A new exhibition at England’s Dulwich Picture Gallery has been attracting long line-ups, which in itself isn’t a big surprise in a country where culture is considered to be an essential part of daily life. What is somewhat unexpected is that the subject of this minor blockbuster is the work of Canada’s Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.
The Dulwich Picture Gallery is Britain’s oldest gallery and certainly among its most prestigious, so a show there has to be regarded as a major coup for the Group, especially given that their works haven’t been exhibited in the UK since 1925. Comprising paintings chosen from the collections of the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the McMichael Collection of Canadian Art as well as from private Canadian collections, the show, appropriately titled “Painting Canada,” includes 122 works. Among the paintings selected are many that we in Canada have long considered to be our most immediately recognizable symbols of twentieth century Canadian art.
Critical reviews of the show have verged on rapturous. Laura Cumming in the Guardian says “Each painting spikes a desire for the next – more of this landscape, more of these painters.” And in The Evening Standard, Brian Sewell remarked on what he saw as the stature on the Group as viewed within a world context: “Above all elements Canadian, these are painters who knew how to handle paint and colour, and how to turn a small sketch executed on the spot into a high-pitched studio masterpiece.”
Popularly regarded within this country as Canada’s premier interpreters of the Canadian landscape, the Group of Seven had their first exhibition in 1920, at the Art Gallery of Toronto (which later became the Art Gallery of Ontario). For that first exhibition, the artists included Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and F.H. Varley. Tom Thomson, who is generally thought of as having been an exhibiting member of the Group, had died in 1917. He had, however, been good friends with the members of the Group and had been an important inspiration and mentor.
From the beginning, the members of the Group of Seven saw themselves as the originators of a particularly “national” school of landscape painters, presenting a response to the Canadian landscape that was truly modern and authentically Canadian, but national acceptance was somewhat delayed in coming. They had early support from Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery of Canada who was not reluctant to show their work and to acquire their paintings for the National Gallery collection, but newspaper reports from the time expressed popular bewilderment with their bright colour and slap-dash paint application. Eventually, however, their art gained widespread popular acceptance and today many of their paintings are regarded as powerful icons of Canadian art.
In their search for a truly “Canadian” vision of artistic expression, the artists that would later show together as the Group of Seven realized that they had to present authentically Canadian subject-matter in a way that was free of the conventions of earlier, European academic art with its tame representations of pastoral views. They looked to the Canadian wilderness, in particular the wild natural landscape of Northern Ontario, for their inspiration and drew on modern stylistic examples – turn-of-the-centjury post-impressionism with its bold paint handling and vividly expressive colour – to create a visual representation of a new and brash nation.
As the Group established their success, they began to expand their influence by inviting artists from other parts of the country to join in their exhibitions. In 1926, after Franz Johnston’s resignation, A.J. Casson was appointed a member. In 1930 Edwin Holgate from Montréal and in 1932 L.L. Fitzgerald from Winnipeg were admitted, giving the Group of Seven a truly national presence.