It seems every generation has its share of rebels, especially in the arts, and the Group of Seven is no exception! They spanned the gap from the 19th century into the “modern” era and brought Canada into the international sphere of painters.
Who Were They?
The Group of Seven were really a group of ten! And no, Tom Thomson was never part of it either. Confused already?
This year actually marks the centenary of Group’s first major public exhibition, and to celebrate the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg has mounted a large exhibition, drawn mainly from the Gallery’s permanent collection: “A Like Vision”: The Group of Seven at 100 which opened January 25, 2020 and runs through spring 2021.
It was May 7, 1920, the Group of Seven, as they called themselves, mounted their first formal exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario). They were Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Frank (later Franz) Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. MacDonald and Frederick Varley. Many of them met as commercial artists employed at Grip Ltd. in Toronto, except for Harris, who was a wealthy heir to the Massey-Harris Co. Ltd., the agricultural machinery manufacturer.
With MacDonald as the driving force, they came together because they felt a “like vision concerning Art in Canada” (from their first exhibition catalogue), a distinct Canadian form of art with direct contact to nature. In actual fact their individual styles were not the same, but very different. Nor was their style uniquely “Canadian”, but actually part of the “post-impressionist” movement then popular all over Europe. A major influence was an exhibition of Scandinavian paintings they viewed in Buffalo in 1912, which showed vivid interpretations of the northern landscape. What was unique to them, were the oil sketches they did and brought back to create their paintings. The group likely would have started earlier as they were meeting at Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club between 1911 and 1913 (still on Elm St. today). However, World War I intervened and some members of the future group entered military service, while others became war artists.
Tragically, Tom Thomson, a major influence on the group died in 1917 under mysterious circumstances in Algonquin Park before the formation of the Group. Therefore he was never an official member. Harris wrote that Thomson was “a part of the movement before we pinned a label on it”. Later in 1926, A. J. Casson was invited to join when Johnston left to teach in Winnipeg. Edwin Holgate joined in 1930 and LeMoine FitzGerald in 1932, when they felt they needed to include members from other parts of Canada to be truly “Canadian”. After MacDonald died in 1932, the Group of Seven disbanded, and many former members joined the new Canadian Group of Painters in 1933, which had 28 members.
Contemporaneously, the Beaver Hall Group formed in Montreal and first exhibited in 1921. Besides a few Group of Seven members, it also included many women and was more interested in urban subjects – but more about that later.
The rebels they were, the Group of Seven did not portray Canadian landscapes in the traditional European style, but used splashes of colour to express their emotion about what they saw. “The Group of Seven not only translated what they saw into a vivid visual language of their own, but through that language they taught us to appreciate the natural beauty of Canada in all its vast scale and variety” says Ian A.C. Dejardin, Executive Director of the McMichael. Needless to say, they were not well received in the reactionary society of the day and only sold 6 of the 120 pieces on display. Critics comments referred to “mush” and “the contents of a drunkard’s stomach”! A.Y Jackson wrote his mother that the exhibition was “attracting quite a lot of attention even if it is not understood.” However, they did start the first major Canadian art movement and put Canadian art on the international map at a time when Canada also started to assert its real nationhood with WWI.
You don’t have to go up north to find the landscapes the Group of Seven, and those associated with them like David Milne, painted. There is Casson’s Credit Forks (Thomson painted there too), Carmichael’s Bolton Hills, and Jackson’s Old Barn Near Caledon, Ontario attest to the fact Caledon was an easy day trip. Casson also painted the blacksmith’s forge in Elora, today, the Shoppers Drug Mart. Milne was so taken by the landscape he lived and painted in Palgrave for three years!
Following on the heels of this major Group of Seven exhibition, the McMichael will be showcasing a related show entitled Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment, from June 26, 2021 until January 23, 2022. Many of the Beaver Hall Group women artists will be featured there.
The gallery describes it as “gathering artworks by the extraordinary women painters, photographers and sculptors from a century ago, as well as works made by their Indigenous female contemporaries working in traditional media, for a cross-country snapshot of female creativity in Canada in the 1920s and 30s”. It is intended to provide “a fuller and more diverse picture of the visual arts in Canada during this pivotal modern moment”. It will focus on the work of Canadian women artists and their creative vision. These women were contemporaries of the Group of Seven, yet not invited or recognized in the art world of the day.
The McMichael Canadian Art Collection is “the spiritual home to the Group of Seven and a destination for all Canadians who cherish the artistic legacy of the country”. Tom Thomson’s cabin has been rebuilt on the property. Several of the Group and their wives are even buried on the grounds. Go like me to rediscover the landscapes of the nation we call home. Also look carefully in the exhibition, and you just may recognize some local places you know!
Written by: By Diana Janosik-Wronski | Resources: The McMichael Canadian Art Collection