Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven

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4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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River deep, mountain high… the urge to record the topography of a country and in doing so create a national artistic identity, grounded in the very land itself, courses through this fascinating exhibition of early twentieth century Canadian art. Tales of adventure and misadventure are what gives the show its bite – chiefly, the mysterious death of Tom Thomson who, in 1917, just shy of his fortieth birthday, is believed to have toppled to his death from his canoe.

Yet, go to this exhibition expecting a sense of awe before nature on a par, say, with the great landscape painters of nineteenth-century America or John Martin’s apocalyptic paintings on show at Tate Britain, and you’ll be disappointed. While the untamed immensity of the Canadian landscape provided the subject matter for this group, who officially became the Group of Seven three years after Thomson’s death, the work they produced is disconcertingly far from epic.

What it is, rather, is diligently Post-Impressionist. Communing with nature, these painterly pioneers were also deep in conversation with artistic trailblazers on this side of the Atlantic. The measured pointillism of Signac is evident in Thomson’s ‘The Pointers’, while his ‘The Jack Pine’ and ‘The West Wind’, two of the most iconic paintings in Canada, are both styled according to the sinuous delineations of Art Nouveau.

Percy Wyndham Lewis got it about right in his 1946 essay in The Listener, stating that ‘It would be idle to pretend that the oils, large and very small (most the latter) produced by Thomson… would set the Thames or the Seine on fire, because they would not.’ A wall crowded with Thomson’s small oil sketches reveals a technique at its most incisive when describing close-ups, or the confusing zones where land, sky and their reflections meld. Better than Thomson in this regard is JEH MacDonald, whose tiny, depthless ‘Woodland Brook, Algoma’ (1918) is a highlight.

Having taken us from Georgian Bay to the Canadian Rockies, the show concludes with Lawren Harris’s paintings of icebergs that, like frosted counterpoints to the desert paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, appear utterly mannered and yet impress with convincing atmosphere. If the show contains a message, it is that representations of nature are always mediated through culture, complicated by memories, fictions, other images. The psychological landscapes of Peter Doig, who spent part of his childhood in Canada and is cited in the catalogue as heir to the Group of Seven, turn out to be part of a grand Canadian tradition.

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