When I arrived in Canada, sometime in the last century, I have to admit that my knowledge of the landscape was somewhat sketchy. Formed mainly by by watching, at the age of nine or ten, the serial episodes of Renfrew of the Royal Mounted at the Saturday morning “Chums Club” movies at the State Theatre. There was no Television then. I suspect this classic of the thirties was actually filmed on a back lot in Hollywood. The Red of Renfrew’s coat (on the posters-the film was black and white) matched the Red on the largest country in the world on the map of the British Empire in my geography book. Otherwise my only other impressions came from some cheap reproductions of Group of Seven paintings that my High School art teacher showed me. I think he was preparing to paint the backdrop for the local production of Oscar Hammerstein’s musical Rose Marie (oldies will remember Indian Love Call).
Although at that time I was trying to put my artistic aspirations behind me, the Group of Seven paintings sufficiently inspired me to seek out the Canadian Wilderness and I joined the University of Toronto Outing club and rapidly became a canoeing addict. As soon as the first ice melted (they had not warned me about the Canadian Winter in n Renfrew of the Royal Mounted) I was off to Algonquin Park to see for myself what the fuss was all about, and at the same time appropriately establish my new Canadian identity.
Over the next few summers I explored the deepest reaches of the park. On one memorable occasion a group of us were traversing what the map had said was a stream connecting two lakes. It turned out to be a leech, mosquito and snake infested swamp with a trickle of water flowing between shoulder high reeds growing in waist deep black mud. As we dragged the canoes through this muck, the sky momentarily darkened and there was a noise reminiscent of a helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now. Looking up I was just in time to see the rear quarter, and flailing hooves, of a gigantic moose leaping over our heads. Well I lived to tell the tail and no one was hurt, so I am entitled to exaggerate a little, anytime you find yourself underneath a flying moose it looks pretty big. Surely this was a moment worthy of any intrepid Group of Seven explorer: A true Canadian Epiphany for a green kid from New Zealand.
Now that bashed knees, tennis elbows and metal reinforcements in my neck have put canoeing into the past tense I am reduced to more sedentary adventures. But I was reminded of the great flying moose adventure this summer while reading a New book by Marilyn Mackay (Professor of Art History at NASCAD) entitled Picturing the Land: Narrating Territories In Canadian Landscape Art, 1500-1950 (McGill-Queens University Press, 2011). She quotes a Peter Donavan, writing in the Saturday night magazine in 1916:
“ When your up to the moment artist decides to wreak his soul on canvas, he puts on a pair of Strathcona boots, rolls up his blanket and enough beans for three months, takes a rifle and a paddle and hikes for the northern woods. The only rivers worth painting are those that run down into Hudson Bay. He can’t work in peace unless there is a bear trying to steal his bacon, or a moose breathing heavily down his neck”.
Or a moose flying over your head I might add.
Please do not be put off by the most intimidating title of this book. It is a must read for anyone interested in Canadian Art and is imminently readable. Professor McKay leads the reader on a rollicking hayride through the socio-political motives hidden behind the undergrowth in Canadian landscape painting. Packed full of fascinating analysis, stories and anecdote it will completely undermine any illusions you might have had about the meaning of those innocuous and pretty little pictures that most commercial galleries love to pass off as art. There are ferocious beasts hiding behind every tree and vicious trolls under every stone. For example if you retain, as most of us do, an image of Eighteenth century Canada derived from Cornelius Krieghoff’s famous genre pictures you may be surprised to find out that Krieghoff was more than happy to supply his customers with English or Russian versions on request. And he had never even visited Russia let alone the Montmorency Falls.
But it is when the discussion reaches Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven that the campfire really begins to spark. Summarizing the more recent re-evaluations by revisionist critics, Professor McKay reminds us that the Group of Seven could be accused of being a bunch of Racists, Misogynists, Liars and Charlatans who misrepresented a few carefully selected parts of the Canadian wilderness as being the essence of the Canadian spirit. With a reputation like that it was no wonder that Tom Thomson disappeared in such a mysterious fashion. I am sure are many art historians who would dispute these accusations. For example, one could excuse the Group of Seven's refusal to acknowledge obvious European influences as as vanity rather than charlatanism. However, the obeisance of most of the members to spiritualism and theosophy and the absence of Native people in their landscape does cast some suspicions on their approach to racial issues and neither Tom Thomson nor any of the members of the Group of Seven were female, and there are virtually no women in their paintings. When they do appear they are made to appear as part of the landscape as in the enigmatic painting of an unnamed woman sitting on a rock by Tom Thomson. But then there is very little evidence of any animal life of any sort, not even the odd beaver, in Group of Seven paintings so perhaps it is a little unfair to accuse them of misogyny.
There is no denying, however, that the paintings themselves hide the real state of affairs behind a screen of tangled woods. Remember that the Great War had just finished (and most of the Group of Seven participated-some as war artists) and the world was heading toward the financial crises of the Great Depression. Subjects that expressionist artists elsewhere were exploring in great depth. In Canada, corporate interests and the Canadian government was well on the way to exploiting the Canadian North. In fact the government were busy driving the native people off their land and into reservations, the land was being or had been, sold off to build railways, farms, roads and towns, while mining and logging interests were destroying the forests and scarring the landscape. All of which was contributing to the growing wealth of the Dominion, but as Tom Thomson placidly paddled up Canoe Lake the last of the tall pines were being dragged away just across the other side of the ridge and he and the members of the Group of Seven would have been well aware of the sound of falling timber. A new art style that tidily tucked all these activities out of sight was just what was needed. Just as Abstract Expressionism had to be invented to make sure artists did not reveal too much about the Second World War. In Montréal, Loto-Quebec’s exhibition this summer entitled “Enterprise Collective” made it very obvious what kind of art looks best in corporate boardrooms and government offices. Don’t rock the boat.
One thing that is certain. None of the Tom Thomson’s or the Group of Seven’s paintings depicts a flying moose: Despite Mr. Parson’s expectations in the Saturday Night Review. But as Louise Bourgeois has said “As an artist, if you cannot forget the past your only choice is go on to recreating it”.
As the Moose hunting season is approaching it is coming up to the time of the famous Patrick John Mills exposition of contemporary Group of Seven mythology. Perhaps there will be flying moose there. In the meantime grab a copy of Marylin Mckay’s book and get ready.
Graeme Welch On Guard Oil on Canvas 138 x 229 cm (detail)