A Canadian Modernism: The Pre-Group of Seven 'Algonquin School', 1912-17

Article excerpt

TOM THOMSON AND FUTURE GROUP OF SEVEN ARTISTS J.E.H. MacDonald, Lauren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer and F.H. Varley journeyed to the Ontario Northland 'to paint unequipped with the mental paraphernalia of academies and without any sense of the solemnity and importance of the rules or methods' (Housser: 24) - or so the long-held nationalist story goes. The description comes from F.B. Housser's 1926 A Canadian Art Movement: The Story of the Group of Seven, a seminal and increasingly infamous work which described how the artists channelled the Canadian 'spirit' to produce a national art free from external influence. The Group of Seven mythology has become an important part of Canadian identity, a sign of national and cultural uniqueness taught to generations of Canadians.

While the 'born of the palette' myth holds strong in the Canadian nationalist canon, academics have increasingly debunked it as good storytelling but poor history. The artists' European influences, including their training, use of modernist technique and colours, and break with traditional art have long been noted by art historians. Dennis Reid's 1970 Group of Seven exhibition catalogue was an early and still one of the best scholarly examinations of the Group of Seven 'story', including the artists' combination of European approaches and Canadian conservatism. Yet as recently as 1998 Ann Davis noted that 'Canadian analysts of the Group of Seven have chosen a selective, segmented approach in examining the Group's modernism. While generally labelling the Group modern, many insist that it has no links with European modernism' (p. 109). Since that time there has been a greater exploration of the artists' work as a response to Canadian modernity and placing it within modernist frameworks. Davis has shed new light on the spiritual, philosophic and mystical elements of the artists' work (1973, 1992) and has raised a number of comparisons between these artists and European modern artists (1998). Lynda Jessup (1998, 2001) and Ross D. Cameron (1998, 1999) have both insightfully placed the artists within an 'antimodern' reaction to Canadian modernity which involved the quest for an 'authentic' and 'real' experience through the outdoors and a landscape art.

The complexity of the European modernist dimension has yet to be fully appreciated, however. In the 1912-17 pre-Group of Seven period, Thomson, MacDonald, Harris, Jackson, Lismer and Varley developed a nationalist 'Algonquin School' of painting by altering and adapting the European modernist fusion of aesthetics and ideology to Canadian circumstances.1 The Algonquin School's modernism was selective, in many ways a hybrid, sharing the European challenge to traditional art and linking aesthetics to an ideological platform, but rejecting European avant-guardism and socio-experimentalism in favour of socially and nationally constructive purposes. Powerful colour and brushstrokes, adopted from Impressionism, Expressionism, and even Fauvism, were not only used outside of their European ideological contexts, but their application to national and spiritual concerns - reinforcing a traditional conservative morality - ran counter to the original European intent. One finds, then, not a European 'art for art's sake' but a Canadian 'art for nation's sake'.

The coming of modernity in Europe and North America in the decades before and following the turn of the twentieth century can be identified by the boom in new technologies, media and sciences which resulted in tremendous social, economic, cultural and political changes. From the discovery of X-Rays and electrons to the development of automobiles and air travel to the building of industrial factories and skyscrapers, modernity brought radical alterations to everyday life. Tremendous change and rapid development characterised this 'dimly understood, but manifestly real, historical shift'(Britt: 7). On the other hand, 'Modernism' was both a reaction to and an alternative to modernity, primarily developed amongst cultural producers in the large urban centres of Paris, Berlin, and London - there was a lag before it developed in New York and the rest of North America. …