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The Landscape as metaphor in Canadian Art

January 24, 2013

Canada is the second largest country in the world and at the same time it is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. Moose still vastly outnumber people in Canada’s North. We are also, if you discount the aboriginal population, a very young country. We date the founding of our country to 1867. Of course, there were settlements prior to that date by both the French and English who consider themselves the founding peoples of modern day Canada. This conveniently overlooks the fact that Canada was already populated by aboriginal people who where promptly misnamed by the colonists, Indians. The colonists were continuing the mistake of early Spanish explorers who, in finding the Americas for the first time, thought that they were in India. What early Canadian white explorers really found was a vast and overpowering landscape. It was a country that was, to a large measure, cold and cruel to the newcomers, but it offered them riches if they could tame the land. These early Europeans never really conquered the land, but some of them did try to capture its magnificence on canvas.

Why is the landscape a powerful metaphor for the Canadian psyche? Are Canadians victims of their own self-proclaimed myth of a unity with nature? Myth has always been a strong force in the way that a country envisions itself. It has certainly been a help to the Americans who see in the myth of their `Old West’ an allegory of what they hold to be sacred American values, and to the French who enshrine the myth that France is the centre of the cultural universe. There are times when a myth that a nation believes about itself, such as Nazi Germany’s belief in Aryan supremacy, can lead to catastrophe. Canada’s myth pales beside these three examples probably because we, as a nation, do not have the political power to export our mythology to other countries. Canada has not been, and very likely will never be, a colonialist power; indeed, our history is one of being a colony. It is interesting that in the major myths of the United State, France and Nazi Germany it is the people who act on, and control, `nature’ and in the case of Canada’s dominant myth, it is nature that controls the people. These contrasting myths are a perfect metaphor for colonialists and the colonized. Canadian art is in awe of nature, not its conqueror.

To this day, many Canadians are overpowered by the physical immensity of our country; there are still vast regions of Canada that remain either not populated or underpopulated. It is not surprising, then, that our national identity is tied to our image of the landscape, in spite of the fact that a vast majority of Canadians today live in very large urban centres such as Montreal and Toronto. Many of us live as close as we can to the American boarder in an attempt to get as far South as possible to avoid the realities of winter and still remain Canadian. Like all stereotypes there are some truths and some falsehoods in our self image. In truth, most foreigners’ image of Canada and Canadians is closer to the stereotype than to the reality. They see Canada as a land that is vast and cold–it is–and populated by Eskimos, Mounties, French Canadian Trappers, and Indians all travelling by dog sled to their respective igloos–it isn’t.

Many Canadians do love the land. It is likely that a larger percentage of Canadians retreat to summer country cottages than do the citizens in any other society even if it means living in a sub-standard hut, with little or no modern plumbing, and being eaten alive by the world’s largest mosquitoes and black flies–a holiday for the truly masochistic–but it does give us a chance to commune with nature, and nature is never very far away in Canada. The `country’ is always close at hand, even to the centres of our largest cities. The forces of nature can, in the Canadian context, be overpowering. People tend to get lost in such a setting and that is why you will find few people portrayed in early Canadian art, dominated as it was by landscape.

The earliest European artists in Canada were artists by advocation rather than vocation. They were Catholic priests and missionaries sent from France to `save’ the natives; they were British military officers who were trained in watercolour for its practical uses in topography; they were British civil servants who were surveyors first and artists second; and they were the wives of British officials who had in trained in art as part of their `finishing’. Up to, and through, the 18th century there were very few professional artists in Canada. It was, after all, a hard inhospitable place to live with the possible exceptions of the garrison towns of Halifax and Quebec City which were the only centres of `civilization’ in a remote land. There were very few other towns and even fewer collectors and patrons of art in early Canada. This doesn’t mean that there were not remarkable images done by these early artists. It was not good art by international standards of the day, but it is the best picture we have of not only what early Canada looked like, but what people thought about it.

We have records of at least fifty British officers who served in Canada in the 18th and early 19th century who did watercolours and topographical drawings. Officers in the British Army considered themselves `gentlemen’ and upper class in a class-bound society. When stationed in a remote corner of the Empire, which Canada certainly was during this period, these officers had very few official duties to occupy their time. This gave them ample opportunity for a leisurely garrison life which included time for painting.

Lieutenant-General Thomas Davies (c.1737-1812), who did wonderful watercolours of Niagara Falls, is a typical example of an early Canadian artist. He attended the Royal Military Academy at Woolrich where he studied watercolour. He had several tours in Canada between 1757 and 1790, served in both the French and Indian Wars and in the American Revolution, and each time he was in Canada, he painted. His pictures of Canada were widely shown in Britain, including the Royal Academy, and they were published and sold as engravings. His large watercolours, while not great art, are very competent and are a remarkable record of early Canada.

By the mid-19th century, the early colonial period was over. The British garrisons were closed. The age of gentlemen officer artists was over; however, a new group of indigenous Canadian artists was emerging. These artists were either born in Canada or they had immigrated with the intention of staying. All of them viewed Canada has their native land rather than as an exotic place to visit. This is the beginnings of real Canadian art. These Canadian artists were no less in awe of the landscape than their expatiated predecessors. They began to look westward to the Rockies, and beyond, all the way to the Pacific, and comprehend the enormity of Canada. This was also the time for the organization of a Canadian art establishment via the founding of the Royal Canadian Academy in 1880 and with it, the beginnings of the National Gallery of Canada.

Today the National Gallery is filled with the landscapes of the last half of the 19th century by Canadian artists like Lucius O’Brien, John Fraser, William Cresswell, William Brymner and many others. John Fraser (1838-1898) was the first to paint the western mountains in all their splendour, but he was preceded to the West by a much more interesting artist, Paul Kane (1810-1871), who was never really part of the Canadian art establishment and who at mid-century travelled across the country painting a record of the native people. His is the best chronicle we have of their life before it was changed forever by the advance of so-called civilization. Unfortunately the vast majority of his epic work now resides in a museum in Texas forever lost to us because we failed to understand its value and allowed the work to leave Canada for a foreign home.

While late 19th and early 20th century Canadian artists attempted to come to grips with the grandeur of their native landscape, they did so in an European manner. Many of our better artists received their training in Europe, in particular France, or in Canada from artists who were trained in Europe. We may have had a unique subject matter in our landscape, but we lacked a native style. Our artists who went to Europe during this period, with the exception of James Morrice, studied with all the wrong people. They went to the Academies to learn classical methods and somehow managed to miss major events like the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements. Late 19th century Canadian landscape painting was more akin to 17th century Dutch landscape art than it was to anything modern. This was to change in the first twenty years of the 20th century.

A group of artists living in Toronto at the beginning of the century was searching for a way to paint Canada in a uniquely Canadian way. They would emerge in 1920 as the Group of Seven named after the artists who were the founders of the group: Lawren S. Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, A.Y. Jackson, Frederick Varley, Franz Johnson and Franklin Carmichael. Together with colleague Tom Thomson, who died in 1917, before the `Group” was official named, these artists were key players both in Canadian landscape painting and in the history of Canadian art. The Group, along with Thomson, are Canadian cultural icons known to every school child in the country. Some of their images like Thomson’s The Jack Pine and The West Wind, and Harris’ Lake Superior, have passed from icon to cliche. However, there is no doubt that these artists really loved Canada and that they wanted to find a unique way of expressing it which would appeal to all Canadians. Though both their successes and failures they left a mark on Canadian art from which our culture will never escape.

The method the Group used was really a rehash of Post-Impressionism many years after the style had passed its peak in Europe. Post-Impressionism would not have seemed radical in Europe in 1915, but in Canada it certainly was. The Group’s direct approach to nature was different. They painted what they saw on location with an impressionist palette. The results were, to some viewers who were used to more `polished’ works, both bizarre and unsettling. But these artists were unapologetic. They thought themselves to be the champions of a new Canadian vision. It was a vision that reinforced a stereotype of Canada–plaid-checked lumberjacks cutting their way through the primeval forest. Their own writings reflected this idea of Canada. Sometimes they appeared to be more like a group of boy scouts than a group of painters some of who had been trained in Belgium, France, Germany and England. However, they looked to themselves and their country, rather than to Europe, as a model for their art; this continued especially in English Canadian art, for the next thirty years.

These artists who had won an artistic revolution over the entrenched forces of the Royal Canadian Academy, like so many revolutionaries before them, both artistic and political, soon turned reactionary. The very thing that they fought for, artistic freedom, they tried to deny to those artists who came after them. In particular, they fought a very successful battle against the forces of abstraction; so successful, in fact, that it was not until the early 1950’s that abstraction was freely shown in English Canada. In the place of artistic innovation, the `wild nature’ theme of the Group was replayed over and over again, this time by the Canadian Group of Painters formed on the ashes of The Group of Seven which was disbanded in 1930 because the Group had become so larged that the use of the number seven was really a misnomer.

There were a number of good, and a few outstanding, artists who either worked with, or against, the Canadian Group of Painters. One outstanding artist was Emily Carr (1871-1945) who was a contemporary of the Seven and was actively encouraged by them, was a member of the Canadian Group of Painters. She was a better painter than any of the Seven with the possible exception of Harris and Varley. She was unusual for a number of reasons: the primary one, of course, was her gender–art in Canada, at that time, was pretty much a mens’ club; second, she was from, and worked most of her life in, British Columbia, a cultural backwater if there ever was one; and third, she had a very good art education in both the United States and France. Carr had an affinity for the place of her birth which shows over and over again in her work. Like Harris and Varley, who had both moved to British Columbia during the 1930’s, Carr had a mystical relationship to nature. Her paintings ring true which is something that can not be said for the work of very many painters of her generation.

David Milne (1882-1953) was another outstanding artist who was a contemporary of both the Group of Seven and the Canadian Group of Painters. He was never a member of any group nor did he want to be. Although, he was an artistic loner, he was much closer to Modernism than were other Canadian artists of the period. He was educated and lived in New York during most of the period from 1904 through 1928. It was in New York City that he saw, and learned from, important European and American modern art. He was the only Canadian artist to exhibit in the important 1913 Armory Show in New York. His work is unlike that of other Canadian artists of his generation; while he, like other Canadian artists, had a love of nature and the outdoors, his approach to landscape was filtered through early Modernism. Milne was shunned for much of his life by the Canadian art establishment. It was only through the generosity of one or two collectors who supported his work, that he was able eke out a livelihood as an artist.

Once the stranglehold of the Canadian Group of painters was broken, Canadian art began to follow the dictates of international Modernism. In short, for better or for worse, our art began to look like everybody elses art. In many cases this new art was better than the tired recapitulations of Group of Seven motifs. Even so, the romance of landscape has not been lost on succeeding generations of Canadian artists, although it is only one in a variety of stylistic choices contemporary Canadian artists have now have.

There are important Canadian realist artists who paint landscape as part of their efforts such as Alex Colville, Tom Forrestall and Chris Pratt. These three very different artists work in a highly finished style that has been mis-labelled Magic Realism. What they share is a common educational background. Colville taught the other two artists at a school that he had also attended and they share some common concerns. Their landscapes are, in general, particular to the region in which they all live, Atlantic Canada. Their style which is in isolation from main-line Canadian art, matches the region which is physically and mentally apart from the rest of the country. What is important is that they strongly identify with Atlantic Canada and see it as a place that is different and, to their minds, better than the rest of Canada.

An important abstract artist who has used landscape particularly well is Patterson Ewen. His large carved and painted plywood panels give a new perspective to the Canadian landscape. His personality, which has often been troubled, is reflected by his use of landscape to make a personal statement. Ewen’s paintings are more of a map of his mind than they are of the landscape.
There are countless other contemporary Canadian artists using the landscape as a motif in their art; however, their methods are as varied as there are styles in today’s Pluralism. In addition to the more traditional media of painting, sculpture and photography there are landscape artists who are working in performance, video and mixed media.

Why does nature continue to exert such a powerful force on the Canadian psyche and on Canadian Art? Our neighbours to the south, the Americans, have not been immune to nature’s call; in particular, during the 19th century, when their own population was small and they were extending themselves ever westward, their relationship to nature was not unlike ours. One only has to look to the writings of Thoreau to understand something of this feeling in 19th century America. Much has changed in the United States since then. Canada has changed too, but, perhaps, not as much as the United States. We have one tenth of its population, in a country that is larger in land area. Admittedly, much of our land is not as usable as theirs, but that only adds to the romance: the frozen cruel north, the barren tundra and the impassable mountains, all present a forceful pictorial image that is Canada, metaphorically and literally.

Originally published: 12 May 1991
Professor Virgil Hammock, Sackville, N.B. Canada

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