Exploring the Quintessential: Art for a Nation

Article excerpt

Exploring the Quintessential: Art for a Nation

Two imported cultural references come to mind upon visiting the (world class) Art Gallery of Ontario's OH! Canada Project and its central exhibition The Group of Seven: Art for a Nation. One is theme music from the film The Magnificent Seven, rising to triumphal crescendo, and the other is author Jane Smiley's critique of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, who pronounces that it "has little to offer in the way of greatness. There is more to be learned about the American character from its canonization than through its canonization."(f.1)

It costs $12.50 Canadian to see this show, and while it's perfectly possible to see many Group of Seven paintings in the regular part of the gallery, or to trek to Kleinberg and see many, many Group of Seven paintings, still, it seems interesting and important to see this particular show, because: i) it has been mounted by the National Gallery in honour of the Group's anniversary and has been travelling across the country; ii) some pieces have not been exhibited since their first showing in the 1920s; iii) the AGO has made an energetic effort to make it special through a comprehensive, multi - dimensional exploration, including lectures, a film series, musical events and various participatory activities; and iv) Canada has canonized this group of artists.

Curator Charles Hill's summation in the accompanying catalogue articulates this position:

The ideas debated and promoted by the Group of Seven have had a long life - for some, far too long. They would inform cultural policy into the 1950s and beyond; of the seventeen recipients of the prestigious Canada Council Medal from 1961 to 1964, for example, twelve had played some role in the events narrated in this text: Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, Fred Varley, Wilfred Pelletier Sir Ernest MacMillan, E.J. Pratt, Marius Barbeau, Brooke Claxton, and Vincent Massey. Like other major art innovators, the Group were united in their intent and cooperative action, and together they were remarkably effective in promulgating their vision across Canada and internationally. Theirs is a notable record of achievement, and their ideals have left a permanent trace on the culture of Canada.(f.2)

The show is solemn, beautiful and simply organized in chronological order, selectively recreating exhibitions that the Group held from 1920 - 1931 at the Art Gallery of Toronto, now the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Original members were Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frank H. Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and F.H. Varley. Tom Thomson, who died in 1917, continued to exert a presence, while Johnston remained a member for only two years. In 1926 the members invited A.J. Casson to join the Group, bringing it back to seven. Each member was an individual, and while they all espoused the promotion of painting that connected in style and subject matter to the Canadian environment, they each had their own ways of doing so.

The gallery is well attended on a Saturday morning, its audience respectfully progressing from one piece to another, including the accompanying installations which the AGO has mounted to complement the Art for a Nation travelling show, and the handsome AGO shop where clever marketing tactics and enthusiastic consumerism make stopping by obligatory. (I'm getting a BOYZ IN THE WOOD T - shirt.) But in spite of its solemnity, its explication of something quintessentially Canadian, its catechism of "the spirit of young Canada"(f.3) the artists themselves have managed to subvert their own doctrine in little, but important ways, and perhaps in spite of themselves.

Ethnologist Marius Barbeau compared the importation of cultural values to importing wine, olive oil and silk.(f.4) Apparently Canadians were not willing to live by corn and tobacco alone, and Canadian cultural consumers were getting their values from abroad at the expense of indigenous products. …