I wrote this article about the new documentary entitled Painted Land: In Search of the Group of Seven for Cinematica, the official blog of the Screening Room in Kingston, Ontario and was published on November 11, 2015. Follow this link to the Cinematica site. If you wish to watch this documentary it is available for free through the TVO website through this link.
On November 14th & November 15th at 1pm and 4pm, The Screening Room is showing a new 2015 film entitled Painted Land: In Search of the Group of Seven. Excitingly, producers Nancy Lang and Peter Raymont (a Queen’s alumni!) will be on hand on Saturday to give a talks to accompany the screenings.
By 1913 six coworkers at the design company Grip Inc. in Toronto, who were also painters, Tom Thomson, J. E. H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Frank Johnston and Franklin Carmichael, were accustomed to sharing their paintings with each other at the Toronto Arts and Letters Club. That year, because they were on the lookout for new artists whose work excited them, they invited A.Y. Jackson from Montreal, and Lawren Harris from Vancouver to join them. This was the group of eight artists that was later to become the Group of Seven. To give a cosmopolitan perspective to things, Picasso had yet to exhibit his first cubist painting – Picasso’s latest known works at the time were from the rose period; the impressionists had shaken the European art world to its core from the 1870s to the 1890s; a new century had begun and with it had come the death of the long-reigning and era-defining Queen Victoria. Everything seemed very new. Electricity was fairly new, photography was fairly new. A new feeling in art was stirring in Europe and the United States, and it was stirring in Canada too.
Adding to the romance of this story, in 1917, four years later, Tom Thomson, a founding member of this group of eight, who had begun to transition from a designer to a full-time painter by then, died in Algonquin Park on a summer painting expedition. In the years before he died he was producing his now most famous works and working out of a little utility shack in Rosedale in Toronto on the grounds of a larger artists’ studio. Although the coronor did not say so, it has been suspected since his death that the 39 year old Tom Thomson was murdered by a friend. Speculated motives range from that Thomson impregnated someone, to that Thomson slept with his friend’s wife, or that the murderer owed Thomson a debt he could not repay.
Tom Thomson is acknowledged as an extremely sensitive and beautiful artist. He was influenced by European impressionists but also, strangely enough given that his primary subject was Canadian landscape, by art deco. Some of his work puts him on the leading edge of abstract art in Canada. He was also very attractive man and clearly loved by his fellow painters, who were galvanized by his loss. Tom Thomson’s death struck a note in the hearts of his friends that deepened an already accumulating feeling that this group of men had something to say with their art about nature and the Canadian landscape that was unique to the world and that life was too short to waste time. In 1920, the remaining seven members of the group, three years after the death of the beloved Tom Thomson, exhibited for the first time, having the self-awareness and self-importance to present themselves as "The Group of Seven." There were a couple of additions and subtractions to the group, but it remained remarkably cohesive until the end.
One of the things that makes the Canadian landscape interesting is that, at the wrong time and place, the landscape can be deadly. Also, the wilderness is so vast in comparison with the settled areas. The painters in the Group of Seven variously translate these feelings by conveying their intense respect for the landscape and nature in different kinds of majestic, special, often magical, deep, sometimes harrowing, and iconic images. Placing the Group of Seven into the context of world art history is a process that is still ongoing. It was only in 2012 there was a show in South London at the Dulwich Picture Gallery called Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, which was the most important exhibit of its kind to that date. Also significant, just a few weeks ago in Los Angeles the Hammer Gallery opened a show of a single member of the Group of Seven. Lawren Harris’ work entitled The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, which is the first major show of Harris’ work or any Group of Seven work so far in the United States. This exhibit was organized between the Hammer Gallery and the AGO and is the brainchild of American actor, writer, and art collector, Steve Martin, who was also the curator. It will go on until January 2016. In interviews about this landmark show, Martin explains that Canadian law is prohibitive of masterworks being sold or even moved across international borders. In order to do either a committee be consulted who must agree to let a painting go. It is difficult, therefore, for a person who does not live in Canada to buy our best art, and quite a bit of work to exhibit it. Therefore great Canadian art has not been circulating in the auctions in world art centres like New York, Los Angeles, London, and Paris. Partly because of this, Martin speculates, important Canadian artists such as Tom Thomson and The Group of Seven including Lawren Harris have been largely isolated from the discussion that the rest of the world has been having about the art of the 20th Century.
In Canada, however the fervour for The Group of Seven is ardent and legendary. Even Canadians who don’t know anything about art have at least heard the term "The Group of Seven." I think at it’s basis this is a credit to the intensity of these artists who felt charged during their lifetimes to stake their claim on a grand legacy. In continuation of lives fueled from this intensity, the grandeur is further evidenced by the fact that that six of the seven men have been ceremoniously buried together in the McMichael Cemetary in Kleinberg, Ontario along with their wives, on a hill near the McMichael Gallery within sight of a shack that Tom Thomson used as a studio. One of the members, Frank Johnston, and his wife was disinterred in order to be re-buried there. The husband and wife founders of the McMichael gallery, Robert and Signe McMichael, are also buried there. Each of the graves is fittingly marked by a huge slab of granite cut from the Canadian shield.
I’m really excited to see how this film will add to an already present awareness of these important artists in Canada, and to the accessibility of the story or The Group of Seven and other significant Canadian artists and their work internationally.