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Across the River and Into the Trees

February 12, 2014

Landscape and Northern Myth
[This is the text of a talk that I gave, and was published, in Finland in 1998.]

“This task demands a new type of artist; one who divests himself of the velvet coat and flowing tie of his caste, puts on the outfit of the bushwhacker and prospector; closes with his environment; paddles, portages and makes camp; sleeps in the out-of-doors under the stars; climbs mountains within his sketch box on his back.” – Fred Housser

Northern countries such as Canada, Finland and other Scandinavian countries share something besides long cold winters. We rely on our image of the landscape as one way to define us as nations. In Canada, a vast majority of the population is urban and the contact of the people, if any, with the wilderness is limited to vacations and time in their ‘cottages’. Yet, the idée fixe remains in the minds of many Canadians of a constant battle against the savage elements for survival. The late Northrop Fry, Canada’s best known literary and cultural critic, spoke of “…the vast hinterland of the north, with its sense of mystery and of fear of the unknown, and the curious guilt feelings that its uninhabited loneliness seems to inspire in this exploiting age.” Throughout its history Canada’s artists have explored and amplified our uneasy relationship with nature with their portrayal of the landscape and help shape our identity as a people.

Eight years ago I gave a lecture titled The Landscape as Metaphor in Canadian Art in several European cities. In the interim I have thought more about this subject of landscape and its impact on who and what we are. This kind invitation to Finland has given me the opportunity to focus my thoughts. Besides our common bond as northern people we, Canadians and Finns, share the idea that our national identities can be witnessed through how we see our respective landscapes reflected by the work of some of our most respected artists. I am speaking particularly of our artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when cultural nationalism was a very important issue in both of our countries.

I cannot speak with authority if national identity is still a burning issue in Finland. This I hope to learn during my visit. I know that nationalism was an issue while you were under the thumb of Russia and before that Sweden. I can assure you that national identity is still an issue in my country although there many artists in present day Canada who see themselves as internationalists and would view using art as a weapon of cultural identity with suspicion. There is one advantage that you have and that is your unique language. The English language that we in English Canada share with the rest of the world, and in particular with the United States, is a large part of our problem of sustaining a unique identity and the French of French Canada is little better off except that their language gives them a sense of difference within North America.

We started our history as a nation as the physical colony of both Great Britain and France and, in some ways, today we are both the economic and cultural colony of the United States. The most powerful nation in the world with ten times our population is our nearest neighbor. We share, at least in English Canada, a common language. We are totally engulfed by their media–in print, in film and in television. Yet there are those, and I count myself among them, who would like to separate ourselves from the American juggernaut.

This takes some explaining as I am a dual citizen of the two countries–American by birth and Canadian by choice. I moved to Canada over thirty years ago because I thought there was a difference. What Canadians want from their country it is a sense of law, order and good government. This is very different from the American idea of rugged individualism, expansionism and Manifest Dynasty. The province of Canada where I live, New Brunswick, was chiefly settled by people who were called Loyalists. These were people who fled the United States during its revolution because they remained loyal to the Crown; obviously not revolutionaries, they were staunch conservatives. Conservatism is not in itself a bad thing assuming that there is something to conserve. For the Loyalists it was King and Country.

The American Revolution, like any war, tends to be seen through the eyes of the victor, the revolutionaries, rather than with the losers, the loyalists. This is even the way that it is seen today by many Canadians through American media where their revolution is continually portrayed in American television on our screens as a righteous struggle against the tyranny of monarchy. What I find interesting is that, to my mind, Canada, in spite of its royalists roots, is a more socialist and caring country than the United States. This is because Canada is, and was, a more paternalistic country. I am using paternalism here in a positive way. It simply means that government sees that it has an obligation to care for all its citizens. One example, although there are others, will suffice. Canada has universal medical care supported through its tax system. The United States does not. In truth, our system of a caring government is eroding , as are similar social democratic governments, in a head long rush into the so-called global economy. This is why this question of identity is so important. Either we find and protect who we are or we run the danger of becoming like everyone else whatever that may be.

Why is the landscape a powerful metaphor for the Canadian psyche? Are Canadians victims of their own myth of their understanding of the power of nature? British born, American historian, Simon Schama, says, and he is correct, that: “Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock” 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 myths 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 colonised. Canadian art is in awe of nature, not its conqueror.

What is it to feel Canadian? Frye says it: “…was to feel part of no-man’s land with huge rivers, lakes, and islands that few Canadians had ever seen.” And “In the Canadas (Upper and Lower), even in the Maritimes, the frontier was all around one, a part and a condition of one’s whole imaginative being.” This description of early Canadians was true at the time and in some ways is still true. One does not have to go far outside of Canada’s largest cities to find wilderness. Vast areas of our country are sparsely populated or even totally unpopulated. Yet, it is not an easy landscape and besides its obvious beauty it can kill you. But our landscape expresses what we are, or think we are, even if we live in large cities such as Montreal or Toronto.

For the purposes of this paper I will limit myself to the first thirty years of this century and to the work of the Group of Seven. The artists in the Group of Seven are synonymous with the issue of Canadian nationalism and there is a direct connection with Scandinavia art from the late 19th and early 20th century. The Seven were Franklin H. Carmichael, Lawren S. Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Fraz Johnson, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and Frederick Varley. By all rights the Seven should have been the Eight, but Tom Thomson, who was the prototype of the heroic Canadian landscape painter died in 1917 three years before the Group was officially founded in 1920. Actually before the time the Group disbanded in 1930, and became, three years later, the Canadian Group of Painters, they had already added A.J. Casson, L.L. FitzGerald and Edwin Holgate to their number. It wasn’t that members of the Group could not count, but that the very name Group of Seven had come to mean Canadian nationalism; it was already iconic and any change of name would have been unthinkable.

Forest Undergrowth by Tom Thomson 1915-1916

Forest Undergrowth by Tom Thomson 1915-1916

The artists of the Seven were certainly not the first artists to notice and paint the grandeur of the Canada landscape. 19th century artists William Brymner, William Cresswell, John Fraser and Lucius O’Brien to name just four did a credible and workman like job of painting Canada, however, they did so in a European manner. This was not surprising as our early artists were either trained in Europe or by artists who were trained there. The only difference in their pictures from that of European landscape paintings was their exotic location. The Rockies rather than the Alps. The landscape painting done in the second half of the 19th century in Canada were almost without exception very conservative. Movements such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism went without notice in Canada even if some of our artists had trained in Paris while these movements were in vogue. Our artists stuck to places like the Académie Julian when perhaps they would have been better off hanging out with Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge.

The membership of the original Group of Seven was neither homogeneous in training or country of birth. Leaving aside, the Canadian born, and largely self-taught Thomson, three, Lismer, MacDonald and Varley were born in England and the others in Canada. Lismer and Varley studied at the Sheffield School of Art in England and later at the Antwerp Academy of Art. Carmichael, who studied in Canada, also ended up at the Antwerp Academy. Jackson studied in Canada, the United States and France, Johnson in Canada and the United States. Harris in Munich and Berlin. MacDonald, although born in England, did all his studying in Canada. What they did have in common was a love of nature as a subject for their art. Several of them worked prior to World War One, by necessity, at the same Toronto commercial art firm, Grip Studios. The exception was the independently wealthy Lawren Harris who became identified as a leader and spokesman for the Group. He also, with non-artist Dr. James MacCallum, a Toronto ophthalmologist, bankrolled the early development of the Group.

Canada prior to 1914 was regarded as an far off outpost of the British Empire. Our Governors General, the Head of the Canadian State, were all British born and our laws ratified by the British parliament, but there were plenty of Canadians, including the band of artists who were to become the Group of Seven, who were anxious to see a country that they could call their own. Harris returned from Germany to Canada in 1910 and shortly thereafter, in 1911, saw an exhibition of work by J.E.H. MacDonald and was immediately drawn to the older artist’s images of rural Ontario. The two started working together and MacDonald introduced Harris to his colleagues at the ‘Grip’. This was the informal genesis of the Group of Seven.

From their very beginnings the Group of Seven saw themselves as populists and not as an avant-garde. Art historian Dennis Reid, who curated the 50th anniversary exhibition of the Group states: ” They saw their role as more fundamental, and at the same time more general, one of a profound aesthetic involvement of a large number of people.” He continues: ” …What was needed, they felt, was a direct and unaffected mode of painting derived from an experience of the Canadian land that all Canadians, if they would only look about themselves, would have to acknowledge as being true and worthwhile.” It is very important to understand these facts in order to place the Group not only in art history, but in the cultural history of Canada as well; the latter is far more important than the former because their efforts to forge a unique Canadian identity far outweigh their contributions to the history of art.

The Group needed a model for their nationalistic art and they found it in an exhibition in January of 1913 as Harris recalled in 1954: “MacDonald and I had discussed the possibility of an art expression which would embody the varied moods, character and spirit of this country (Canada). We heard there was an exhibition of modern Scandinavian paintings at the Albright (Knox) Gallery in Buffalo–and took the train to Buffalo to see it. This turned out to be one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences either of us had. Here was a large number of paintings that corroborated our ideas. Here were paintings of Northern lands created in the spirit of those lands and through the hearts and minds of those who knew and loved them. Here was an art bold, vigorous and uncompromising, embodying direct first hand experience of the great North, and our conviction was reinforced…From that time on we knew we were at the beginnings of a great adventure.”

Another thing that appealed to Harris and MacDonald was, as recalled by MacDonald in 1931, that the Scandinavian art in the exhibition was not fashionable or ‘Parisian’ and an art that could be “…understood and enjoyed without metaphysics”. This certainly can be seen as a reaction against modern art, but the Group wanted to create, and maintain, an art accessible to all Canadians and they believed that avant-garde art was not able to do that. It was also widely believed as late as the 1930s by the Group, and their supporters, that “…abstraction is not a natural form of art expression in Canada”. It is interesting to note, in spite of these strong statements, that Lawren Harris went on to become an excellent abstract painter.

Cathedral Mountain by J.E.H. MacDonald , 1927

Cathedral Mountain by J.E.H. MacDonald , 1927

There are pluses and minuses to the whole question of nationalism and art. On one level nationalistic art is propaganda , pure and simple, however, it can also echo the legitimate feelings of a society for their nation. The question is how do we navigate between theses two poles? The Nazis put a nasty twist on Nordic nationalism and art with their motto of Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil) which was equated with racial purity. What was good and true about the German character, according to the Nazis, came from the myths of the German woodlands and mountains. Nature was powerful and so were the German people. Hitler had his Eagle’s Nest, Göring was the great hunter. Nazi painters’ landscapes were settings for German heroes. Simon Schama points out in Landscape and Memory that , strangely, German Green politics, now firmly to the Left, have their roots in the Nazi period. Nazis practised what Schama calls ‘deep ecology’ setting aside vast areas of forest as nature reserves. They maintained these reserves all through World War Two even if it took manpower from the war effort.

The Finns, however, envisioned their forests and mountains in a different way. Their artists used these motifs as part of the path to the independence of their country. The rallying cry of many Finns in the 19th century was: “We are no longer Swedes, and we don’t want to be Russians–so let us be Finns.” However, when Harris and MacDonald saw the exhibition of Scandinavian art in Buffalo in 1913, Finnish art was excluded as Finland was still part of Russia. Full independence did not come until 1917. Nevertheless, Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Pekka Halonen were two Finnish artists who did influence the Group of Seven through both reproductions of their work and the influence these two artists had on other Scandinavian artists that were in the exhibition.

I should emphasise that only Harris and MacDonald actually saw works by Scandinavian artists and this raises the question of the direct influence of Scandinavian art on the Group. There is no question that Harris was the moving force of the Group not only financially, but spiritually as well. MacDonald was also a powerful voice within the group. Nor is there any doubt that these two artists viewed the 1913 exhibition as a seminal event in the formation of the mind set of the Group as witnessed by their public statements throughout their lives. Harris and MacDonald forcefully brought back the message of the exhibition to their colleagues in Toronto. The message was simply that Scandinavian artists, and their concerns, had many things in common with what the Canadian artists were already thinking about. Harris and MacDonald ‘shuffled off to Buffalo’ with a mission in mind. They already knew what they might find. They wanted to confirm with their own eyes what they already knew which was that Canada had a cultural kinship with Scandinavia.

The artists of the Group were not working in a vacuum–many had trained in Europe, they read art magazines, in particular, the British publication the Studio which regularly published photographs of recent European art including that from Scandinavian and Finland and, most important, they talked to each other about what they were trying to do as a collective. Nasgaard writes, in his essay in The Mystic North, about a belated synchrony between what happened in Canada, with the Group, and what had happened in Northern Europe a couple of decades earlier. The situation in Scandinavia, and in Finland in particular and to a lesser degree in Sweden, was similar to that in Canada. Groups of artists each country wanted to use their art as part of the process of establishing a national identity. The American thinker, Morse Peckham, uses the interesting term cultural convergence to explain phenomenon of this sort that where there are similar problems it is not unusual for people to find similar solutions. In this case we have cultures that are all trying to find an identity and share a similar environment or landscape. Artists in Scandinavia and Canada saw what they thought made their societies unique in their common rugged northern landscapes.

The Group, and their Northern European counterparts, were, by and large, Neo-Romantics in an age that had seen Romanticism already dead in much of the rest of the world. It is important to understand that the artists in the Group did not believe in art for art’s sake, but were trying to produce an art for the lay public. Through their art they hoped to bring a sense of nationalistic pride to all Canadians. Their timing was impeccable. Canada, many believe, came of age as an independent country in a single defining event of fifteen minutes duration on the 9th of April 1917 during World War One when Canadian troops, under Canadian command took Vimy Ridge. We would no longer simply be a colony of Great Britain, but country of our own traditions and our own future. The Group wanted to be part of that future.

Northrop Frye said of Lawren Harris, that the artist was: “…the bridge between the artist and his society. He is missionary as well as explorer: not a missionary who wants to destroy all faith that differs from his own, but a missionary who wants to make his own faith real to others.” Bridging is a good simile for what the entire Group was trying to do with their art. The foreword to a catalogue to a 1914 of second annual exhibition of small pictures by the Group stated: “What made it succeed (the first exhibition of small pictures in 1913) was that it fulfilled just what was promised, viz., to provide an opportunity for Canadian people to see Canadian pictures suitable for their home.”

From fairly early on the Group was successful both critically and financially. They built their own myth, however, that they were not well received by the critics and the elite of society, but this does not hold up to the light of truth as Dennis Reid has conclusively proven in his text for the 1970 exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada of the Group’s. They were championed long before 1920 by the then director of the National Gallery, Eric Brown, who regularly bought their pictures for the national collection; their first exhibition as the Group of Seven was at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario); the Province of Ontario was a regular purchaser of their works; they were generally received quite well by the press; their work was collected by the cream of Toronto society if for no other reason the social connections that Harris maintained. It does make a better story if the Group portray themselves as fighting the establishment. In truth, they did take on the Royal Canadian Academy (of which many of them were members) and soundly defeated it and , by 1930, the Group had become the artistic establishment.

This is where the waters become muddy. Today’s revolutionaries are often tomorrow’s reactionaries. This has been a repeated theme throughout history. However, the Group of Seven needs to be viewed in a somewhat different light. Much depends on how one regards the idea of progress in art and what one believes to be the mission of art is in society. If you believe that there is a linear progress in the history of art then the Group fails on nearly all counts. The Group was not from its outset avant-garde–it was solidly Neo-Romantic with roots in Symbolism and Theosophy all of which were old hat by the time they were taken up by them. If you believe that art has a social role defining the broad society then the Group was a success.

Here is where I admit my own ambiguous feeling towards the Group of Seven. As a young artist and writer I thought them to be totally reactionary and an enemy to all that I held dear. Art had to be on the cutting edge which clearly the Group was not. The cutting edge of what was another question and my ideas were really not as clear cut as I would have liked because, as a young man, I also believed that art had a social role to play. Art was going to bring socialism to the masses, but, on the other hand, I believed that art had to aim high and it was up to the public to figure it out. It took me a while, but eventually I figured out that avant-garde art and the general public were mutually exclusive. I came to the conclusion that art was an elitist activity done by generally poor artists for the rich. I still believe this and it is not even a very original idea as artists have been serving the elite for centuries. I have come to terms with this conclusion and I doubt that anything much can be done to change it.

The Group of Seven thought that they could make a peoples’ art and for that I give them full marks. What is important is they believed, at least at the beginning, in what they were doing. I found the remarks, which I quote at the beginning of this paper, by Group biographer, Fred Housser, about bushwhacking, mountain climbing artists with a backpack on their backs slightly Monty Python like, but if you look at the photographs of the Group of Seven artists in situ the description was apt. Canadian museum director and curator, Joan Murray, in her book the Best of the Group of Seven calls them: “…a grown up boys’ club”, and as for their search for sites for subject matter, “…less like Monet’s constant quest for motif than like the Hardy boys’ adventures.” And this is from someone who likes their work.

There are good reasons why the Group of Seven is not better known outside of Canada. The most obvious reason is that almost all Canada visual art is unknown outside the country because we are out of the mainstream of art history, but you can say the same thing about Finnish art and Finland. A better reason is that viewed in world terms the Group’s paintings are not very original or even what is considered to be by many as being very ‘good’. I have placed the word good in quotation marks because it is a relative term. What is good in art depends on what it is compared with. There were certainly better Post Impressionist, Symbolist, and Neo-Romantic painters than those in the Group and they did their work years before Group did theirs. There is much stock placed in originality–doing something first–in the visual arts and often this is seen as the same thing as being ‘good’. However, they are not the same things, and I believe that the Group produced any number of paintings that I would consider good and a few that were outstanding, in particular, some of the work by Harris and Varley.

A good painting to me means one that is well painted and interesting. The qualities that make a great painting are much harder to define, but good, in a less than perfect world, is good enough to make a difference to me. The terms well painted and interesting are inevitably tied together. I was trained as a painter and by well painted I meant how the artist applied the paint to the canvas. You have to actual see a painting to make this judgement. Reproductions are not sufficient. My appreciation of the painterly qualities in a work of art is generally technical while for a lay person it would be visceral, but none the less valid. The interesting part of a painting is its content or subject matter. I seldom get as far as the content of a painting if I am not first drawn to it by its painterly qualities. Judging a painting from a reproduction is not unlike judging sex from reading about it; satisfying only if you haven’t experienced the real thing.

It must be obvious by now to see that I don’t believe in a linear progress in the history of art. I don’t believe in linear progress in any history nor do I believe in a common history for all of humankind. Such epochs as the Dark Ages do not fit nicely in a linear theory of progress in history. The history of art in the early 20th century ground on at a slower pace in Canada than in Europe in spite of some of our artists knowing what was going on in Europe. Artists in the Group thought that the work of European avant-garde artists was alien from the everyday experiences of common people and they were right, but they were only able to fight a holding action and did not achieve a lasting victory.

The death of Romanticism spelt the end of popular style art. It was replaced by a modern art whose very ethos was to be unpopular if not anti-popular where the romantic artist saw his or her role as the salvation of humankind–a hero–modern artists, on the other hand, more likely sees themselves apart from the concerns of the common people.

The artists of the Group of Seven were Neo-Romantics and they could no more stop modernism’s victory than they could stop the world from spinning. In the end their destiny was not to become art heroes, but to be regarded as curmudgeons and reactionaries who stood in the way of modernism in Canada. This misses the point. They were never part of the mainstream history of art. They were the eyes of a nation who wanted to be unique, who wanted to be Canadians and here they are heroes, Canadian heroes.

23 September 1998 (c) Virgil Hammock, Sackville, NB, Canada, E4L 1G6

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