Yesterday an exhibition of paintings at the Dulwich Picture Gallery came to an end after nearly twelve weeks; it was called “Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven”. It was a really stunning display of 52 large canvases and around 70 smaller sketches, in a cosy and accessible South London gallery in which even a Rembrandt could be examined up close.
The casual atmosphere was worth experiencing in itself. Many Canadian accents could be heard, which was telling: the purpose-built Kleinberg Gallery in Ontario is the normal repository for Group of Seven works, and is impressive, if a little contrived (and annoyingly, occasionally closed off by the wealthy for their various functions – things which would have dismayed the artists themselves) but it was really something to see these masterpieces holding their own, so far from home.
That said, it seems all the more remarkable that it took so long for these paintings to return to a global audience: there are many in the art world who know only two things about Canada’s Group of Seven – that all were from Canada, and, that there seems to have been seven of them.
In Toronto’s Distillery District in December a very avante-garde gallery owner advised me that admiration for Thomson had mired the Canadian art movement in passé sentimentality while the rest of the art world surged ahead. Sharks! Unmade beds! Formaldehyde! Piles of deckchairs! But looking at the bulbous optical illusions on display, some with fibreglass human limbs jutting out at alarming angles (two years each in the making) Thomson’s deft colour studies made in perhaps an hour or two seemed all the more charming.
In fact Thomson’s contribution was made well before the informal group of seven painters actually gave themselves a name. Thomson lived from 1877 – 1917, working as a commercial artist and attempting occasionally to incorporate the Art Deco style into his livelihood, but developing a love for painting at the age of 33 – once again showing the importance in a creative individual of this point at which the nervous system and brain become mature.
Thomson’s life story remains controversial in part because of his death in a strange accident on a lake in Northern Ontario. The circumstances were mysterious because he was a highly capable and experienced woodsman and canoeist, though he seems to have drowned after suffering a head injury and falling from his canoe. The body was only found more than a week later, and confusion reigned as it was buried and then disinterred; some dispute has even arisen as to where the body actually now lies.
But be that as it may, and though his painting career, which had begun in 1911, lasted merely six years, his work was a major influence on the others in the group and many of his images remain the most instantly recognisable, and proudly identified as Canadian, a century later.
The first time these paintings were shown to the British public was in London on the 8th January 1925 – exactly 87 years ago today – and they received enthusiastic reviews:
“A school of landscape painters who are strongly racy of the soil” .. London Times
“The foundation of what may become one of the greatest schools of landscape painting” Morning Post, London
which was a contrast to much of the reception afforded them in their native Canada:
“They are garish, affected, freakish” .. Toronto Star
“A single narrow and rigid formula of ugliness”.. Saturday Night, Toronto
In fact there had been some enthusiasm in Canada, which was remarkable for a country at that time more interested in selling off its wildnerness to the highest bidders and thereby climb the capitalist ladder, than indulging a group of Toronto’s commerical artists fooling about with paints. Perhaps the group made much of whatever skepticism there was, to enhance their status as rebels, but in any case, they certainly had their work cut out not just to make their mark, but to even earn a living from a town more interested in wealth than trivial art. Thomson’s own opinion of Toronto was “it is a great town – great to get out of.”
Although capitalism had yet to reveal its widely destructive side, Thomson was already sensitive to the damage done by logging and burning, and the deaths of lumberjacks caught in the vicious tumble of tons of wood, suddenly unjammed by their own skill in the fast flowing rivers of northern Ontario. His Crib and Rapids (1915) shows the tumbling logs emerging from a chute, two of which form a precise cross, reminiscent of the many wooden markers along the shore where lumbermen were lost, “dying horribly by drowning or the vicious battering of the logs” (Andrew Hunter, Mapping Tom).
By nature, Thomson seemed a spiritual cousin of Henry David Thoreau, the American philosopher whose life seems well summed up by his own maxim, “simplify, simplify, simplify.” Thoreau was no doubt more politically sensitive and outspoken – once refusing to pay his poll tax on a point of principle, and being sent to jail for it; he declared the prison to be a great waste of stone, unable as it was to change his mind in the least. At one point, according to Emerson, he was refused permission to borrow some valuable documents from the esteemed Harvard library, whereupon his forceful tirade to the astonished trustees convinced them that it was he, Thoreau, not they, who was the rightful guardian of this knowledge, and that their rules now appeared so foolish that thereafter he was granted an open pass to borrow whatever he liked.
Thompson was no such firebrand, but shared Thoreau’s need for privacy, and ability to derive ideas direct from a rapport with nature. It was said that he enjoyed the company of the loggers, and the other artists, but once the drinking and singing became too boisterous, he would quietly slip away to be alone in the wilderness to commune with nature.
“I cannot help but wonder if Thomson’s radiating contour outlines are less spiritual auras than responses to the spectral signatures of elements radiating their excess energy. His powers of observation were not only acute, but scientific. By 1917 Thomson was calling his sketches “records”, given that they functioned as data-filled documentation of nature. His uncle, Dr William Brodie, was a well-known naturalist, with “the eye of the scientist and of the artist”, whose extensive collection of specimens was internationally recognised.
He encouraged expansive scientific thinking about the dynamism of life, drawing on Western and Eastern philosophical traditions, and rethinking Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection within a universal, even mystical context… Thomsons’s canvas [The West Wind] can thus be read as a compelling reworking of a nineteenth-century botanical study into a kind of visualised periodic table.”
..Anna Hudson, A Revelation of Tom Thomson
In art, as in life, we admire that which is characteristic, unmistakeable, and not weakly defined or easily lost to trivial reality or contending, extraneous forces. As William Blake said “the great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: that the more distinct, sharp and wiry the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art, and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imagination, plagiarising, and bungling..”
What set the Group of Seven’s work apart was that it defined itself boldly; projecting this boldness on to the Canadian landscape – formerly considered entirely unsuitable for painting due to its raucous and uncouth state, compared to the flowing and cultured hills and valleys so sought after by the European painters at that time – they perceived and communicated a hitherto unsuspected majesty, one which gradually transformed itself into what is still a uniquely Canadian national identity. The artist is more of a creator than he supposes.
Above all else, art requires that the confusing detail be stripped away, but not altogether lost – it must be be synthesised through the painter’s own understanding so that each element becomes a metaphor and an expression, and the unity of these self-made parts is a process in the mind of the artist. It is this mental contribution which makes art a worthwhile attempt to build some kind of rapport between creator and observer, and which quite negates the value of photorealist art, whose creators can no longer be distinguished from one another.
This is why it is pointless to try to paint anything with which you are not capable of becoming emotionally involved. The late Lucien Freud, suerly one the the most devoted and able painters of the 20th century, was alert to this essential need; he once attempted a portrait of a distinguished gentleman but gave it up as hopeless after a few sittings. When asked why, he exploded, “how on Earth could I paint with that man in the room?!”
As a result, the most powerful art expresses the emotional state of the artist, which requires some mastery of the mechanical processes, but also a unique perception of the subject itself. A portrait painter must have some connection with his model, even if it only forms during the process. Freud’s own sessions were known to extend for months: small wonder his paintings capture every physical nuance of his subjects and evoke such a thorough knowledge of their form. His figures look strangely drained of their souls; perhaps, being an atheist, he saw them as only flesh and blood; this too is an honest expression.
Constable painted portraits to earn a living, sometimes stunned at the sheer inability of the average person to understand the process. One model declared herself far too busy for the sitting her husband had requested, and offered instead a lock of her hair for Constable to “get started on”. Of course his most remarkable ones are not of the families who simply wanted a portrait to impress their friends, but the people with whom he felt a solid kinship, and of course, the girl he was later to marry. Vermeer’s most frequent subject was his own wife, and his pictures resound with concentration and absorption. One cannot paint anything one is not interested in, and to do so seems tantamount to a certain kind of dishonesty, a prostitution, even an act of self-destruction.
The resulting process of simplification arising from emotion is the mark of genius, in which the fractal complexity so beloved of the technician can be resolved into a shape dictated by consciousness alone. The artist is no longer a menial observer and timid taker of notes but a creator, and bonds with his subject in a way which can only be described as mystical. The movements of the large and small motor muscles, recorded in the movement of paint on the surface, are no longer embarrassments of technique but things of pride, evidence of thought, proof of certainty. The light that gives them this impact therefore emerges from the mind itself. His vision becomes surprising and even startling, being entirely unique, and not seen before that moment – reflecting as it does the individual character of his most prized possession – his own self.
Among some learned minds, one may well consider this internal light worthless:
“Is there life on other planets? Nobody knows. If you forced me to give an opinion one way or the other, I’d say yes, and probably on millions of planets. But who cares about an opinion? There is no direct evidence.”
.. Richard Dawkins, the Magic of Reality, p188
No evidence – other than our own strong and distinct and convincing impression, of course, which we must immediately discard as worthless!
“Thoughtless people contradict as readily the statement of perceptions as of opinions, or rather much more readily; for, they do not distinguish between perception and notion. They fancy that I choose to see this or that thing.
But perception is not whimsical, but fatal. If I see a trait, my children will see it after me, and in course of time, all mankind, — although it may chance that no one has seen it before me. For my perception of it is as much a fact as the sun.”
To the natural mind, an opinion carries its own weight by the fact of its very existence. Music is an opinion, and likewise all art and philosophy, all original thinking, all intuition, all common sense, all natural intelligence and genius; every man who calls himself a thinker is in the business not of slavishly borrowing the thoughts of other men, or timidly accepting his own only on condition they have the support of others’ experiments and the cheering of the mob, but in honouring his own opinion and nourishing his ability to generate it. What else is relevant to his existence?
This fully explains the attraction which the work of such sensitive men as Thomson generates even a hundred years on – that there are chords we never tire of, showing as they do that the human mind is not the storage bin which modern education mistakes it for, but possessed of an inbuilt, active and enthusiastic energy which can expand to take in any number of subjects, lending to them its own natural beauty. If you ever get a chance to see Thomson’s work, take it – such things are good for the soul.