend the exhibit back here at home.

If you’ve never seen these iconic paintings in real life, then you should definitely go. I cannot explain just how much better seeing them in person is compared to in print. Stand in front of one and you take in everything the artist intended. For example, you’d be surprised how much the texture of the paint adds to the depth of the painting – which is in perfect keeping with the unique and genius style of The Group of Seven. If that doesn’t convince you, think standing in front of “The Jack Pine” (1916-1917) – which is cool enough on it’s own, mind you – then turn around and see “The West Wind” (1917) on the opposite wall. In fact, when the exhibit first opened in London, it was the first time ever that the two paintings hung on the same wall. With one normally housed in Ottawa, the other in Toronto, you’re saving yourself at least 4 hours and 43 minutes. Extra bonus reason to go: You can even see the original sketch for The Jack Pine.

The original sketch for the Jack Pine - not normally on display.

The original sketch for the Jack Pine – not normally on display.

So what’s so important about seeing some paintings?

As many of you know, I have a friend who is an artist that comes with me on some of my portaging trips. His name is Kam Nabi and his work is awesome. Some of his work is extra special for me because I took him out there to paint it, but I had worried it might not have the same impact on others. I’ve been told by many not to worry. What I love about his work is similar to why I feel such a connection to the Group of Seven works: because of how much I love their subjects. I’ve been there and they’re expressing the beauty that not only do you see but what you feel. (Maybe I’ve said that before.) The Group of Seven’s founding goal was to prove that our lands were beautiful and needed painting, that their unique style required a distinct landscape, and that that rugged land inspired their wild style (or maybe it’s the reverse). I really feel Kam accomplishes this as well, but of course I can’t be completely unsure I’m not influenced by my connection with his work. Then again, maybe that’s the point. Entirely.

If you’re a fan of the Canadian landscape, you have a connection the Group of Seven paintings – and vice-versa – even if you don’t know it yet.

Which do you prefer, Landscapes or Art? … What?

Last year, I visited the McMichael gallery when Roy MacGregor gave a chat about his book, and they were showing the Tom Thomson documentary The West Wind. So they had all their big-wigs out and about. I got a chance to speak with the new curator, and we talked about the painting and all that. (It started out by talking about how she broken up the “Thomson Room” and the flack she received for it, on which I totally support her… but that’s another conversation.) It’s clear she’s an avid art historian and expert. But what shook me was when she admitted to me that she had not only never been to any of the painting locations, but had never even been camping (and of course in keeping with my character I immediately offered to take her). It became obvious to me that there’s a huge chasm that separates fans of their work. On the one hand you have fans of the arts and on the other fans of the subject. And we see things very differently. No right or wrong, just different – I mean that, because it’s about to seem like I’m being judge-y, which is not my intention.

For starters, they talk about technique, influences and all that, but mention the outdoors – the subject – almost as an aside. People like me want to see how an artist captures the spirit of our outdoors. This is why those tours they give seem less interesting to “outdoor” people (like me) because they’re oriented towards the “art” people. (My offer to take the curator camping is still on the table. What an experience that would be. I’d love to see how an art appreciator would view some of the sites of Group of Seven paintings for the first time and hear their thoughts. Would the paintings change for them? Would they feel a connection to the painting sites?)

Gratuitous plug for my artist friend Kam Nabi's work.

Gratuitous plug for my artist friend, Kam Nabi‘s work.

Like a fly on a wall

The best tour I ever took at the gallery was when the Waddington’s were presenting. (They’re the couple that have found hundreds of actual Group of Seven Painting sites.) I invited Kam and we watched the presentation (always great, by the way). Next they offered a tour of the gallery, which I was almost going to skip out on, choosing to take Kam through the gallery to get his perspective on things without the tour getting in the way (he had never been, strangely enough). I was hoping to let the tour go on ahead, but Jim and Sue Waddington joined in on the group. Kam, Jim and I hung out at the back and I introduced Jim to Kam, mentioning he was an artist, with a similar style and subject matter. (Kam corrected me by the way, suggesting no one can do what the Group of Seven did. Whatever.) Then the absolute best thing happened. I got the very special opportunity to be in on their conversation as we walked through the gallery. Each of them, based on their own expertise, offered up whispered snippets of information, stories and perspective on the paintings as the tour-guide took us through the gallery. What an experience!

Humble-brag?

The last time I was there, I took my sister, niece and nephew to the Painting Canada exhibit. Knowing they had never been, I offered up bits and pieces of information, history, etc. My sister started laughing at me after a while, which I at first mistook as her making fun of my enthusiasm. Turns out, she was actually “fact checking” me. As we would make our way through, I’d say something, then she’d stop to read one of the informational signs posted, which included most of what I had just said. When we got to the car she had the kids thank me for such a unique experience to be able to tour the place with me. She swore two older ladies were purposely following us for the same reason. I took that as a great compliment of course, but it gave me an idea. What I’d love to do is to give people tours of that place from an outdoor person’s perspective, as opposed to the “art person”. Perhaps I should approach McMichael about that.

Or maybe just hang out there giving impromptu tours, telling my stories and showing my favourite paintings. Hopefully more people find it more interesting than creepy, especially when they find out I’m not working for the gallery.

Arthur Lismer and Tom Thomson in Algonquin Park

Arthur Lismer and Tom Thomson in Algonquin Park

So which is your favourite Group of Seven Painting? (… or, the other conversion I mentioned earlier.)

It’s too hard to pick a favourite Group of Seven painting – or even an artist for that matter.  But I can tell you the painting that I was most drawn to, that seemed to have the most affect on me: “Thomson’s campsite” by Arthur Lismer. Actually, I’m not sure that’s the title, as I’m always forgetting it for some reason. This is probably the one painting of which I would make room for a print in the very limited space on my walls, but sadly because it’s such an obscure little painting (actually a sketch), they don’t have it available. I’ve looked, and I don’t know if they would or how much it would cost to do so.

Though I obviously like the painting on its own, it also speaks to me for a lot of reasons, especially the subject matter. What’s neat is that Lismer (the artist) is painting Thomson, or at least his campsite, so in a way it’s a 2-for-1 Group of Seven connection, painted on one of their treks into Algonquin Park together. One more the technical artist, the other more avid an outdoorsmen, each learning from the other, each coming into their own in both pursuits, in their own style. (Dear Mrs. Cruikshanks: I promise never to tell anyone you taught me sentence structure in the fifth grade.)

On another note, normally – generally – I’m drawn first to works by Thomson, then to Jackson and Carmichael. Their work speaks to me most. In style, sure, but also because of their legendary willingness to venture into the furthest areas to capture their subject (and I’m sure the style is influenced by the venturing, but definitely the way in which I see a piece). Next comes Varley (though not sure why, exactly, considering he’d move away from landscapes) and Harris. Often forgotten (to me) is Lismer and MacDonald. I’m not trying to rank or show preference, simply mentioning to which artist’s work I’m generally drawn. There are many exceptions, including a few by Johnson. (You thought I lost count, didn’t you?) I bring it up because, with this in mind, to say that my “favourite” Group of Seven painting was done by Lismer seems inconsistent. But there you go.

That’s my personal, unique, human outdoors person’s perspective, fully biased, reading into things the only way I know how.

What’s your favourite Group of Seven painting?

Comments

3 Responses to “Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven”
  1. Fiona says:

    You…. guiding people thru a gallery… talking about art and the outdoors?! Hmmph! Well… I (for one) would totally take that tour, Preston! In a heart beat!!!

  2. Paul Kirtley says:

    Hi Preston,

    Great blog. I absolutely loved this exhibition when it showed in the UK last year.

    It was a real treat to see these paintings – a real treat to see them all together in one place and a real treat for them to be exhibited in our own back-yard.

    I did a write-up too. Here’s the link

    http://frontierbushcraft.com/2012/01/03/tom-thomsons-art-and-the-canadian-wilderness/

    The two paintings I included in my blog were my favourites. In The West Wind, you can almost feel the stiff breeze on your face as you look out towards the water. Winter Thaw In The Woods is brilliant. He gets the light, tone and shades perfect, even though much of it – particularly the snow – is achieved simple strokes of colour.

    Definitely go see this if you have the chance.

    Warm regards,

    Paul

  3. Preston says:

    Thanks Paul. Loved your write up as well. You’re right. Tom Thomson is amazing at capturing snow and the mood when standing among it. Particularly his work in his last spring is – well, you said it best – brilliant.

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