Canadian art and the Group of Seven

This article, “White Feathers and Tangled Gardens,” is an expert from Ross King’s new book, Modern Spirits.

As we all know, their approach was novel:

…one critic cautioned that to paint a Canadian landscape under snow was “unpatriotic, untactful, and unwise.” But Snow I and Snow II unapologetically showed fir boughs weighed down by fresh snow that Harris depicted with luminous strokes of azure, mauve, salmon pink and cornflower blue.

"Snow" by Lawren Harris

Their colours were shocking:

As a connoisseur once admonished John Constable: “A good picture, like a good fiddle, should be brown.” …Would Torontonians, nourished on fiddle-brown landscapes, be ready for works like The Tangled Garden or Autumn’s Garland?

Apparently not:

“that rough, splashy, meaningless, blatant, plastering and massing of unpleasant colours which seems to be a necessary evil in all Canadian art exhibitions these days…”

"Tangled Garden" by J. E. H. MacDonald

They were even accused of being limp-wristed “hermaphrodites” in spite of their canoeing, camping, and manly paintings.

"The Jack Pine" by Tom Thomson

As these paintings were being shown during the first world war, there was some discussion of why these apparently hale artists didn’t volunteer for the armed forces and of Thomson’s retreat into the forests of Algonquin Park. There, in the midst of a dangerous storm, he sketched one of his most famous paintings.

Thomson would turn this small sketch into one of his most famous paintings, The West Wind, in which the potent energies of nature are distilled into the whiplashing curves of the Jack pines. The painting is a scene of struggle, of an elemental tug-of-war between the dynamic and destructive forces that nearly killed him. If Canadians believed that what made them unique was their engagement with this hostile and unforgiving land that dictated the terms of human existence, then Thomson’s painting is an elegant image of this life-and-death encounter..

"The West Wind" by Tom Thomson

All in all, this book is more than a re-hashing of the usual biographical details. I’d like to read it.


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