The backbone of Canada

February 9, 2017   ·   0 Comments

In a revelation last weekend, I realized what constitutes the true backbone of Canada.

A visit to the McMichael Art Gallery over the  weekend, having not been there for many years, taught me a great more about Canada than I already knew.

The gallery is a magnificent building with a beautiful entrance and cafe on the ground floor and 13 galleries throughout that and the upper floor. There are a few outer buildings of rough construction, one of which is the wilderness “shack” of Tom Thomson, who died in 1917 before the Group of Seven was formed in 1920 but is considered, peripherally, as one of them.

Situated in Kleinberg, with the Humber River running by it, the McMichael Art Gallery is surrounded by 100 acres of woodland to reminisce about the wilderness across Canada these artists loved so much.

The mantra of the McMichael is to collect and show only Canadian art with 6,000 works of “Tom Thomson, the Group of Seven, their contemporaries, First Nation, Metis, Inuit and other artists who have made a contribution to the development of Canadian art.” (McMichael website)

My companion on this visit, himself an artist, had plenty to tell me about the painters whose works are on display. Growing up in the art world, as his father was a water-colour artist, Jeff’s remembrances about the painters his father knew and whom he met as a boy, added a richness to our tour, bringing the artists home to me as people one knew, not simply historical figures to be studied and admired from afar, as it were.

There is a small theatre at McMichael where an old film about the Group of Seven, a story rather than strictly a documentary, is showing in black and white. As we were watching it, two of the actors, playing the parts of the artists, were in a canoe, paddling across a body of water.

Said Jeff, “You look at the world today, the way everything is so fast, changing every 15 minutes – so, you can hardly keep up to it – then, you see these two in the canoe. If that were a painting that someone did a hundred years ago, it would still look the same as if it was painted today. Everything in our world is in a rush to change but, in 400 years, if someone paints two men in a canoe, it will still look like that.” He watched the men skimming over the water. “It’s wonderful to think of that,” he commented.

The exhibitions at McMichael are very interesting. I had not understood the importance of the work of the Group of Seven on the path of Canadian art and their influence on the art world internationally.   

The original members of the group were Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. Macdonald and F.H. Varley; later, A.J. Casson, Edwin Holgate and L.L. FitzGerald were invited to join.

Influenced by the later 19th Century European painters like Claude Monet and Paul Gaugin, this group of Canadian artists rebelled against the traditional way of painting as a strict imitation of nature in favour painting not simply what they saw but how they felt about what they were seeing.

They took a whole new approach to bright colours, also using the paint for texture, conveying mountains, trees, lakes in simplistic, interpretive ways. So, their paintings were revolutionary, outrageous to many but beloved by galleries here and overseas.

McMichael is the perfect backdrop for the exhibition of these paintings.

When Lawren Harris went to stay in the USA for some time, particularly in New York, he became the sole painter of the group to take on abstract painting. Together with others in the USA, they formed a group of Transcendental painters, who strove, with shapes and colour, to look for the spiritual in their art’s message. Harris’ work is fabulous for its structure and magnetism.

Once to the end, we went to the cafe for lunch. Sitting in the cafe, taking in the gallery’s ambience, I had a realization:

The backbone of Canada as a country is its art: its fabulous, innovative, internationally respected artists, not just visual artists, but think of our music scene for decades, our writers, sculptors . . .

A country is a whole, created by its population, resources and how that population treats itself and those resources. I believe that, here in Canada, we potentially handle our population and resources better than most countries.

Yet, it seems to me that the artistic output of this nation’s people over the century and a half of our “official history” distinguishes Canada above all else. Most importantly, across the spectrum of our differences, we are all equally people as artists.

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