The Group of Seven are well known in Canada, but ask any one to name an individual artist within this group and chances are you’ll draw a blank. Ironically, the two artists that most readily come to mind, Tom Thomson and Emily Carr, were not members of the Group, though close friends with those who were. Thomson was murdered before the group was officially formed and Carr was never invited to join.
This blog is about overlooked talents. The person I’d like to feature is Thoreau Macdonald, named after the famous 19th century naturalist, Henry David Thoreau. Macdonald’s father was J.E.H. Macdonald, one of the original Group of Seven, a landscape painter noted for his dazzling colour. Incredibly his son Thoreau was color blind. He compensated for this by working exclusively in black and white as a book and magazine illustrator. TM (Thoreau Macdonald) often worked on catalogues promoting other artists for which he created punchy graphic images. These black and whites often mimic the style of the featured artist.
My wife just asked me, are these images woodblock prints? No, they’re done in pen and ink to look like woodblocks–they are “fake woodblocks.” TM eschews the intricate cross hatching that gives many illustrations a range of tones and a heightened sense of realism. Extreme contrasts, varied mark-making techniques and beautiful designs contribute to TM’s unique style.
Birds and animals are often included in these landscapes. TM is one of the first Canadian artists to do this and, in this respect, he anticipates Robert Bateman and Alex Colville. TM’s animals are not symbols or decorative abstractions, but embody a life presence of their own. These curious explorers actively interact with other species in an ecological time capsule. There is a strong sense of season and locale. In the picture below, it’s spring time; the hungry bear has awoken from a long sleep. He uses his great strength to tear apart a tree stump as he searches for grubs. A vigilant bird hovers in the background, awaiting his chance to swoop in and clean up the left-overs. The image contrasts the hugeness of the bear with the smallness of the bird and the low dead stump with the springy young trees beyond. There are visible creatures (bear and bird) and invisible but implied creatures (the grubs). No distinction between land and sky: a white day.
How beautifully the arch of the tree branch frames the fox, giving the sense that he is earthbound, while the birds, so much on his mind, are safely out of reach. How effective is the white of the page as a field of snow! The snow half hides the old tree in the aftermath of a storm. Life is just beginning to emerge and take a peek around for signs of other life.
Here is another deceptively simple display of whiteness. The image is so bright it almost hurts your eyes! There is a principle in Asian art that there should be a balance between what’s drawn on the page and what’s left empty on the page. TM is a wizard of knowing what not to draw. What’s more, his empty space gives a tangible sense of distance. Fence posts and trees, drawn in perspective, act as a giant funnel guiding the figures home.
Here’s a cycle of life, cycle of seasons. Reminds me of Ozymandias. The heroic and the humble. Stones, skull and island are shapes that echo one another–looks like the caribou is turning to stone before our eyes as the rocks crowd in on the remains of the fallen animal. The horns function like the branches of a tree, a convenient perch for a bird positioned midway between the arrowhead in the cloud and the nervous current to the water. As in many of Thoreau’s images, the bird stands and watches. He is a sentient being in a wild setting, a silent witness to nature’s changes.
With their romantic vision of the Canadian landscape, the Group of Seven portrayed nature as strong, resilient and wild. They equated the land, its dense growth of trees through the changes of seasons, and vast waterways, with the youthful nation: a site of promise and possibility.
But the group were very much artists of their time, involved in the currents and paradoxes of their time. For instance, they were city-based artists who painted landscapes devoid of people. Much of their training and income derived from commercial assignments. These image-makers of wild spaces started their careers in a small office in Toronto, creating ads selling such things as women’s underwear, hair products and army recruitment posters. Is it high art or commercial art that best reflects the changes happening around us? The answer, of course, is both. And the Group of Seven were deeply involved in both.
The above ads demonstrate how fashion moved away from turn-of-the-century corsets and bustle skirts to the loose-fitting dresses and hatless bob-haired styles of the flapper era. In a short span of twenty years, a world war raged and women gained the right to vote. A revolution of prosperity, driven by machines, international trade and urban life was well underway. Modern art, with its love of innovation, reflected this global transformation.
Just how modern were the Group of Seven artists? Most of the artists are best described as restless, moving about from job to job, often travelling and painting on the fly. Some members of the group had studied art in Europe, some fought in the war or were involved in war-time messaging. Through their day jobs in advertising, members of the group were steeped in post impressionism, art nouveau and other modernist trends. Working on weekends in rented cottages, taking countless train rides from Toronto to Algonquin Park and beyond, their working methods forced them to paint with speed and spontaneity. As travel artists, they fancied themselves pioneers of a new path, throwing off centuries of dull tradition in favour of a more daring and personal vision. This is the very spirit of modernism.
Tom Thomson (1877-1917) was born just 10 years after Confederation. He was influenced by a great nation-building project. The expansion of industry and spread of the railway allowed him and his fellow artists access to remote areas. Thomson was an anomaly in almost every way. He was 27 years old when he first picked up a paintbrush, 39 years old when he died. One of the most likeable members of the group, his life ended in a wholly unexpected quarrel with an unstable man who he thought was his friend.
This leads us to the first paradox of the Group of Seven: Tom Thomson was a Pacifist who refused to participate in the horrors of World War 1. Instead he retreated to the safety and isolation of a provincial park in northern Ontario, where he was promptly murdered. In true Canadian fashion, this loss is too cruel for us, so we call Thomson’s death a mystery. Before the Group of Seven had officially formed, which wouldn’t happen until 1920, they had lost their most gifted member. Thomson’s long shadow follows the group as they search for artistic identity.
The group’s journey intersects with another important trend: the national parks movement. It starts in the United States and Canada follows suit. From the start, Canadians are conflicted over the purpose of their national parks. Are these protected spaces meant for recreation, conservation, or the development of industry? Some members of the Group of Seven were avid campers and woodsmen, others not so much. But in their art, they come together in a shared vision of the country, using daring colours (no more dull green and brown landscapes for them!) and thick dabs of paint that give the images a fresh and vibrant look.
The Group of Seven was assisted financially by the most energetic member of the group, Lawren Harris and his friend, Dr. James MacCallum. These two constructed a building in Toronto, which they divided into studios and rented out to their artist friends at an affordable rate. Tom Thomson lived rent-free in a small cottage in the back. Harris and MacCallum also arranged for exhibitions and trips to northern Ontario. Harris’s wealth came from the Massey Harris company, which sold modern tractors to farmers around the world.
In the second paradox of the Group of Seven, the Massey Harris farm equipment revolutionized agriculture, bringing with it all the rewards of mechanized, big-scale industry, but at an unexpected cost. No one was aware of it at the time, but one of the consequences of industrial agriculture, with its deep plowing and soil disruption, is erosion and the inability of land to hold water. In times of drought, uncovered soil turns to dust and blows off in huge destructive clouds, leaving great tracts of land in a state of ruin. This is what happened during the Dustbowl of the 1930s. These drought-ridden farms are one of the indelible symbols of the Great Depression.
The glorious images of wilderness abundance that the Group of Seven specialized in were no longer relevant for a time of deprivation and environmental disaster. It is no coincidence that this is exactly the moment, the 1930s, when the Group disbanded.
A few of the artists became teachers and continued to exert influence on a younger generation. But with the arrival of the Second World War, their time had passed and new styles took over. However, in our national museums, the Group of Seven has gained status equivalent to a gold standard. They were, after all, Canada’s first homegrown art movement and remain among our best known and most popular artists with public and collectors.
Slow and meticulous, almost clinical in his approach to art, Alex Colville is not thought of as a spontaneous reporter embedded in the thick of action. Yet this is precisely how he started his career, going directly from art school to the battlefields of WW II. His deployment as war artist in 1944 took the budding Canadian artitst overseas for 18 months. Colville’s book, Diary of a War Artist, testifies to the formative nature of this experience. One of the lessons Colville learned was that a detached point-of-view that eschews overt emotion paradoxically adds to the viewer’s emotional experience of the work. Colville also sensed that in wartime mundane actions take on an inordinate importance for soldiers involved in dangerous and uncertain missions. These lessons were unexpectedly confirmed after the war when Colville found time to visit the major art galleries of Holland. Here he encountered Dutch Baroque art and recognized in deHooch and Vermeer two kindred spirits. Colville saw how these artists turned away from the exoticism, violence and supernatural elements of Biblical stories, replacing this external drama with an internal drama that recognizes in daily life its own mystery and significance.
Alex Colville. Dog and Priest, 1978
Art critic Tom Smart has defined one of Colville’s most important themes: the need for order in a world that threatens to disintegrate into chaos at any moment. Many commentators use the words “anxiety” and “alienation” when describing Colville’s work. Yet it is hard to say just where or how this anxiety arises. The faces of figures are often hidden or obscured, creating a mask-like effect that adds mystery and intrigue to the image. While the action depicted in the image is often frozen, the composition is so precisely worked out that there is an unconscious feeling that if anything moves the delicate balance will be marred or revoked.
Alex Colville. Hound, 1955
In his exhibition catalogue Alex Colville: Return (Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 2003), Tom Smart notes how animals in Colville’s work function as surrogates for the artist. There is undeniably a close relationship of people and animals in these images. To the point that Colville portrays domestic animals with a seriousness, sensitivity and rapport rarely seen in the history of Western art. What makes the artist’s rapport with animals so unique is the way he suggests that animals sense the world differently than people do. In many cases, animal senses may be more acute and perceptive than human senses and faculties of recognition.
One of my own life goals is to increase my appreciation of the world I inhabit, to cultivate a finer awareness of the things around me. Colville suggests that animals have an extraordinary awareness of the world around them. They are curious and alert seekers. People empathize with animals and are able to share their experiences as co-adventurers. Colville uses animals to suggest the expansion of consciousness through empathy with another creature. But at the same time humans are clearly separate from animals and the recognition of this separation is a reminder of the inherent limitation of our consciousness.
Alex Colville. Cyclist and Crow, 1981
“Colville has said: ‘I am inclined to think that people can only be close when there is some kind of separateness.’ When he says this, Colville does not mean the egotism of ‘having one’s own space,’ but rather the responsibility of caring for the individuality of the other.” (Burnett 1983: 108). In his essay, Alex Colville: Doing Justice to Reality, anthropology professor David Howes concludes: “the Canadian soul is never at one with itself: its “integration” is contingent upon being juxtaposed to some double, as in Colville’s couples [or human/ animal pairs]. In Canada, the minimal conceptual unit is a pair as opposed to a one.”
It is this double solitude, empathy combined with an acceptance and respect for difference, that underlies most of Colville’s paintings featuring animals and people. Colville uses animals as agents helping us increase our awareness of the world, as well as teaching us to tolerate difference and appreciate aspects of the world that are beyond our understanding.
Water and ocean appear frequently in the art of Robert Pope. They reflect his need to connect images with a sense of place, his native Nova Scotia, a peninsula surrounded by the North Atlantic. The artist presents his environment as an ever-changing water-world, open to voyages of the imagination. This blog looks at different uses of this water imagery, and how these changes affect the meaning we read into them.
Robert Pope. Study for Harbour, 1985.
In 1985, Robert developed an image called Harbour. A couple seen from above view a dazzling array of irregular shapes and foamy swirls in moving water. The hypnotic patterns invite a state of reverie, reflection and daydream. Robert wrote in an artist’s statement from this time: “I believe we take aspects of our physical environment as metaphors for our experience. Our lives are directly affected by the economic and environmental benefits of the sea. We are drawn to its beauty and danger. Its ancient rhythms reflect our notions of life and eternity.”
Robert Pope. Surf, 1988
In his painting, Surf, an enormous wave crashes between a couple. The water voices their sense of exhilaration, passion, annihilation. The painting is from a series based on Elizabeth Smart’s experimental novel, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Here is a sample quotation: “But I have become part of the earth: I am one of its waves flooding and leaping. I am the same tune now as the trees, hummingbirds, sky, fruits, vegetables in rows. I am all or any of these. I can metamorphose at will.” (p. 43)
In this context, the word “metamorphosis” indicates the transformative power of love, both in its positive inspirational aspects and its obsessive, self-destructive aspects. The painting uses water as a symbol of this transformation. The crashing wave also alludes to Hokusai, the great Japanese artist (1760-1849) who worked in the genre known as ukiyo-e. Ukiyo-e translates as “pictures from the floating world,” meaning the in-between world, the not-quite respectable world of pleasure, travel and adventure opening up to the newly prosperous middle class. In Hokusai’s most famous image, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Hokusai contrasts the violent and transitory effects of water with the calm permanence of the distant Mt. Fuji. Robert looked for similar contrasts in his own work, but with more of a focus on human psychology.
Robert Pope. Metamorphosis, 1986
Robert Pope. Sketchbook studies for Metamorphosis, 1988
In the studies at right for the painting Metamorphosis, the water’s abstract patterns turn a woman’s face into a jigsaw puzzle–a woman drowning in love. Smart writes how she “craves violence for expression, but can find none. There is no end. The drowning never ceases. The water submerges and blends, but I am not dead. O I am not dead. I am under the sea. The entire sea is on top of me.” (Elizabeth Smart, p. 118-119) The mood becomes darker here, though Robert’s image suggests birth as well as death. The water functions almost as a mask. Through psychological projection, the water becomes symbolic of a state of mind, the unconscious and its powerful effects on human character.
Robert Pope. Patient Daydreaming, 1986
Robert was being treated for cancer at this time. (He died in 1992 of the side effects of the treatment for Hodgkin’s Disease.) Above is a sketchbook drawing done from his hospital room in Princess Margaret’s Hospital in Toronto. He is dreaming of escape to another place, turning his confined room into the cabin of a fantastic ocean voyage.
Robert Pope. Intravenous Solution and Ocean, 1991
In Robert’s subsequent series “Illness and Healing,” the ocean landscape gives way to a hospital landscape filled with busy doctors, staff, technicians, patients and visiting family. Yet water imagery reappears in one key image. An I-V pole stands before a window, with the ocean visible beyond. The painting contrasts interior with exterior, contrasts vertical pole with horizontal waves, contrasts medical instrument (science) with nature, contrasts the liquid in the solution bag (feeding into the patient’s bloodstream) with the limitless waters beyond.
In a sketchbook Robert copied the passage: “God come down out of the eucalyptus tree outside my window, and tell me who will drown in so much blood.” (Elizabeth Smart, p. 35) Underneath, Robert noted: “Blood is a simultaneous symbol of birth, life and death. Water operates the same way, a life-giving substance that one can drown in.” The picture Intravenous Solution and Ocean shows no patient, but indicates a dream-like interior where an awkward instrument provides an artificial life-line. The image suggests end of life, which mysteriously may not be the end. The water encourages the viewer to think of infinity, continuity, cosmic forces transcending the limits of our perspective of individual being.
Water appears in different ways in the art of Robert Pope. Water provides a sense of place. Water is playful, transformative, unpredictable and dangerous. Water is composed of patterns that are hypnotic and graphically compelling. Water assists the psychological projection of mental states. Water serves as a kind of mediation of unspeakable feelings between two figures. Water evokes a dream of escape, an invitation to daydream and imagination. Water suggests new perspectives on our fixed notions of time and being. These new perspectives have religious overtones, as well as being a statement of creative possibilities for artist and viewer.
Norman McLaren directing Neighbours, 1952. photo by Evelyn Lambart
Norman McLaren (1914-1987) is a pioneer film animator, famous for drawing both picture and soundtrack directly on film and for mixing together live action with animated effects. His work is experimental, yet conveys a remarkable sense of charm, humour and popular appeal. Like his mentor John Grierson, McLaren was born in Stirling, Scotland. The son of an interior decorator, McLaren studied at the Glasgow School of Art from 1932 to 1937, but did not graduate. He was absorbed by his early film experiments and left Scotland to work for the film unit of the General Post Office in London.
“Filmmaking is my work, drawing is my play.” Norman McLaren, 1978
During WW II, Grierson convinced McLaren to come to Canada to work for the National Film Board, promising the young artist he would not have to engage in war propaganda. McLaren quickly settled into the NFB, establishing an animation department in 1941 and creating such ingenious and diverse works as Neighbours, 1952 (Academy Award winner); Blinkity Blank, 1955 (winner of Palme d’or, Cannes) ; Le Merle, 1958; Canon, 1965; Pas de Deux, 1965; and the five-part instructional film, Animated Motion, 1976-8. McLaren used an extreme economy of means to achieve sophisticated effects that have a powerful visceral effect on viewers. His work brings together interests in abstract imagery, drawing games, folklore, music, performance and education. Opening Speech
This above clip is a mash-up of two works, Opening Speech, 1961, directed by Norman McLaren, and A Chairy Tale, 1957, directed by Claude Jutra and McLaren. McLaren and Jutra are two of Canada’s greatest film directors, and in this sequence the directors perform in their own films. Both use the stop motion technique to explore the theme of a man struggling with an uncooperative object. This mash-up is meant as a tribute to the charm and inventiveness of two great talents, edited by contemporary artist NV. A new soundtrack featuring the Charlie Parker Quintet has been added. The music dates from the period when the films were made, and, like the films, combines innovation with entertainment.
In 1961, McLaren made Opening Speech: Norman McLaren, putting his name in the title, as well as starring in the film. The project moves away from McLaren’s abstract painting-inspired experiments (Dots, Begone Dull Care) toward performance-based, multi-media work that is also an important trend in the Fine Arts at this time. In the film, McLaren commands a large empty stage, from which he is about to make a formal speech, but the filmmaker becomes lost in his notes, the first of many difficulties for the reluctant public speaker. This reflects a famous anecdote McLaren tells about presenting a script and storyboard to producer Alberto Cavalcanti at the General Post Office Film Unit in London, only to have Cavalcanti tear it up with the advice to, “Never write down everything precisely in advance.” (Derek Elley, “Rhythm & Truths,” Films & Filming, June 1974).
If words on paper do not make a film, then what does? Sound and image, performance and technology. In McLaren’s film, the performance and technology are clearly at odds as the microphone quickly develops a mind of its own. The sound goes out of sync with the picture. The microphone then rebels in other ways. The viewer is reminded that film is a form of technology, but technology, like inspiration or creativity, can never be fully controlled.
The animator was also an accomplished artist. Norman McLaren. Women Studying Optical Construction, 1964
There is another consequence of this rebellious microphone: a potentially stuffy speech is turned into a humorous game. It might be helpful here to compare the microphone in Opening Speech to HAL, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, made by Stanley Kubrick seven years later. Both films are about machines that function like living entities with their own personalities and agendas. But if the machines have minds of their own, the minds are out-of-harmony, spiteful, devious. In both films, a malfunction occurs at the worst possible time. The errant microphone disrupts a public statement by a famous artist, drawing attention away from the artist onto itself. The microphone’s antics render the artist mute, and turns the honor of the moment into a public embarrassment. It hijacks the event, the opening of a film festival, just as HAL hijacks the space mission in 2001. In order for the space mission and the film festival to get back on track, the obstructing machines must be murdered. Once this murder occurs, both films then unveil a screen and a pre-recorded message—on film—appears and restores order.
Opening Speech and 2001 mix humour and paranoia together in their handling of delinquent machines. Novelist Philip K. Dick, an authority when it comes to delinquent machines, commented: “The ultimate in paranoia is not when everyone is against you, but when everything is against you. Instead of ‘My boss is plotting against me,’ it would be ‘My boss’s phone is plotting against me.’ Objects sometimes seem to possess a will of their own anyhow, to the normal mind; they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, they get in the way. They show an unnatural resistance to change.” (quoted in Carl Freedman, Science Fiction Studies, March 1984)
Paranoia involves a projection of fears, mixed with feelings of self-love and self-hate. These are the two facets of paranoia remarked on by Freud, “self-aggrandisement” and “persecution by an imaginary enemy.” (The Schreber Case, 1911) Elements of aggrandisement and persecution are present in Opening Speech. The public speech inflates the speaker’s ego and the rebellious microphone punishes him without apparent cause. Since no audience is ever seen, McLaren’s stage antics become somewhat imaginary. It is as if he were performing for himself or as if the fame and frustration of the moment are all in his head.
In 2001: A Space Odssey, 1968, actor Keir Dullea “murders” the computer HAL.
In contrast, it is not the astronaut but the machine who becomes paranoid in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The machine’s fears reflect a personality weakness in an otherwise seemingly flawless system. This weakness makes the machine appear psychotic, but in a human-like way, as it faces the prospect of being deactivated and removed from the mission.
Opening Speech could be described as a meta-discourse on film. It demonstrates how cinema manipulates time and space, as well as disrupting our sense of reality. Opening Speech ends by directly quoting two famous silent films, Sherlock, Jr. by Buster Keaton and Entr’acte by René Clair, both made in 1924. In the scene in question, McLaren jumps into the cinema screen, then steps out again, shattering the words, “The End.” In these film, figures move forwards and backwards in time to disrupt the viewer’s sense of reality. All three films raise the question: is cinema real? And, if not, what is reality?
Janet Cardiff. The Missing Voice, 1999. Audio walk, commissioned by Artangel, London.
Opening Speech draws heavily on vaudeville, but it also looks ahead to key moments in Canadian visual art. In one of artist Janet Cardiff’s best known audio installations, The Missing Voice, 1999, the recorded audio guide accompanies the viewer through a tour of Whitechapel Library in London, commenting on work within the space. However, the guide begins making unpredictable remarks that lead the viewer away from the intended experience to other points of interest, shattering accepted conventions in an unnerving about-face generated by a willful mechanical device.