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The Group of Seven and the Public Mind
When I lived in Ottawa in the 1970s, I used to enjoy passing lazy afternoons at the National Gallery looking at the pictures. I remember how surprised I was when I first encountered the Group of Seven collection. These paintings were completely familiar—I’d seen them in schoolbooks and on calendars, posters, t-shirts, everywhere—yet at the same time they were completely unexpected. I realized that I had never really seen them before. These were not the flat, insipid, washed-out images of the reproduction factories. Instead they were luminous and bright and spirited. In a word, they were beautiful—which was not a word I had thought to associate with the Group of Seven before.
Most people who see the G7 for the first time in person must experience similar sensations of discovery and recognition. Our sense of them has been so attenuated over the years by repeated exposure to wholesale reproduction—Robert Fulford has called them "our national wallpaper"—that only an encounter with the real thing can rehabilitate it. Such an encounter becomes more probable this year because the National Gallery has mounted a major exhibition to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Group’s formation. The show opened in Ottawa last October and travels to Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver throughout 1996. It is supplemented by a handsome book-cum-catalogue, The Group of Seven: Art for a Nation, by curator Charles Hill.
More recently the myth of the misunderstood modernists has been exposed for the half-truth it always was. The G7, it turns out, was not the victim of malign critics suffering from a colonial mentality. In fact, they won success almost immediately. They had wealthy patrons, including the National Gallery; most of the reviews of their shows were encouraging; they were chosen to represent Canada in major exhibitions abroad. Within a decade of its formation the Group was being hailed as Canada’s "national school" of painters.
In which case the more appropriate question becomes: Why? Why did Canadians embrace the Group so easily? The answer is that for all their radical rhetoric, the G7 was essentially conservative. They gave Canadian art lovers a chance to dabble in what they thought was modernism while remaining comfortably anti-modern at the same time. In other words, the G7 are the Red Tories, the Progressive Conservatives, of Canadian art, taking new ideas and dressing them down to suit the stodgy cultural environment in which they found themselves.
The Group of Seven began to coalesce in the years leading up to World War One. Appropriately enough, the prehistory of the Group begins with a painting. In 1911, A. Y. Jackson, a young Montreal painter, exhibited a canvas called At the Edge of the Maple Wood at the annual showing of the Ontario Society of Artists in Toronto. The painting depicted a familiar sugaring-off scene in rural Quebec, but its vigorous colour and texture made a strong impression on several painters who saw it in Toronto. Together these artists were just beginning to articulate a new approach to interpreting the Canadian landscape. The reclusive genius Tom Thomson, working as a photo-engraver with the commercial art firm Grip Ltd., later said that Maple Wood opened his eyes to the Canadian landscape. Thomson’s colleagues at Grip, J. E. H. MacDonald and Arthur Lismer, both praised its fresh approach to a familiar subject. "Jackson’s contribution was the beginning of a kinship and a movement in Canada," Lismer said. Lawren Harris wrote later that "it stood out from all the other paintings as an authentic, new expression."
The Edge of the Maple Wood was to Canadian art what Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe or Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was to French art," Harold Town has written. "Its plangent colour and effortless virtuosity, its sense of absolute Canadian place, galvanized a grumble of dissatisfaction into the tumble of revolt."
The sale of the painting occurred at a crucial moment for A. Y. Jackson, who had been contemplating a life in exile south of the border. Instead, he was persuaded by Harris to visit Toronto first, which he did in May 1913. Immediately he was swept up in the energy of the new movement of artists centred on the Arts and Letters Club. He spent that summer and fall sketching on Georgian Bay where he met James MacCallum, a Toronto ophthalmologist and art enthusiast who was becoming the patron of the new movement. MacCallum invited Jackson to use his comfortable cottage on Go Home Bay, then offered to pay all of his expenses if Jackson, instead of going to the States, remained in Toronto.
In Toronto Jackson, who was then thirty-one years old, found a group of artists who were ardently committed to an idea: the idea of painting Canada. "We lived in a continuous blaze of enthusiasm," Lawren Harris wrote. "We were at times very serious and concerned, at other times, hilarious and carefree. Above all, we loved this country, and loved exploring and painting it." When the Studio Building opened on Severn Street near Bloor and Yonge early in 1914, it became the clubhouse for the new movement. Several of the commercial artists from Grip worked at the building. One of them, Fred Varley, wrote his sister that "we are all working to one big end. We are endeavouring to knock out of us all of the preconceived ideas, emptying ourselves of everything except that nature is here in all its greatness, and we are here to gather it and understand it if only we will be clean enough, healthy enough, and humble enough to go to it willing to be taught."
"Every day was an adventure," Jackson recalled of this period. He shared a space with Thomson, another of Dr. MacCallum’s protégés, and the two artists became friends. They painted together, went to the movies together, conspired to be famous together and began making sketching trips together to the bush country of Algonquin Park north of Toronto. Thomson had discovered this wilderness setting in the spring of 1912 and had spent the summer of 1913 camping out in the park at Canoe Lake. The following year two of Thomson’s colleagues from Grip joined them: Fred Varley and Arthur Lismer. "The country is a revelation to me and completely bowled me over at first," Varley confided in a letter. Lismer was equally affected. "The first night spent in the north and the thrilling days after were turning points in my life," he wrote. A definite Algonquin School of painting was taking shape.
At this early stage Thomson provided the spark of inspiration. His style, with its audacious use of vivid colour and blunt brush strokes, seemed to embody the raw energy of the northern landscape. All the better that he was self-taught and completely ignorant of modern painting. The others considered him the prototype of what the new Canadian artist should be: an untutored genius, whose art sprang from an intuitive understanding of the land. They all came from cities, but Thomson was a country boy, raised on a farm near Georgian Bay where he learned to handle a paddle, a hunting rifle and a fishing rod with equal facility. His familiarity with the outdoors impressed his clumsier, less robust painting companions.
Things were different when winter forced Thomson out of the woods back to Toronto, where he lived like a fish out of water. Low on funds, he camped out in a shack behind the Studio Building, where he lived with a minimum of creature comfort, staying in all day, venturing out at night to tramp the snow-filled ravines of the Don Valley on snowshoes. It was here that he completed some of the most famous paintings in Canadian history, paintings such as The West Wind and The Jack Pine, paintings which have become iconic images by which Canadians recognize themselves.
While his death left Thomson’s colleagues profoundly saddened, it seemed to stiffen their resolve to continue along the path they had chosen. World War One derailed the new movement temporarily, but it did not fundamentally alter its direction. Unlike their European counterparts, thrust by the spiritual crisis of the war into nihilistic experimentation, most evident in Dada and Surrealism, the Canadians regrouped in Toronto more determined than ever to paint the native landscape.
There is no account by any of the participants of the decisive meeting at Lawren Harris’s house which led to the formation of the Group of Seven in mid-March 192o. The name was probably borrowed from similar groups which existed in New York (The Eight, or Ashcan School, organized the sensational Armory Show of 1913) and Berlin. The first use of the name was in a letter dated March 21 from Arthur Lismer to Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery in Ottawa. "Harris, Jackson, MacD[onald], Johnston, [Franklin] Carmichael, Varley and myself," Lismer ticked off the names of the founding members. "‘Group of Seven’ is the idea. There is to be no feeling of secession or antagonism in any way, but we hope to get a show together that will demonstrate the ‘spirit’ of painting in Canada." There was nothing like a formal vote or a decision to incorporate. The Group of Seven was a movement, not an organization. What bound the artists together was not membership in an exclusive club but a shared commitment to certain ideas about painting.
The first exhibition by the G7 opened at the Art Gallery of Toronto, May 7, 192o. Subsequently the Group and its supporters invented the legend that the new movement was besieged by adverse reviews and viciously negative criticism. According to Lawren Harris, they were "attacked from all sides." The initial exhibition created "an uproar," claimed Jackson many years later. "There was plenty of adverse criticism, little of it intelligent." In fact the response was favourable, if less enthusiastic than the painters had hoped for. Only about 100 people a day came to see the show, but for the most part critics were polite. The National Gallery purchased three of the canvases and helped to organize a smaller touring exhibition in the United States. The 192o show did not receive the critical mugging which its participants claimed it did.
This should come as no surprise. Members of the G7, while they liked to see themselves as young rebels, were actually all established painters who by 1920 had been part of the Toronto art scene for a decade or more. MacDonald, the eldest, was forty-seven years old; he had been showing his paintings since before the war. So had Harris, Jackson and Lismer, all of whom were approaching middle age. Both the Ontario government and the National Gallery had purchased their work. Several of the Group made their living as commercial artists and their illustrations appeared in such mainstream magazines as Maclean’s and Canadian Magazine. Wealthy patrons were expressing interest. Still, despite all this evidence of support, the Group insisted throughout its life, and for many years after, that critical opinion was overwhelmingly against it.
The Group’s persecution complex began developing back before the war. It took human shape in the portly figure of Toronto critic Hector Charlesworth, contributor to Saturday Night and a fixture on the city’s art scene. While most reviewers approved, or at least tolerated, the Algonquin painters’ riotous landscapes, Charlesworth conceived an enduring dislike for them which he expressed with vehemence. His first run-in with a future Group member occurred in 1916 when J. E. H. MacDonald exhibited several paintings at the annual Ontario Society of Artists show. "MacDonald certainly does throw his paint pots in the public’s face," Charlesworth wrote. He went on to say that MacDonald’s "crude" depictions of the Shield country could more aptly be titled "Hungarian Goulash and Drunkard’s Stomach." MacDonald responded in a letter to the Globe newspaper in which he berated Charlesworth’s ignorance and superficiality, and accused him of libel.
This skirmish has become one of the most celebrated incidents in Canadian art history, obscuring the fact that the Algonquin work actually received a pretty favourable reception. Charlesworth himself shied away from further confrontation for several years. He did not review the Group’s inaugural show in 1920, nor did he take much notice of the flurry of exhibitions which followed over the next two years. But as public acceptance of the Group’s work increased, he could not keep silent, bursting back into print in 1922 with an attack on the National Gallery for what he thought was its excessive patronage of the Group, "those theatrical scene painters." Charlesworth would never be reconciled to the new movement. He was particularly irritated by its claim to be the first painters to develop a distinctively "Canadian" approach to their art. He saw himself as the defender of an earlier generation of artists who were just as committed to "independent expression" as the Group, but got no credit for it. When British critics also praised the Group’s work following a large exhibition of Canadian paintings in Wembley, England, in the spring of 1924, Charlesworth became even angrier. He had already gone on record as calling the Group’s style "freakish" and "violent." Following Wembley, invective took over completely. Members of the Group were a bunch of "paint slingers" devoted to the "cult of ugliness."
In retrospect it is clear that the dustup with Charlesworth worked to the Group’s advantage. The controversy kept the G7 in the public eye, never a bad thing for artists struggling to find buyers for their work. More important, it provided the Group with a narrative, a way for the public to understand what was going on even when it did not understand the artistic issues involved. According to this narrative, members of the Group were young rebels fighting to establish a modern, "Canadian" outlook in the face of overwhelming opposition from an ignorant press and a backward-looking Old Guard. In 1926, with the appearance of Fred Housser’s book, A Canadian Art Movement: The Story of the Group of Seven, this interpretation of events was enshrined as history. Housser, a financial journalist, was an ardent supporter of the Group. His book described their break with European traditions, their struggle to develop a new style through "direct contact with Nature herself," their disputes with the critics and "the entire press of the country," and their ultimate emergence as the first important art movement to arise in Canada. The Group triumphed, wrote Housser, because it was unafraid to express the native landscape in entirely new ways. No artists before the Group were mature enough to take Canada as its own subject, he claimed, on its own terms. By changing all that, wrote Housser, the Group represented the coming of age of Canada as a culture.
Housser’s book was a work of propaganda, not scholarship. Much of what he said about the G7 was simply not true. As he himself admitted, the critical reception of their work actually was pretty favourable, Hector Charlesworth and a few others notwithstanding. The Group were not the pariahs of the art world they made themselves out to be. Nor were they the first to attempt to paint in a distinctively "Canadian" style. Artists before them had chosen similar subject matter, although presented in the manner of the civilized landscapes of Europe. Nor were members of the Group quite as innocent of European training and ideas as Housser claimed. Jackson, Harris, Lismer, Varley and Carmichael all studied abroad. Tom Thomson was the only one who was truly self-taught, and he was not strictly speaking a member of the Group. Regardless, Housser’s book went a long way to reconciling the public to the new movement. Its publication roughly marks the transformation of the Group from delinquent sons to patriarchs of the family. "No longer can the Group enjoy the vilification that is the reward of the precocious few," observed playwright Merrill Denison in 1928, "because the many have now joined them and the calliope has become merely an overcrowded bandwagon."
The Group’s success was due to other factors besides good public relations. Most importantly, of course, they were tremendously talented artists who produced some of the most beautiful and evocative paintings in the history of Canadian art. But the public usually requires something more than talent. It embraced the Group because the artists so successfully attached themselves to a nationalistic agenda. The Group claimed to be creating a new national consciousness. This was MacDonald’s "big idea": the creation of a national purpose through an appreciation of the rugged Canadian landscape. "We believe wholeheartedly in the land," they declared. In this respect the Group perfectly matched the spirit of the times, in Canada at least. During the Twenties Canadians were seeking new ways of imagining themselves as a mature, independent nation. They were receptive, therefore, to a movement of artists which claimed to find in the local landscape a distinctive national identity, and claimed to have found a uniquely Canadian style for expressing it.
The Group’s down-to-earth approach to painting also endeared them to a broad public. G7 members were not tweakers of bourgeois noses. They were painters who went into the wilderness to track down their paintings, much like hunters after prey. They were "modern coureurs-de-bois," not effete intellectuals starving in their garrets. They spoke of art as an energetic, manly activity; they identified painting with adventuring and exploring. (The reality was somewhat different. Jackson, for example, described J. E. H. MacDonald as "a quiet, unadventurous person, who could not swim, or paddle, or swing an axe, or find his way in the bush.") They presented their work in simple, accessible language. One of their pre-war exhibitions made no apology for offering "pictures which were suitable for home use, such as one could live with and enjoy." Art was like "any other national Canadian industry," MacDonald wrote: "when our people decide that Art had better be grown at home than imported from Holland, they’ll find that they’ll get a better article at a lower price." Spoken like a member of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association. These were all attitudes which appealed to Canadians who wanted to feel proud of their youth and vitality and common sense, not shamefaced at their lack of sophistication.
The Group was looking for a domestic audience where one had not existed before. Charles Hill reveals that in 1924 only 2 percent of the paintings purchased in Canada were by Canadian artists. There was virtually no demand for their work, so the G7 had to create one. They did so by going down market. In an early version of the Art Bank, they made their paintings available for rent; they toured them around to small towns; they talked about their work in accessible language and presented themselves in non-threatening ways.
As Hill points out, the Group’s relatively tame subject matter also endeared it to the Canadian public. No one had to avert their eyes. There were no nudes descending staircases, no Mona Lisas with moustaches. Admirers could be modern, without being "modern," au courant without being immoral and nihilistic like those scandalous Europeans. This was modern art that was clean and bracing and stood for something. "There has not been the slightest attempt at degeneracy," declared Eric Brown, sounding disappointingly conventional for the director of an important art gallery.
Robert Fulford has said that the G7 was Canada’s version of Modernism. It is probably more accurate to say that, for better or for worse, the Group was what Canada got instead of Modernism. Unlike members of the Group, Modernist painters in other countries did not propagandize for nationalism. Quite the reverse, they despised nationalism as a root cause of the recent war. Nor did Modernists appeal to the comfortable classes. Quite the reverse, they were in revolt against the "botched civilization" of their elders. Merrill Denison could write in 1928 that the G7 was "as Canadian as the North West Mounted Police or an amateur hockey team." It is impossible to imagine the European avant-garde being compared to a police force.
Hill’s survey of cultural life in Canada in the Twenties reveals that there was very little Modernism going on here. His point just as readily applies to the literary world where writers like Morley Callaghan, John Glassco, and even Robert Service (whose northern ballads make a kind of literary parallel to the work of the Group), had to go to Paris to find it. The experimental "isms" of Europe—Cubism, Surrealism, Futurism, Expressionism, Dadaism—gained no adherents in Canada. It is only in comparison to other Canadian artists that the G7 appeared modern. In comparison to European art, the Group was decidedly rearguard.
The Group succeeded in creating an audience for art in Canada, and for Canadian art. Wittingly or not, it also helped to create a very narrow vision of what constituted art. Under the Group’s influence paintings came to be judged according to how Canadian they were, which tended to mean how many rocks, trees and totem poles they contained. The G7 became the country’s official School because it was conservative, threatened no one, made almost no one uncomfortable, and appealed to a brand of nature worship masquerading as patriotism. With "modernists" like these, there was no need to be modern.
Eventually a new generation of artists and critics grew embarrassed by the G7, as Modernism somewhat belatedly began to find a following in this country. In the 193os and 194os, for example, abstraction took hold. In this new context, the Group’s commitment to landscape seemed old-fashioned. And to a degree this view of the Group persists even in the epoch of Postmodernism in which we currently find ourselves.
The retrospective exhibition which the National Gallery has mounted would like to rescue the Group from such condescension, but evidently some of our cultural gatekeepers continue to feel uneasy in the presence of the west wind and the jackpine. When the show opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario in January, curators there felt obliged to mount a parallel show beside it. Titled The Oh!Canada Project, it aimed to provide an alternative "interactive" space for gallery visitors to express their own feelings about Canada. When critic John Bentley Mays objected to this show on the grounds that it was a politically correct trivialization of the Group’s work, he sparked a lively exchange of letters to the editor of the Globe and Mail. One side of the debate endorsed Mays’s view; the other argued that he was a stuffy white guy who failed to recognize how relevant the AGO was marketing itself to new constituencies of gallery-goers.
If anything, the new show reveals that we have not found a way of being comfortable with our National School of Painters, whose work, whether Modernist or any other-ist, remains unique in the world of art. After all these years, some of us still feel the need to apologize for them. They continue to be an itch we cannot help scratching. Meanwhile, if you get a chance, do what I did. Go see the pictures. All the rest is complication.