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Painting Canada: Artistry in the UK

By the time the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London closed its exhibition “Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven,” the show had drawn some 41,000 visitors, the second-largest exhibition turnout for that venerable old dowager of the British museum world. Some of these gallery-goers were undoubtedly Canadian expatriates; some, British relatives of the emigrated; others, no doubt simply lovers of the colonies (as we will always be understood by Britons), enraptured by these depictions of Canada’s rough-hewn places. Leading this enthusiasm was Ian Dejardin, the Dulwich’s Scottish-born director, who came across a book on the Group of Seven in the library of London’s Royal Academy of Arts back in the 1980s and—finding the paintings extraordinary—began his investigations.

We are so glad he did. Cherry-picking the best from the collections of Canada’s leading museums and private collections for this exhibition, he delivered a crème de la crème exhibition that seemed to put every artist’s best foot forward, revealing new truths about artists we thought we knew, at a moment when our understanding of the group is regrouping. Ross King’s 2010 book Defiant Spirits debunked the popularly held Canadian view of these artists as pioneer woodsmen-savants, revealing instead their ties to the painterly traditions of Britain, France and Holland. This well-timed exhibition thus allowed us the opportunity to reconsider their accomplishments in light of this argument, demonstrating how their passionate love of the land was married to a painterly sophistication honed in dialogue with inherited artistic traditions.

Clearly, Dejardin places Tom Thomson at the peak. Though Thomson was never a member of the group proper (the collective was formed soon after his early death), he can be considered its muse and inspiration. Dejardin showed us why. Like Thoreau’s Walden writings, or Ansel Adams’ photographic depictions of Yosemite, Thomson’s paintings provide a vivid account of the artist’s experience of profound solitude and his extraordinary attunement to the natural world. Gathered in London, they documented a soulful retreat from the modern world of mechanization, war and commerce.

A wall of Thomson sketches near the entrance to the exhibition electrified, with each panel bearing the palpable trace of a moment of insight experienced in deep privacy. Moonlight and Birches (1915) gives us a view from the dark woods out onto the illuminated shore of a lake, with glinting flecks of light winking from the bare branches. Approaching Snowstorm, from the same year, describes a mustard-tinged landscape over which towers a knitted brow of cloud, rendered in upswept brushstrokes. An intimidating vastness emanates from the painting’s tiny surface (just 21 by 26 centimetres). Path Behind Mowat Lodge (1917) investigates the effect of shadow on snow, with Thomson building shadows up from deep cobalt blues and teals, set against creamy pink snow-smears. With his sometimes groping touch, struggling to make good on his vision, Thomson repeatedly sacrificed grace for truth—the hallmark of the great artist—bringing us a record of sensations and moods that remain startlingly present nearly a hundred years later. Looking, we catch the welcome smell of spring thaw, the provisional sanctuary of a tent pitched beside a lake, the mystery of the northern lights seen overhead, when the universe seems to tune into its own ecstatic force, indifferent to human presence and observation. Canada had never been painted like this.

Thomson’s larger paintings made in the studio, however, carry a weaker charge, and herein lay the exhibition’s second revelation. With the initial passion of inspiration cooled, Thomson’s painterly effects—like those of his artistic comrades—congeal into something less vivid on the larger scale. Thomson’s sketch for The West Wind from 1916, for example, with its sky built from impulsive horizontal strokes of blue, white and grey, translates into more conventional feathery generalities in the finished painting. Likewise for his sketch for The Jack Pine, borrowed from the RiverBrink Art Museum in Queenston, Ontario, which was here reunited with the National Gallery’s larger iconic painting of the same name—a jewel-toned, art nouveau–influenced masterpiece. Here again, what the larger painting gains in composure and elegance, it loses in visceral thrills. In the sketch, we witness Thomson struggling to see through the act of painting. In the finished painting, that moment of encounter is far behind, and a decorative ease takes hold.

Dejardin’s installation enabled us to entertain a number of such comparisons. J.E.H. MacDonald’s sketch for The Beaver Dam (1919) is a fury of diagonal strokes denoting felled timber, while the larger canvas draws us more to the calm of the stilled water, with its tracery of fallen leaves. (One might expect one of British art’s pre-Raphaelite maidens to float tragically into view here, so langorous is the mood.) Arthur Lismer’s Evening Silhouette—a rough-touch study of rock, tree and evening cloud at sunset—hardens into stodgy masses in the 1928 canvas that it informs.

The striking exception to this rule is Frederick Varley, always to my eye the most sensuously painterly of the group. His painting Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay (1921) feels even more emotionally vivid than the scruffy, bracing sketch that precedes it, with the paint moving in lush undulations over the surface, capturing the rolling rhythms of waves and sky and rock. While his West Coast Sunset sketch of 1926 is a vivid record of a kind of ecstatic experience of light and energy, belying his transcendentalist tendencies, so too is his magisterial Cloud, Red Mountain, a full-scale work from 1927 and 1928 that seems to call down the spirit in the sky. There is a world of feeling here—vision consummated in painterly touch—that, for example, Lawren Harris never achieves in his full-scale works, which seem stiff, dry, almost fascistic in comparison.

The show, then, accomplished two ends: to introduce the Group of Seven and Thomson to a wider European audience, and to challenge our sense of what has become, to many Canadians, overly familiar. As is so often the case, the view from outside can achieve a clarity that brings new truths to light, whether by calculation or not. The painterly genius of Thomson, the accomplishment of the sketches by all the group’s artists, the relative strengths and weaknesses of these artists when seen together at full force—these are all important findings. Dejardin’s exhibition offered this, plus the undeniable pleasure of witnessing some of our country’s finest artists shown to best advantage on European soil. This was a moment.

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