A Study in Modernism the Group of Seven as an Unexpectedly Typical Case

Article excerpt

In this essay the author argues that the Group of Seven were firmly linked to the tradition of European modernism. The Group were dedicated to creating a new, autonomous Canadian aesthetic and were not supportive of the conservative tendencies of the artistic modes of the past.

The advent of modernism in Canadian art was loudly trumpeted both nationally and internationally in 1924, when Canada sent an exhibition to the British Empire Exhibition held in Wembley, England. As happens so often, this change in direction did not occur without a lot of noise. In the controversy that surrounded the selection of the Canadian section, battle lines were drawn between those promoting conservative tendencies, that is the artists housed in the Royal Canadian Academy, and those championing modern causes, painters supported by the National Gallery of Canada. The core and strength of this latter group, the modems, was the Group of Seven.

That the modems won this battle was beyond doubt. Even before the show left for England, Sir Edmund Walker, chairman of the National Gallery's governing council, noted in his diary: "I feel sure that whether our modernists are liked or not, the existence of a form of plastic art which is distinctly Canadian must be admitted. Apparently every effort of the few who control the Royal Canadian Academy has failed."' Walker need not have been apprehensive about the show's reception. The critic for the London Times spoke approvingly of "emphatic design and bold brush work," of painters "strongly racy of the soil."2 He was in good company. C. Lewis Hind, in the Daily Chronicle went as far as to label it "the most vital group of paintings produced since the war - indeed this century."3 And the Tate Gallery gave an even more meaningful endorsement by purchasing Jackson's Ships Entering Halifax Harbour. Back home Hector Charlesworth, editor of Saturday Night and imitator of Edward VI, delighted in inventing new opprobrium to keep the controversy over style in the public eye.4 Suggesting that the British critics had been duped into singing the praises of these "freak pictures,"5 he railed against "the blood and thunder school. . . a group of Toronto painters who hold that Canada is only truly interpreted through a single narrow and rigid formula of ugliness."6 Canadian public reaction to the Group had never been as negative as one might suppose from public rhetoric. But the battle had been won. The strength of Charlesworth's invective simply underlined the magnitude of the modernists' triumph.

What was it about Canadian modernism that so enraged Charlesworth? How did it relate to modernism in Europe? These questions are complicated by the multitude of positions encompassed within modernism. The term in the visual arts, usually refers to the period starting in 1860, initiated by Manet, and ending with the post-war or late-modernism period running into the 1960s. The modernist avant-gardes shared a sceptical loss of confidence in the artistic modes of the past and in shared social practices. As Christopher Butler explains in Early Modernism, "Nietzsche, Ibsen, William James, and others contested the totalizing religious and political frameworks of the nineteenth century, in favour of a growing pragmatism .... "7 Many agreed with Nietzsche that the need was for "an absolute scepticism towards all inherited concepts."8 Early modernist practitioners withdrew from social consensus, from the assumptions of the past in two ways. First they developed notions of stylistic autonomy, so that their work would seem to depend upon aesthetic conventions that were independent of public norms. Second they relied on the idea that art had to be subjective and intuitive. Kandinsky, for example, echoes Yeates in proclaiming that "When religion, science and morality are shaken, the two last by the strong hand of Nietzsche, and when the outer supports threaten to fall, man turns his gaze from externals in on to himself. …