Canada’s Group of Seven

You’ve seen me write about Canberra’s Seven Writers, a group of seven women who got together to share their writing and support each other. All of them published well-received books – novels, short stories, poetry. Well, I was amused – I’m easily amused – to discover  the other day as we explored the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) that Canada has a Group of Seven.

However, Canada’s Group of Seven – as you’ve probably guessed – is not a writers’ group but one of artists. It comprised seven men who had been painting for many years before they formed this group. They first exhibited together in 1920 at the Art Gallery of Toronto, now the AGO. According to signage at the Gallery, they believed that to develop a sense of nationhood, Canada needed to find its voice in art – and they saw this voice as coming through nature and landscape. The group operated – is that the best word? – until 1933, but, the Gallery says, their work “continues to influence national identity”.

The seven artists are men I’ve never heard of: Franklin Carmichael (1890–1945), Lawren Harris (1885–1970), A. Y. Jackson (1882–1972), Frank Johnston (1888–1949), Arthur Lismer (1885–1969), J. E. H. MacDonald (1873–1932), and Frederick Varley (1881–1969). Apparently the Seven did become bigger when A. J. Casson (1898–1992) joined in 1926, Edwin Holgate (1892–1977) in 1930, and LeMoine FitzGerald (1890–1956) in 1932. Mr Gums and I were particularly attracted to the stylised, almost abstract landscapes by Harris, though, really, we didn’t have enough time to explore all the artists in depth.

The Gallery has an impressive collection of their work, due largely to its major benefactor, the collector, Ken Thomson. Because we had limited time, though I’d happily go back to the gallery, we focused the second half of our visit on this collection, and some of the rooms near it. (In the first part of our visit, we checked out the special exhibition which featured Henry Moore and Francis Bacon.) Ken Thomson’s philosophy on collecting art was quoted on the walls:

If your heart is beating, you know it was made for you.

The hanging of the Ken Thomson Collection was interesting – and different to that in many other parts of the Gallery – in that the paintings were hung without individual labels. Instead, in each room there was a large introductory label and a spiral bound book with thumbnails of the works and the needed identification. I had mixed feelings about the approach: it enabled the works to be shown, rather as they would in a home, unadulterated by any immediate mediation, and yet in a gallery I do want to know what I’m seeing. I suspect, though, we are all different in how we want to interact with art. I have seen this sort of approach before – that is, not identifying the picture with a label next to it – in some of the galleries and art exhibits we visited in Japan, but in those places there tended to be very few works on the walls, sometimes just one big work on each wall.

Tom Thomson landscapes at AGO

Note the hanging of Tom Thomson landscapes at AGO

Interpretive sign re Group of Seven, AGO

Interpretive sign re Group of Seven, AGO

As I’m still travelling, I don’t have time to write too much more, but I wanted to mention the room that was devoted to displaying works by both the Group of Seven and artists contemporaneous with them. The latter were hung on sections of walls painted in a darker grey colour to identify them more easily. These non-Group of Seven works, some of which were by women like Emily Carr, expressed a more diverse, less romantic, perhaps, view of Canada. They included figurative works, which contrasts significantly with the Group of Seven’s pretty much exclusive focus on landscape. One that I particularly liked was the naive style “In the Nun’s Garden” (c. 1933) (see below) which, from a distance, gave the impression of penguins. It’s easy to see how their association with nuns works!

Works by Lilias Torrance Newton (top) and Sarah Robertson

Works by Lilias Torrance Newton (top) and Sarah Robertson, contemporaneous with the Group of Seven

Emily Carr, in fact, is one of the few artists I’d come across before, in my visit to the Canada’s northwest in 1991, where we saw her art at the Royal British Columbia Museum. She was particularly known for painting indigenous Canadians and their culture, though moved into “forest scenes”. She met the Group of Seven, and was apparently encouraged and supported by their “leader”, Lawren Harris. She was also a writer, which, really, is the main reason I know her – through her autobiographical book Klee Wyck.

Another artist associated with the group was Tom Thomson (1877–1917). He died young, before the group’s official formation, but his landscape paintings of the west belong very much to the group’s ethos. The introductory signage described his landscapes as “boldly expressive and passionate”. According to Wikipedia, group member and recognised leader Lawren Harris wrote in his essay “The Story of the Group of Seven” that Thomson was “a part of the movement before we pinned a label on it”. The room dedicated to Thomson’s painting was rather poignant.

One of the great things about travel is getting a sense of how a nation views itself. I think Australians find visiting Canada particularly interesting because we have quite a lot of similarities as well as, of course, our differences. This art exhibition, with its discussion of landscape and nationhood gave me another insight into a country which, like ours, has immense space and dramatic, defining landscapes.