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Ross King on the Group of Seven: White Feathers and Tangled Gardens

"White Feathers & Tangled Gardens" by Ross King, Winter 2009, pp. 75-81

The 44th exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists opened at the Public Reference Library in Toronto on March 11, 1916. This annual event, held in a library for lack of another exhibition space, usually came and went without troubling the waters of public opinion or critical consensus. The hysterical reactions roused in London by the controversial 1910 exhibition “Manet and the Post-Impressionists,” or in New York by the notorious 1913 Armory Show, were virtually unheard of in Canada. There had been no real succès de scandale, no critical rumpus, in the history of Canadian art. Canadian painters inspired apathy rather than outrage. The shocking antics of the European avant-garde seemed a world away from the murmuring galleries of the Public Reference Library. But in the spring of 1916 the great bogeyman of Post-Impressionism came to town, led by a group of landscapists known in the press as the Algonquin Park School.

For their 1916 show, the members of the Ontario Society of Artists—an organization founded in 1872 to promote the visual arts in the province— put on display 137 paintings and a dozen works of sculpture. This muster was impressive considering that, with Canada 18 months into its war effort, a number of the younger artists were in uniform. The exhibition catalogue even listed the address of one of the exhibitors, a 33-year-old Montrealer named A. Y. Jackson, as Bramshott Camp, in England. (In fact, by March, 1916, Jackson had landed with his battalion in France.) One of Jackson’s friends and fellow painters, the 30-year-old Lawren Harris, was enrolled in the Canadian Officers Training Corps. He had managed to submit two paintings to the exhibition even though he was only weeks away from receiving a commission in the Royal Grenadiers. Both were snowscapes— a rare genre in English Canada. Canada’s cold climate had been a sore point at least since Voltaire mocked the country as “a few acres of snow,” and 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.

Even more arresting displays of colour were to be seen elsewhere in the Public Reference Library. As in previous years, one of the most prolific exhibitors, with five paintings, was J. E. H. MacDonald, the OSA’s new vice-president. A friend of both Jackson and Harris, the 42-year-old MacDonald was a gentle and retiring soul, a “secular monk” (in the words of another friend) who possessed the “simple mysticism” of St. Francis of Assisi. He had enjoyed moderate success since quitting his job as a graphic designer five years earlier, selling landscapes to both the National Gallery and the Government of Ontario. But the outbreak of war saw MacDonald, like many other painters, fall on hard times. He had recently moved his family to a farmhouse in Thornhill and—despite a frail constitution and a lack of agricultural know-how—begun growing vegetable crops for cash. He also took in lodgers to help pay the bills: his friend Arthur Lismer, another would-be painter, and Lismer’s wife and daughter. “The hard times are hitting Jimmie pretty badly,” observed Frank Carmichael, another of MacDonald’s artist friends. Carmichael was coping with his own financial asperities by decorating hearses.

MacDonald’s Thornhill garden was the subject of one of his five works. Painted for reasons of economy on beaverboard—a material usually employed for insulating houses—The Tangled Garden depicted sunflowers drooping in arabesques over a bright blaze of asters. With its spumes of colour, it was one of the most chromatically adventurous paintings ever put on show in a Canadian exhibition. Equally dazzling was another of his entries, Rock and Maple. Based on sketches done in the Haliburton Highlands, it featured loose brushwork and, if anything, an even more audacious use of colour.

The 1916 OSA exhibition featured four works by another of MacDonald’s friends. Tom Thomson was virtually unknown to Toronto’s picture-viewing public. That he exhibited his first picture only three years earlier, at the age of 35, indicated both a lack of confidence and a desire for perfection. An acquaintance later claimed Thomson suffered from a “disbelief in himself” that led to “fits of unreasonable despondency.” Drawings failing to meet with his approval he smeared with cigar ash, and Lawren Harris once watched him flick matches at a freshly painted picture “in a kind of whimsical scorn.” One sketching trip ended with him hurling his paintbox into the bush. In Algonquin Provincial Park—his favoured region for painting landscapes—he once made a bonfire of his oil paintings.

Thomson’s first exhibited painting, Northern Lake, was a restrained effort, thinly painted in murky tones. Since then, he had gained both confidence and artistic power. While sharing a studio in the same Rosedale building as MacDonald, Harris and Jackson, all of whom were celebrated by a Toronto Daily Star critic for their “fearless brushing” and “strange, crude colour,” he began experimenting with more florid pigments and, in his plein-air sketches, a savage style of brushwork. Jackson, who had spent several years studying in France, told him about trends in modern art such as the techniques of the Neo-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat and his use of what Jackson called “clean cut dots” of colour. From Arthur Lismer, with whom Thomson camped and painted in Algonquin Provincial Park in 1914, he learned to tip his panel 90 degrees and paint the scene before him in a portrait rather than a landscape format. Distant panoramas were abandoned in favour of close-ups of enclosed spaces, as though he was becoming ever more intimate with the landscape, observing it minutely and painting it in more forceful detail.

Thomson’s 1916 offerings included a study in clashing colours called In the Northland, whose chill blue lake contrasted with birch leaves painted a loud, school-bus yellow. He used the same colour contrasts in Spring Ice, while Autumn’s Garland pitted sweeping curves of foliage—a confection of persimmon, crimson, gamboge and burnt orange—against a vertical banding of tree trunks painted aquamarine blue.

Visitors to Canadian art galleries did not expect to be assailed by such bright, prismatic colour. In Canada as elsewhere, traditionalists regarded colour as less important than design, drawing, perspective and subject matter. As a connoisseur once admonished John Constable: “A good picture, like a good fiddle, should be brown.” Colour was meretricious and decadent, addressed to the baser senses, not the intellect. The French Impressionists had introduced brighter colours into their canvases, thanks in part to advances in chemistry that resulted in new pigments such as coal-tar mauve and alizarin red. But as recently as 1905 a group of painters led by Henri Matisse and Maurice de Vlaminck caused outrage when their brilliantly hued works appeared in Paris. They quickly became ridiculed as les fauves (the wild beasts).

Would Torontonians, nourished on fiddle-brown landscapes, be ready for works like The Tangled Garden or Autumn’s Garland? As with the work of the Fauves and other Post-Impressionists, their vivid tones and swirling lines almost seemed guaranteed to cause alarm and offence.

Toronto had six newspapers in 1916, along with magazines such as Saturday Night and Canadian Courier. Most included write-ups of OSA exhibitions, albeit sometimes using political correspondents as art critics. Canadian art criticism was usually respectful and constructive, with little of the vitriol or doltish scoffing that appeared in so many European reviews. Even so, a few years earlier, after fairly harmless mockery of A. Y. Jackson’s experimental style appeared in the Toronto Daily Star, MacDonald published an article in the paper urging critics to respond to his work and that of his friends with “a little receptivity of mind” and to “support our distinctly Native art.” By and large the critics had done so, but the reviews of the 1916 exhibition would not be so obliging.

With more than 80,000 readers, the Toronto Daily Star was by some margin the city’s largest-circulation newspaper. A few months earlier, its regular reviewer, Margaret L. Fairbairn, wrote favourably of the “virile” style of the artists in the Algonquin Park School. But sent to cover the 1916 exhibition, she took a less congenial view, expressing reservations about “their use of strong, even violent, color.” The Tangled Garden seemed to her, at first glance, nothing more than a “purposeless medley of crude colors,” while another of MacDonald’s works was “a whirl of chaotic shapes.” She believed Thomson, too, was in danger of overreaching himself with his “fearless use of violent color which can scarcely be called pleasing.”

This review, which appeared on opening day, lit the blue touch paper. A week later the assistant managing editor of Saturday Night, Hector Charlesworth, published a review headlined “Pictures That Can be Heard.” Previously Charlesworth (whose expertise was music, not painting) had praised the “pigmentary enthusiasm” of the painters, but he, like Fairbairn, disliked what he called the “experimental pictures” on show in 1916. Naming MacDonald as the “chief offender,” Charlesworth dubbed his paintings “Hungarian Goulash” and “Drunkard’s Stomach.”

Fairbairn and Charlesworth by no means represented the nadir of opinion. An even more mean-spirited attack came from a friend of Charlesworth, the painter Carl Ahrens. In an interview with the Toronto Daily Star, Ahrens deplored the “blustering spirit of post-Impressionism” on show at the OSA in 1916. The exhibition featured, he lamented, “samples of 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…Nobody visiting the exhibition is likely to miss having his or her sense of colour, composition, proportion and good taste affronted by some of these canvases.”

A native of Winfield, Ontario, the 53-year-old Ahrens specialized in soft-focus, consommé-coloured landscapes that elucidated his antipathy to Post-Impressionism but belied a turbulent personality and adventurous past. The grandson of a German nobleman, he had followed up youthful escapades in Lesser Slave Lake and the Dakota Territory—where he once met Calamity Jane in a saloon—with stints as a button-dyer in Waterloo and a dentist in Nebraska. In 1887 he downed his dentist’s drill and a few years later moved to New York City to study painting under the American Impressionist William Merritt Chase. He had found a generous patron in the Toronto barrister Malcolm Mercer, but in 1916, with Mercer in uniform overseas, Ahrens found himself in delicate financial straits.

Though Ahrens possessed a certain wanderlust and a love of the outdoors, MacDonald and his friends found his works too tepid for their tastes. His bilious comments in the Daily Star may have been revenge for a 1911 review by Lawren Harris that disdained Ahrens’s works as “docile and inoffensive.” Ahrens himself proved anything but docile and inoffensive, ending his interview on a note of astonishing malice. He claimed the paintings showed not only “an absolute lack of the knowledge of drawing, colour, and design” but also “a hermaphroditic condition of mind.”

“Hermaphrodite” had long been a euphemism for homosexual. The obvious implication was that the use of bright and “unpleasant” colours was an indication of effeminacy. This was not the first time aspersions were cast on the masculinity or sexuality of modernist painters: in 1910, reviewers of “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” dismissed the French artists as “unmanly” and “girlish.” But for the members of the Algonquin Park School, who were usually celebrated for their virility, and who crowded their canvases with brawny boulders and priapic pines, such a challenge must have been unexpected. Indeed, within a few weeks of Ahrens’s comments, Saturday Night published an article jocularly recounting how the typical Canadian artist was a “husky beggar” who pulled on a pair of Strathcona boots and set off into the woods with a rifle, a paddle and enough baked beans for three months. But Ahrens, with his reference to hermaphrodites, conjured for readers of the Daily Star visions of long-haired Wildean aesthetes in velvet suits and silk cravats.

Tom Thomson’s exploits with paddles and axes in northern Ontario may have proclaimed a backwoods masculinity, but he had failed to fulfill society’s most important criteria for manhood, succinctly described in 1919 by Franz Kafka (who also failed to fulfill them) as “Marrying, founding a family, accepting all the children that come.” Thomson had also failed another important test of manhood: he had not enlisted in the Canadian armed forces.

In his attack on the Algonquin Park painters, Carl Ahrens did not scruple to raise the issue of enlistment, accusing them of being cowardly as well as epicene: “I feel that these young persons who are indulging in these pastimes would gain a much higher standing before men,” he claimed, “if they gave their now mis-spent efforts to the destruction of the Hun.”

The suggestion that the painters should be shouldering rifles in the trenches of Europe was a timely one. Three hundred thousand Canadians were in uniform by 1916, but the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, was promising to raise the country’s manpower commitment to half a million. Tactics had turned desperate as recruitment stalled in the face of endless battles and long casualty lists. Recruitment drives were held at Massey Hall, and more than 100,000 people gathered in Riverdale Park one night in August, 1915, to watch fireworks and hear marching bands drum up enthusiasm for the fight. The festivities on that evening were punctuated by an event becoming ever more common. The Toronto Daily Star reported how “two gay young ladies” had made their way through the crowd, “each carrying a small sofa cushion, the ends of which they had opened. And to the astonished and outraged young men standing around the girls were joyously doling out the white chicken feathers that stuffed their cushions.”

These gay young ladies were members of the Order of the White Feather, first instituted in Britain in the early weeks of the war when Admiral Charles Penrose Fitzgerald deputized 30 women in Folkestone to place white feathers—symbols of cowardice—in the lapels and hatbands of men not in uniform. The Toronto Daily Star began reporting this British treatment of “slackers” (as it called them) before the end of September, 1914, and life soon proved difficult for young men in Canada as well. A popular song by Muriel Bruce called “Kitchener’s Question” blared from recruiting stations: “Why aren’t you in Khaki?/This means you!/Any old excuse won’t do…” Even children got into the act, using yellow chalk to draw stripes down the backs of unsuspecting men.

By the spring of 1916, the rhetoric had grown heated. A speaker at a mass rally in Toronto described as “degraded,” “cruel” and “selfish” the voluntary system that saw some men “do their duty” in Europe while others stayed at home. The journalist and art critic Helen Ball—who panned the Algonquin Park painters in a Toronto Daily News review—wrote that a husband lying in a rough grave in France was easier to bear than “a shirker by your side.” Hoping to get more young Canadian men into khaki, Emmeline Pankhurst, the British suffragette turned arch-imperialist, embarked on a cross-country tour. “How will you like to think,” she asked a Vancouver audience, “that the man you love has allowed other men to do his duty for him while he sheltered himself behind the sacrifice of other men?”

Ahrens’s own white feather to the painters, delivered in the columns of the Toronto Daily Star, must have been particularly wounding to Thomson. As a tall, physically fit, unmarried man with no dependents, he must already have attracted the attention of the women in the Order of the White Feather. A friend and former roommate, the painter F. H. Varley, claimed Thomson was deeply troubled by the fact that “everyone was worrying him about joining up.” What, then, was his excuse for not donning khaki?

Thomson was certainly opposed to the idea of war, reading works by the English pacifist Norman Angell and complaining to MacDonald that “it is rotten that in this so-called civilized age that such things can exist.” A ranger in Algonquin Park named Ed Godin claimed that he and Thomson discussed the war many times, and that Thomson did “not think that Canada should be involved.” He was adamant that Thomson never would have offered himself for service. However, another park ranger insisted that Thomson did try to enlist. Mark Robinson stated that Thomson presented himself at a recruiting station in Kearney but “was turned down and he felt very keenly about it.” He then apparently tried again in Toronto, with the same result, and finally “went to some outside point in the country” (possibly Owen Sound, his hometown) only to be rejected for a third time. One of his sisters in Saskatchewan likewise believed he made at least one unsuccessful attempt.

It is possible that Thomson, putting his pacifist views aside, volunteered for service only to fail the physical examination. Apparently fit and able men were sometimes declined for no discernible reason. At most recruiting offices, the failure rate for medical reasons was as high as 70 per cent. Potential recruits could be turned away because of bad teeth, poor eyesight, a lack of height or a chest of inadequate circumference. A Victoria Cross winner, G. B. McKean of the Royal Montreal Regiment, was rejected for service three times before he was able to enlist in January, 1915. However, some of the physical requirements were relaxed in the summer of 1915, making eligible for service those previously turned down because of bad teeth or short stature. At such a time, an able-bodied outdoorsman, even one nearing his 40th birthday, would not have been spurned without good reason. Rejection by the military authorities seems unlikely given how Thomson impressed almost everyone with his physical prowess. A doctor whom he met in 1915 was astounded at how he could hoist a heavily laden canoe to his shoulder “without help, and seemingly without effort.”

Whatever the case, for a man of physical strength and personal courage to have his bravery and masculinity challenged—whether by Carl Ahrens or the young women in the Order of the White Feather—must have been distressing and infuriating in the extreme. Thomson left Toronto within days of Ahrens’s comments, setting off for a long sojourn in Algonquin Provincial Park, his place of sanctuary and renewal.

Thomson first visited Algonquin Provincial Park in the summer of 1912, returning each summer thereafter to sketch, fish and occasionally work as a fishing guide or fire ranger. In 1916 he would spend his longest period yet in the park, seven months altogether, returning to Toronto only when the snow flew. This protracted spell in the northlands—the longest he is known to have spent away from “civilization”—suggests he was deliberately avoiding Toronto, with its recruiting sergeants, newspaper headlines and other unpleasant reminders of war.

In the late spring of 1916, Thomson was joined by Lawren Harris, who was soon to be sent to Camp Borden, a vast training base in Simcoe County. With Harris came Dr. James M. MacCallum, an ophthalmologist and University of Toronto professor who was one of the few private buyers for paintings by the Algonquin Park School. The walls of his waiting room in the Medical Arts Building at St. George and Bloor were decorated with Thomson’s delicious agonies of colour.

The men canoed and portaged through Aura Lee Lake, Laurel Lake and Cauchon Lake. One afternoon, Harris and Thomson were painting beside one of the lakes when a thunderstorm forced them to seek refuge in an abandoned lumber shack. Thomson, however, was often recklessly defiant of the elements, as if testing himself against the mythical vagabonds of the Canadian wilderness such as voyageurs and coureurs de bois. Undaunted by the fierce conditions, he grabbed his sketching materials and rushed into the gale. He was squatting behind a stump and painting a trio of thrashing pines when the wind uprooted one of the trees. Harris at first thought Thomson had been killed by the falling pine, but “he soon sprang up, waved his hand to him and went on painting.”

Later in the year, back in his Rosedale studio, 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, a Canadian Laocoön set in the harsh, lonely wilderness.

The painting probably also registers another conflict, since Thomson’s own heroism is inscribed within it. His exploits on the lakes in the spring of 1916 mirrored—for witnesses like Harris and MacCallum—those of the Canadian soldiers fighting in Europe. The hazardous conditions, the primitive cover, the brave and desperate scramble into position, the near miss with the falling tree…these events, as recounted by Harris and MacCallum, read like one of the citations for “conspicuous bravery” being awarded to Canadian soldiers for their heroics on the Western Front. If Thomson was abused in Toronto as a shirker and a hermaphrodite, Algonquin Provincial Park was the place where he could attest his true courage and masculinity.


This text has been excerpted from Ross King’s book Modern Spirits: The European Adventures of the Group of Seven.

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