Painting Canada - Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven - Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
Tom Thomson's Sketch Box is appropriately situated a footstep from the opening to this exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery; seeing the artist's equipment before viewing what he created from the splodges of layered paints that have aged within for almost a century is an appropriate start to the work of Tom Thomson. We are told that 'before 1913 - the Group's first biographer, Fred Housser, talked of 'a new type of artist' who cast off the velvet coat of his caste, and put on the outfit of the bushwhacker... he closes with his environment; paddles, portages and makes camp'.
Tom Thomson (TT) entered into nature on nature's terms. His was the work of the explorer; wanting to dig down into the soil, the trees, the rivers and mountains, as if to bring back the gold of the elements as yet untarnished by the hand of the human, unlike the often manicured, contrived scenery of the Euro-centric art establishment. It was 'around 1910 that a new generation of artists... began to form in Toronto', to challenge the establishment's notion that 'Canada's vast wilderness' was too raw a subject for art'. They, then, were left to pontificate in their velvet coats and urban studios whilst TT and the Group of Seven rolled up their sleeves, and canoed into the Canadian wilderness.
This initiative of venturing deep into the Canadian wilderness defined TT (1877-1917) for he had little or no formal training as an artist - although he was employed as a commercial artist at Grip Ltd, a highly regarded commercial engraving firm.
Dr James MacCallum was one of the Group of Seven's most important patrons - in 1914 he offered to buy as many of TT's art over the coming year to enable him to focus only on sketching and painting. For the next 3 years, until his death in 1917, TT spent much time exploring Algonquin Park.
By July 1917 he had completed 30 works and 300 sketches. The Jack Pine and the West Wind are the most famous paintings in Canada.
He would sketch whilst 'in the field', return to Toronto in winter to then work them into full-size canvases.
'Spring Ice' (1916) - I was immediately drawn, not to the deep blue river, but the pale green moss-flanked trunk to the left of the scene; a margin.
'Maple Woods, Bare Trunks (1915) richly autumnal - a congested scene of maples, with dabs of varying brown oils, mingled with tan, yellow, and red; the verdant growth alive in patches at the base of the trunks.
'The West Wind' was completed in TT's last ever winter. The pine tree seems to lord it over the landscape of deep purples, and brown. The trunk and branches are outlined in a richer chocolate, filled in with two main tones. The river is also a mingling of dabs of white, green, yellow, aqua, and pine greens.
The Jack Pine, situated next the West Wind, calls to mind the last line of Arthur Hughes Clough's poem 'say not the struggle naught availeth', 'but westward, look, the land is bright'. It is a scene of majesty and peace - the sun setting in warm yellow and mint green patches, fading into violet hues.
Evening, Canoe Lake (1915-16)
'Canoe Lake Station was where TT would arrive at from the Toronto train. The scene is mesmerising - the violets and lilacs redolent of a deep Sunday evening - the last of the day's rest before the week begins again.
'His canoe was found empty on Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park on 8 July 1917; his body surfaced nine days later...'Spurred on by TT's example, the Group of Seven was formed in March 1920.'
Six of the Group are buried in the grounds of McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Ontario.
My other favourites were:
'Northern Lights (1916 or 1917).
'Smoke Lake (1915)'.
The Group of Seven all produced sketches in the same way.
JEH MacDonald's - Beaver Dam 1919 is just beautiful - a still lake overlooked by the pines, which, along with the rocks, seem to be admiring their own reflection; a canoe is still - half on a collection of branches?
'October Gold', by Franklin Carmichael 1922.
Frank Johnston 'Algoma Arabesque' 1924 - is much more delicate than the other exhibits, the distinctive 'dabs' smaller; micro more than macro. Thin branches and grasses and ferns.
Lawren Harris's 'Mt Lefroy' is almost Cubist. That Harris was the richest of the Group is, I feel, more evident in this painting than any of the others of the Group; it is extremely confident - the summit of the Mt almost tipped with gold!
Lawren Harris's work, in Room X room of the gallery is stunning - the ambient lighting and dark teal and wooden walls setting off his work to great advantage; all blues, greys, and whites - Harris, the blurb tells us, is the greatest of the Group of Seven; his increasingly pared down style certainly differentiates him from his peers, but, for my money, it is MacDonald that is the greatest, some of his work a nose ahead of TT's in terms of conveying the splendour of their environment.
Another point I picked up on in TT's approach reminded me of van Gogh, in that one can see the brush in the work. It also brought to mind the 17th century Delft painter Metsu, a book on whom is featured in the current TLS. He, like TT, also tried to resist the smooth finish that denies the presence of the creator; unlike Vermeer, Metsu showed the work in the work: the coarsely ground paints, the visible brushstrokes, or in TT's case, the heavy splodges of deep coloured oils that we are urged to take note of as we enter and see that sketch box. Whilst Metsu was better known in his day he was overtaken by Vermeer, and that 'refined touch' that hid the seams. I'm very much drawn to seeing the work; as I've written about in earlier posts, it was something that bowled me over with the work of sculptor Barbara Hepworth, and something that I felt urged to show in my work of Mary Burns. It is the workerly approach and I believe it should be celebrated as the evidence of human(ist) achievement.