Northern Exposure

Article excerpt

This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the official debut of the Group of Seven, Canada's best known and most influential artistic alliance. Two major retrospectives will commemorate the event, but the Group hardly needs the publicity. Some of the most recognizable images in the country, their works already occupy major niches in museums across Canada.

Schooled in the Impressionist practice of painting outdoors directly from nature, the members of the Group of Seven departed from the tame, gentle landscapes of Impressionism to capture the grandeur and variety of Canada. They set out to define a national character through an art that celebrates the land - and they succeeded by focusing on the Canadian wilderness as symbolic of a New World purity and unlimited potential.

Even Canadians find it hard to grasp the geographic scope of their country. Second in size only to Russia, Canada covers 3,849,672 square miles. From east to west, it stretches 3,426 miles, crossing one-quarter of the world's time zones. Yet it is sparsely populated, with nine of ten Canadians living within 100 miles of the southern border with the United States. Although the Canadian Pacific Railway had laid track across the country in the 1880s, at the turn of the century much of Canada remained untamed landscape where an adventurer could take his own measure.

The Group of Seven explored and documented the wilds in a way that made the unpeopled landscape part of every Canadian's birthright. "They were part of building pride in the beauty of the wilderness, reviving the Romantic tradition of the sublime in nature," says Megan Bice, a curator at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, outside Toronto. "Now it's become part of our identity. Their painting identifies the Canadian ideal, even though most of us live in cities."

The impact of the Group is all the more remarkable because it existed formally for little more than a decade, beginning with a 1920 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario). In a sense, historical developments conspired to produce the movement. Academic art was waning and technical experimentation was on the rise. Europe lay exhausted by the bloodiest war in history, yet the North American continent - especially the northern-most tier - was just opening up. But history is only a stage set until it is peopled by actors, and the Group could never have assembled without four strong personalities: Lawren Harris (1885 - 1970), J. E. H. MacDonald (1873-1932), Tom Thomson (1877-1917), and A. Y. Jackson (1882-1974). Among them they had the financial means, training, vision, and outdoorsmanship to stir others into action. Ironically, these proponents of wilderness came together in a thoroughly urban setting, Toronto, which was Canada's fastest growing city at the time and the country's manufacturing center.

The seeds of the Group of Seven were planted during 1911-13, when the independently wealthy Harris sought out MacDonald after the latter's 1911 landscape exhibition at the Toronto Arts & Letters Club. Both were steeped in Romantic ideas about nature as a moral force and were determined to define a characteristically Canadian approach to art. They became fast friends. When they saw an exhibition of contemporary Scandinavian art in 1912, they felt an immediate affinity. MacDonald wrote that the north country rendered in these works reminded him of Canada and that the paintings were "true souvenirs of the mystic north around which we all revolve." Harris felt that the Scandinavian show could inspire a revolution in Canadian painting. "From that time on we knew that we were at the beginning of an all-engrossing adventure," he wrote. "That adventure, as it turned out, was to include the exploration of the whole country for its expressive and creative possibilities in painting."

Discussions between Harris and MacDonald about what should constitute an authentically Canadian style attracted other artists working at the graphic arts firm of Grip, Limited, where MacDonald was head of design. …