What’s in a name?

Who to believe: experts or common sense? The evidence of our senses as we live in the world or the bewildering arguments of rival scientists, journals and institutions? In her 2009 book, Naming Nature, Carol Kaesuk Yoon provides a brief history of taxonomy–the naming and ordering of all life forms–though her captivating story includes questions that touch us all.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a widespread interest in nature led people of all ages and stations in life to scrabble together their own natural history collections. Kings and queens imported elephants and rhinoceroses, parrots and monkeys from distant colonies. The aristocracy planted exotic trees on their estates and grew rare flowers in hothouses. Pressed specimens featured in herbaria. Bottles full of preservatives housed such treasures as the blackbelly triggerfish, armadillos, and fetuses both human and animal. Taverns displayed more outlandish things yet: the penis of a whale, stuffed hummingbirds, snakes from South America, and a starved cat discovered between the walls of Westminster Abbey. As Yoon writes: “The world was full of astonishing things, things that made people desperately curious and to which they felt an easy and intimate connection.”

Butterfly collector, daguerreotype, ca. 1850

Yoon introduces a key term in biology, umwelt. This German word literally means “the environment” or “the world around.” For scientists studying animal behavior, Yoon comments, “the umwelt signifies the perceived world, the world sensed by an animal, a view idiosyncratic to each species, fuelled by its particular sensory and cognitive powers and limited by its deficits.” A dog appreciates the world differently from how a bee does or a mole or an earthworm or bacterium. People see the world in their own way as well.

Underlying our vision of the world is a search for order and place. We start by identifying creatures–naming living things, learning about them and gauging their relationship to other like and dislike creatures. One’s umwelt includes a feeling of connection to other living things, as best we see them, and relatedness. This feeling is very strong in us–all cultures name the creatures around them and organize them into groups such as meat eaters or songbirds or fruit-trees. As we observe different life cycles and behaviors, our sense impressions and identification skills form a background of familiar knowledge that is central to our sense of place and well being. It’s one of the first things we teach our children–information they’re eager to learn.

Sadly, as specialists take over, the insatiable curiosity of the public for natural history loses ground or diverts to other areas. Beyond a few animal shows on TV and the dinosaur phase of small children, it’s gotten to the point where the ordinary person can distinguish a “tree” or a “flower,” but couldn’t possibly differentiate one kind from another. This disaffection for nature has come in the midst of the greatest mass extinction of species in the history of the planet. Few people know it’s happening or seem to care, and have no sense of how this loss will affect humanity’s own future.

We no longer think of coffee as a plant, but as a product connected to favourite brands.

What has taken its place is our avid differentiation of brands and products. As Yoon writes: “Today, we effortlessly perceive an order among the many different kinds of human-made, purchasable items. Instead of sorting living things by size, shape, color, smell, and sound, we sort merchandise this way, obsessed and immersed as we are in a world of products … We are modern-day hunter-gatherers who do our hunting and gathering, not in the wilds, but at shops and grocery stores.”

It’s not just that specialists have taken over the field of nature. As Yoon outlines, the specialists cannot agree on anything. And one reason they cannot agree is because they are blinded by their umwelt. Human senses are deceiving. For one thing we think of creatures as having fixed, easily identifiable traits and markings. Darwin changed this view. No living thing is fixed; all species vary from one location to another, from one environment to another. The more scrupulous one is in collecting samples, the more these variations will become apparent.

So how to determine where one species starts and another ends? As Yoon outlines, scientists must ignore their umwelt. Instead of relying on observation and instinct, biologists now use statistics, lab tests, genetics and other indicators to place one creature in relationship to another. With all these tools, there is still room to disagree. Taxonomy is not unique in being a discipline marred by dissension, petty feuds and squabbles. I suspect the same holds true of most academic disciplines.

In contrast to the scientists who cannot agree on basic principles, Yoon describes a fascinating experiment conducted by Brent Berlin at the University of California Berkeley. He created a list of bird names and fish names in the language spoken by the Huambisa of the Peruvian rainforest. To get a taste of the experiment, try to distinguish bird from fish in the following lists:

A.

  1. chunchikit (choon-chew-EE-kit)
  2. chichikia (Chee-chee-KEE-ah)
  3. teres (tih-RISS)
  4. yawarach (yaw-wah-RAHTICH)
  5. waikia (wa-EE-kee-ah)

B.

  1. mats (MAW-oots)
  2. katan (kah-TAHN)
  3. takaikit (tah-KA-ee-keet)
  4. tuikcha (too-EEK-cha)
  5. kanuskin (kah-NOOS-kin)

For the five pairs, here are the bird names: chunchikit, chichikia, takaikit, tuikcha, waikia. How did you do? Quite well, I imagine. That’s because “the bird names are the ones that go tweet, tweet.” Yoon comments: Humans perceive birds in a universally similar way, often named after the sounds they make. Example chickadee.

It’s part of human nature to be curious about nature, to name different species and create a system of order. Learning the names of living beings from culture and tradition helps us relate to those beings, feel they are part of our world. Even if mistakes are made, it’s better to be wrong and invested, than to relinquish the task altogether.

Science may increase knowledge, but not increase how we feel or care about the world. This is why Yoon believes there is still place for folk knowledge, a place for the amateur naturalist and casual observer. “If we hope to revive and save our dying world, to recapture our connection to it, we must breathe a little life back into our vision of it.”

Kathleen Jamie, Poet Naturalist

Kathleen Jamie in 2017. Photo by by Jemimah Kuhfeld

Kathleen Jamie is a poet who writes books about nature, islands, vanished cultures and the people who study these sorts of things. She travels and observes, often as the guest of a scientific study, yet remains remarkably free of agendas, political or otherwise. Here’s an example from her chapter on “the Storm Petrel.” (from Sightlines, 2012) 

The account begins: “We found it on Rona, the very day we arrived … “ The “it” in question is the body of a dead bird. A biologist friend recognizes it as a storm petrel–unusual to find a bird like this with an identification ring. Jamie looks it up in a reference book–she is as much a collector of language as she is of natural curiosities—and notes how storm petrels are “essentially pelagic;” “they never occur inland except as storm driven waifs.” Jamie compares this “scientific” description with a description by the poet Richard Murphy, which begins: “Gypsy of the sea/ In winter wambling over scurvy whaleroads/ Jooking in the wake of ships …” 

The bird is petite: “you’d think storm petrels too small to jook anywhere at all.” Jamie describes the ring around its foot, and provides a background on the practice of ringing birds in Britain. The ring she’s recovered bears the words: “Inform British Museum.” Jamie does so, filling in an on-line form. She shares with the reader each question and answer, very factual and explicit. Then she muses on what other questions might have been asked, such as “smell of bird?” Her answer: “mysterious, musky, like an unguent.” 

Waiting for the British Museum’s response, Jamie muses on the furious 18th century debate on bird migration. Gilbert White is quoted at length. Jamie comments on his unusual words and phrases, beginning with the odd word “hibernaculum”: “Hybernaculum,” Jamie notes, “is his word for the winter quarters a swallow repairs to, but where was this hibernaculum? His other words were interesting too. ‘Embarrassment’ and ‘mortification’ almost suggest that the Enlightenment just then dawning, all that science and discovery, might have been driven not by the will to master and possess nature, but out of chagrin. As human beings, our ignorance was beginning to shame us, because we didn’t know the least things, like where swallows went in winter.” 

Jamie receives an answer to her ring inquiry. The bird was ringed on the island of Yell, one of the northernmost Shetland Islands, which she knows well. Jamie gets out her maps and sea charts to trace the journey her storm petrel made. She senses the absurdity of the exercise: “They migrate from Shetland or Rona or their many other breeding places, down to the vast pelagic hibernaculum off Namibia and South Africa. A few come to grief … some bearing a return address. An address! Ludicrous thing for a storm petrel to carry. ‘The Ocean’ would be their address …” 

She concludes: “So that’s why I keep the bird’s remains, here in this room, my own hibernaculum—if only for a while … I keep it for the intimacy, and for the petrel smell: fusty, musky, suggestive of a distant island in summer. And I keep it out of sheer respect because, in life, this ounce of a bird had made twenty-four return trips the length of the Atlantic. Twenty-four at least—which is not bad at all, for a waif, wambling

Biodiversity Museum

The Beaty Diodiversity Museum in Vancouver

How is a museum like a morgue? The bodies inside have tags on their toes. That’s the feeling I get walking through these pristine displays of bones and stuffed birds in the black-walled basement of the Beaty Diodiversity Museum on UBC campus. There’s a sense of being in the storage vaults of a collection rather than being in a showroom.

Dinosaur bones

For example, these dinosaur bones are not assembled into some spectacular crowd-pleasing giant. Instead the bones are randomly tossed into a box that evokes an archaeologist’s dig—the raw materials of a collection without layers of interpretation shaping the viewer’s response. 

This museum boasts an unusual but functional water feature.

That’s not all that makes this museum different. Bulrushes and other swamp-loving plants naturally purify water and so there’s a channel of blue-green algae leading to the museum, winding its way through tall unmowed grasses and piles of compost. 

Wild grass with students

Outside the entrance to the museum, students preoccupied with messaging, pass fields of grass, swamp and brambles of trees. This urban wilderness makes everyone more relaxed, even those who don’t quite know they’re walking through it. 

Signage

What’s a museum without signage? Good communication uses striking details with comparisons to familiar things to help us grasp the wonders of whales and other creatures. This fun fact is placed near the blue whale skeleton hanging in the foyer.

Carnivores

In keeping with the sense of being behind closed doors of a research facility, the curators have arranged long cabinets with pull out drawers containing specimens and explanations of current projects by faculty of UBC biology department. The focus is on relationships between creatures living in a shared environment rather than on individual species. You’d need to spend some time to appreciate the scope of the inquiries. The quick glance we had was fascinating.

As we were leaving, we found this card game with a theme of ecology.

West Coast Art

Traditional Haida masks greet visitors to the Audain Museum in Whistler, BC

The Audain Museum in Whistler is itself a work of art. Designed by John Patkau Architects, the L-shaped building stands on stilts. It’s entered by a bridge that floats above a garden.

Glass corridor of the Audain Museum, rear view.

A long sun-drenched corridor links the entrance to the exhibit halls. All art inside is by artists from British Columbia, starting with traditional native artists and moving to contemporary native artists, photographers with billboard-sized images, generation of the group of seven and younger artists. All the big names are here: Bill Reid, Robert Davidson, Emily Carr, Jeff Wall, Brian Jungen.

Attila Richard Lukacs. Love in Lost, 1991 (detail)

When I’m in art galleries I like to take pictures of details. For instance I like how the crowded spiky seeds on the chestnut tree contrast with the delicate half-finished flowers and outstretched artist’s hand in the Lukacs image and the clothesline in the Emily Carr next to the red-mouthed totems.

Emily Carr, Native Village: Alert Bay, 1912 
Emily Carr. Street in Brittany, 1911
Emily Carr. Totem Poles, Kitsegukla, 1912. My photo with hand and camera, detail.

Emily Carr painted this native village in 1912, one year after her 16 month study tour of France, where she was exposed to experiments in modern art. Emily’s style is fresh and assured, using broad strokes, bright colours and strong well-defined forms to depict these time capsules of village life. In the image above, she uses repeating totem poles to add rhythm and vertical thrust to the receding street. The dramatic presence and animal vitality of the totem poles capture our attention. Yet what’s most striking is how the poles are so intimately situated in the midst of houses, children and clotheslines.

Young Emily Carr, Henri Matisse and Marcel Duchamp exhibited their work
together at the Salon d’Automne in Paris, 1911.

An interesting side note to the Carr exhibition: while in France, Emily exhibited her work alongside the paintings of Henri Matisse and Marcel Duchamp in the Salon d’Automne, Paris. She was a daring young artist stretching her wings at the exact moment that they were also testing the limits of their craft–young lions together!

I take a break in a nearby coffeeshop before heading south to Vancouver.
The glass architecture of Vancouver is amazing. These pointed balconies remind me of automobile tail fins of the Sputnik era–or is it just the angle I took the picture?
1957 Chevy Bel Air

I wish I’d had time to take pictures of cars and street signs, but I had less than a day in the city. When I heard there was an off-site work by Austrian sculptor Erwin Wurm, I thought immediately of his fat car series.

Erwin Wurm. Fat Car, 2009

Wurm’s one minute sculptures, where he asks people to balance an awkward pile of stuff–it’s impossible to hold the pose for longer than a minute–are also interesting. I was eager to learn what he had in store for Vancouver. Here’s his off-site work: two empty suits dancing.

Jay poses with an installation by Austrian sculptor Erwin Wurm.

I started this blog with masks so I’ll end with masks.

Contemporary native art: Porcupine mask by Phil Gray, 2010. Three Watchmen by Jim Hart

All artists balance tradition and revolt, political and personal, and this tension is evident in these unusual and challenging works.

Beau Dick. Mouse Mask from his “Undersea Kingdom” exhibition, 2017. Killer Whale decal.
Beau Dick. Towkwit Head, 2016, Devoured by Consumerism exhibit, New York, 2019

In the work above, the garbage bag becomes a temporary mask obscuring the mask inside. It makes me think how objects and relationships of great value to some are too quickly discarded by others. In a review (Canadian Art, May 2019) of Beau Dick’s New York exhibit, Devoured by Consumerism, Julian Brave NoiseCat writes: “One of Dick’s last works, produced in 2016, was the carved yellow cedar Towkwit Head, wrapped in a black garbage bag, with a painted eye and horsehair brow peeking out from a hole in its crude cover. Towkwit is a feminine spirit who cannot be killed. In ceremony, a Kwakwaka’wakw spiritual leader cuts off her head, sets her on fire, resurrects her and repeats the process over and over again.”

“Our whole culture has been shattered,” says Dick in the documentary film, Maker of Monsters. “It’s up to the artists now to pick up the pieces and try and put them together, back where they belong. Yeah, it does become political. It becomes beyond political; it becomes very deep and emotional.”

It may be insensitive to say this, but I feel the same way as Beau Dick, my culture has been shattered also. To illustrate what I mean, here are pictures from three museums visits.

Fragments of the past: my wife and I encountered these samples of classical Greek sculptures in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
Violence as entertainment: my encounter with Goya in Boston. A tiny print is blown up in digital form, entrance to the Order and Disorder exhibition in 2015.
Did ye get healed? I entered a room of over-sized prescription pills by Canadian artists, General Idea in Ottawa. One Year of AZT, 1991 is on permanent display in the National Gallery of Canada.

Mountains, B.C.

Mountain, mist, lake

I travelled to Whistler, British Columbia recently with my wife Kathleen. This was a different vacation for us. Much of our time was spent outdoors. We’d come off season, just before the ski hills opened, but it worked out well for us as we mixed family time with small doses of nature and got a better appreciation of where Kathleen’s son Jay lives and why he’s there. 

Sunlight, shadows, mountain
I encountered this glowing wild flower on the side of the ski hill.

While I was there, I took a few photos. My current art project starts with close-up details of nature, but I also step back and record a wider view, the way filmmakers construct reality. One of the hardest things to photograph is sunlight, to appreciate how life depends on the light and energy of the sun. Light is the first element of art, as is shadow. A mystic might say we journey from a life of shadows toward the light.

Mountains meets the sea

I had feared living amongst a ring of mountains might get claustrophobic. The reality is they’re always changing, especially if you’re on the move. I get glimpses of them on our peregrinations around lakes and forests and along stretches of highway, power lines and ski slopes. 

Crows watch over a parking lot in Creekside, with mountains visible in background.

I’m reminded of Hokusai’s One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji, a travelogue of 19th century Japan, showing the country through a series of pictures. In each picture, the landscape and activities change, except for one element, the mountain in the background. As I travel the back roads and hiking trails of Whistler, I get the idea that I could do a similar project, featuring Canadian mountain peaks.

The Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler was greatly improved for the Olympics. Here Kathleen poses with her son Jay, who served as agreeable tour guide.
The cranes of Horseshoe Bay.

The Sea to Ski highway has conveniently placed viewing stations. We stopped at Horseshoe Bay for lunch. It’s a lovely spot, picturesque with its views of ocean, busy with ferry traffic to outlying islands. In my nature shots, I often like to include traces of human intervention. These cranes gave a sense of scale to the mountain. One senses how precarious it is to build on these steep slopes, combined with the imperative to balance human activity with appreciation for the wonders of nature.

Follow the Herd

Cave Paintings of Lascaux in the Vézère Valley, southern France, thought to be around 20,000 years old. The cave art was discovered in 1940.

The cave paintings of southern France and Spain present one of the great mysteries of art. Why were these works created? The paintings are mostly of animals: bulls, aurochs, horses and bison. In the Lascaux cave, one of the giant bulls is 17 feet long. The animals, painted with earth-coloured minerals, appear to be in motion; none of them are grazing.

What is the meaning of this prehistoric art? We can only conjecture. The usual explanations touch on magical properties, hunting and religion, or having to do with initiation, ancestry and entertainment. Does any art in the 20th century deal with similar material? And can we learn anything from modern-day examples of herds, cattle and humans?

Andy Warhol. Cow Wallpaper, 1966

For example, Warhol’s cow wallpaper mocks the way landscape art, often featuring cattle, can become a piece of decoration in a room. The repeating heads of identical cows are absurd, yet powerful–the hypnotizing effect of mass media.

Perhaps the 20th century artist most associated with bulls is Pablo Picasso. “As a Spaniard it was inevitable that the bull, the bullfight, and eventually the Minotaur, would concern Picasso.” So writes Martin Ries in Art Journal (Winter 72/73).

Picasso draws and paints bulls in a variety of contexts. The bull could be a symbol of Spain, Picasso’s birthplace, or a symbol of sacrifice or death. Picasso portrays the minotaur as a monster, a lover, an embodiment of brute strength. At other times, the half bull-half man appears vulnerable, a homeless wanderer or uncomprehending actor in elaborate scenes of war and human suffering.

There is a dream-like quality to the image below that suggests a surrealist paradox: the violent solitary man lives under threat of being civilized. In his personal life, Picasso’s marriage had fallen apart–he couldn’t divorce because he was Catholic–and his mistress had just gotten pregnant.

Pablo Picasso. Minotauromachy, 1935
Alex Colville. Stop for Cows, 1967

Not bulls but cows. Canadian artist Alex Colville’s magic realist vision, with its pastoral theme, sense of deep space, luminance, and cool confrontation with the viewer, could not be more different from Picasso’s dark dramas. However Colville’s woman and Picasso’s Minotaur make similar gestures with their outstretched arms.

Standing before the Colville painting, the viewer feels like he or she is stopped in a car on a country road. The animals are momentarily in control and there’s not much to do about it. The young woman who makes the gesture is a cross between a modern-day shepherdess and a traffic cop. Perhaps she’s a stand-in for the artist–all artists want viewers to stop before their paintings. Are we being asked to slow down to share the world with the forces of nature we depend so much upon?

Two ads: McDonald’s ad (1971 TV Guide) features a hamburger made from beef; the 1974 Marlborough ad uses cowboy imagery to sell cigarettes.

When I look at images, a question I ask is: can we learn more about a time and place from art, from ads or from pop culture? For me, the answer is all three. For instance, the McDonald’s ad above is an artifact of our fast food culture, firmly entrenched by the 1970s. It is not an ad for a restaurant–the information makes no mention of atmosphere or a sophisticated and varied menu. The food is to go and it’s an identical product wherever you buy it. The ad stresses “great” and “big” — (has to compete with whoppers). Its message is the opposite of the Alex Colville painting, Stop for Cows. The last thing a consumer needs to think about at McDonald’s is where did this food come from or were any animals involved.

The Marlborough ad features an action picture of a cowboy about to rope a steer. The image has the iconic appeal of the Old West, portraying a man who’s both free and engaged in work. It suggests a robust way of life, living outdoors, attuned to nature. The man is a skilled horseman and rancher; the young bull has no chance against him. In the unfolding scenario, which we’ve been primed for by a endless stream of related Marlborough ads, we imagine the man will shortly light a cigarette as the camera moves in for a close up of his handsome grinning face.

Buffalo Bill appears in a St. Louis newspaper ad from 1885. Paul Newman stars in the 1976 revisionist Western, Buffalo Bill and The Indians.

At the same time that Philip Morris Corp was running these cowboy ads, a few irascible filmmakers in Hollywood were causing a stir with their edgy Westerns. No film was more iconoclastic than Robert Altman’s satirical bio-pic, Buffalo Bill and The Indians, 1976.

Reviewers Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat describe the film: “The time is 1885. Colonel William F. Cody (Paul Newman) is the chief attraction in a show called “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: An Absolute Original & Heroic Enterprise of Inimitable Lustre.” Around this vaudeville environment, Buffalo Bill and his entourage have packaged the history of the Wild West in circus stunts and carnival spectacles. When Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin) asks Buffalo Bill why he doesn’t tell the truth in his shows, the superstar replies, “Truth is whatever gets the most applause.”

Throughout the film, Buffalo Bill wears fine clothes and is groomed to the max, but his flowing locks are really a toupee–he’s a manufactured icon who shamelessly turns the story of wild buffalo and native Americans into a show-biz hustle! The implication is that this pattern of false history and self-deception is deeply ingrained in American politics and public life.

Lady Gaga wears a Meat Dress for a 2010 awards show. Right: Jana Sterbak, the Canadian artist who created the original Meat Dress in 1987.

Pop culture tends to focus on stories and personalities. Fine artists often go in for a more visceral and shocking impact. The Canadian conceptual artist, Jana Sterbak is best known for her blood red Meat Dress, composed of 50 pounds of raw steaks sewn together in a seductive and revolting garment. The artist called the work a “contrast between vanity and bodily decomposition.” Critic Deborah Irmas commented how “Sterbak likes to arouse discomfort” by using objects to trigger controversy and disgust.

The dress idea was revisited by pop star Lady Gaga, who wore a similar concoction to the MTV Video Music Awards in 2010. “Lady Gaga divides opinion,” Laura Roberts reported the next day for The Telegraph. “The singer collected eight awards while wearing the Franc Fernandez-designed outfit, complete with boots, purse and a hat made from cuts of beef. Cher, who presented the prizes, wrote on her Twitter account that as an “art piece it was astonishing! Everyone’s talking about it!” Lady Gaga later expressed to her friend, talk show host Ellen Degeneres, that sexual politics lay behind her publicity stunt: “I am not a piece of meat!”

Sebastião Salgado. Nenets of the Siberian Arctic, Russia

The epic book project, Genesis, 2013, took photographer Sebastiao Salgado eight years to complete, as he documented parts of the world–rainforests, deserts, volcanoes, islands, and arctic regions–untainted by modern life. This photo of migrating reindeer in Siberia captures the mass movement of a herd of animals, on a 1,000 km trek to northern grazing grounds each spring. The human presence is so small (in the sled at top) it’s easy to miss at first glance.

In her review for The Observer, (14 Apr, 2013) Laura Cumming writes: “Salgado wants to go back to the beginning, to find a world that has not yet been ruined by mankind so that we may see the Eden that time forgot.” Redemption project and personal voyage of discovery, this Utopian photo-journalism, with its Biblical overtones, confronted present day fears of self-destruction, shame and loss of the natural world.

All of these works present different takes on the natural world, seen through lenses of war and peace, commerce and fashion, propaganda and history.

What do they tell us about the Lascaux cave paintings? Every device I’ve mentioned, from mass hypnosis to tribal identity (brand loyalty) to embracing a mobile “cowboy culture”, applies equally to both modern and prehistoric societies. Early humans relied on wild bulls for food and clothing. And I suspect some of the clothing used for special ceremonies was just as outrageous as the meat dress and may also have tested limits of what is revolting and what makes for a good story around a fire. The stories, no doubt, were always changing and turning into myths.

And finally, prehistoric nomadic societies, like the ones that passed through Lascaux, may have witnessed or caused or feared or heard of a few extinction events (loss of species) that would have deeply rocked their world. Their art, like ours, was a mixed bag of fears and dreams, expressions of tribal solidarity, affirmation of a mobile lifestyle–while dependent on other creatures, proud of their skill as trackers and hunters, fearful that they might be too skilled and overshoot their limits and natural laws.

Son of Group of Seven

Painter vs publicist. Arthur Lismer. A Spetember Gale, Georgian Bay, 1921 and cover illustration for an exhibition catalogue by Thoreau Macdonald, c. 1950.

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.

This catalogue cover features a black and white rendition by Thoreau of his father’s most famous painting, The Solemn Land, 1921.

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.

Thoreau Macdonald. Snowy Owl with landscape, c. 1950

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.

Thoreau Macdonald. Bear and stump, c. 1945
Thoreau Macdonald. Fox in an orchard, winter, c. 1950

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.

Thoreau Macdonald. Winter scene, c. 1960

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.

Thoreau Macdonald. Northern Landscape, c. 1958

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.

The Group of Seven in Context

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.

“Painting Canada” exhibition tours England, Norway and the Netherlands in 2011.

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.

Fashion changes: catalogue at left from 1899. At right, an ad from 1920.

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.

Tom Thomson. The Birch Grove, 1915

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. The Jack Pine, 1917

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.

Thomson fishing in Algonquin Park, 1915

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.

J.E.H. MacDonald. The Little Falls, sketch, 1918

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.

Lawren Harris was an heir to the Massey Harris company. This ad from the 1950s uses a geometric, brightly coloured background to showcase the new machine.

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.

Bustbowl conditions devastate prarie farms during 1930s. Photo by Dorothea Lange
JEH MacDonald. The Solemn Land, 1921

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.

Lawren Harris, Icebergs Smith Sound II, 1930

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.

Holy Fire

Two fire halos: a bronze Buddha from China, c. 500 and Shiva as Lord of Dance, 11th century.

Whatever happened to the halo in art? Round glowing disks, either full body or framing the head, used to signify holy figures.  The Buddha pictured above sits before a glowing screen with flames shooting off at the edges. The fire signifies enlightenment. Above right, Shiva, Lord of Destruction and Transformation, dances in a ring of fire–the never-ending cycle of time. 

Heaven and Hell. A depictions of the fires of Hell from The Divine Comedy by William Blake, 1824, and a detail of Raphael’s Transfiguration, 1515-20, shows Christ ascending the skies surrounded by a glowing cloud. 

Fires, as in the Blake image above, can signify destruction or punishment. Brilliant light like that enveloping the figure of Christ in Raphael’s Transfiguration can signify God-like powers.

Ra, the Sun God, with Amentet, Goddess of the Dead, in the tomb of Nefertari, c. 1235 BC

Halos appear in different religious traditions. In this image from ancient Egypt, Ra, the Sun God, wears a red disc as a crown and holds the ankh, symbol of life. Beside him sits Amentet, goddess of death, to guide the soul of the deceased in the afterlife.

Giotto. Detail of a cycle of murals in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, 1305

Can you identify this kissing couple? Each has a halo, but the halos crush together into a heart shape as the old man and woman kiss. Art critic Tom Lubbock describes the kiss as two egg yokes merging together. The painting is by Giotto. The image depicts the meeting of Joachim and Anne at the City Gate in Jerusalem, a fresco created in 1305 for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Why are the couple so happy? They’ve lived long lives without children and now an angel has announced they are about to be parents for the first time. Their child, of course, will be the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. My interpretation: grandparents are important. 

The secularization of the sun: King Louis XIV’s Sun King emblem on a  gun, 1745, and Statue of Liberty, designed by Frederic Bartholdi, 1886

As art becomes more secular, the halo motif shifts from the field of religion to the field of politics. King Louis XIV of France called himself the Sun King and made a sunburst emblem with his own portrait to reinforce this idea. The emblem was stamped on everything that belonged to Louis, including his artillery. The head of the famous Statue of Liberty wears a similar celestial crown with dramatic sun spikes. The torch in her uplifted hand reinforces this idea of a human beacon. 

The fire power of Pop culture: Beyoncé and Sun Maid ad

Halos follow money and there’s money in pop culture and advertising. In 2017, Beyoncé performed at the Grammys in a Peter Dundas gown and House of Malakai headdress that featured a halo crown. The Sun Maid logo has been used to sell raisins since 1912. It seems it’s not enough that we want instantly catchy music and quick tasty snacks, we want to believe there’s some inner goodness to these things as well.

The drug is real. I added the monster, drawn by Elise Gravel.

Why is Big Pharma selling drugs and putting halos around them? There’s a drug called Haloperidol, which is used for severe behavior problems in hyperactive children. Parents wishing they could turn problem children into angels. As drugs become the solution to all our problems, drug salesmen become shapers of public belief–the new priests and guardians of holy fire.

Posted in Art

Festive Ukiyo-e

Sugimura Jihei. Lion Dance, c.1700

Lively festivals, bright costumes, glamorous women and eager crowds–welcome to the floating world of the Yoshiwara! This is Edo’s pleasure district, the Las Vegas and Montmartre of 18th century Japan. If you were a visitor to such an event, what better souvenir than a woodblock print by a popular Japanese artist?

The shishi-mai or Lion Dance, pictured above, is often performed at New Year’s celebrations. Dancers and musicians on the left entertain the crowd, wearing their holiday best, on the right. One woman carries an infant on her back, while a mother comforts her frightened child in the foreground. At centre, an aristocrat watches under the shade of an umbrella.

Kitagawa Utamaro. Two Dances: Rice Planting Dance and Lion Dance, Niwaka Festival,1799

Utamaro takes a different approach to the same dance, right above, as a sake-drinking courtesan gets a close view of the performers. These images record events from the Niwaka Festival in Edo. Niwaka translates as ‘spontaneous’ because of its origins as impromptu street performances by courtesans and geishas looking to boost business. Over time, the Festival, held on the 8th lunar month, became a regular event including processions, floats, skits and dances. Performers of both sexes wore elaborate costumes (frequently cross-gender) and carried painted fans to signal the subject of their play. During the festival, access to the pleasure quarters was open to all, giving women and families a rare opportunity to enjoy the spectacle of the Yoshiwara. (Info from Kiyoshi Shibui, Ukiyo-e Zuten: Utamaro, 1964 and Gina Collia-Suzuki, The Complete Woodblock Prints of Kitagawa Utamaro, A Descriptive Catalogue, 2009)

Kitagawa Utamaro. A Picture Book of Annual Events in Yoshiwara, 1804

Utamaro has idealized himself painting this mural for the Niwaka Festivities. The artist was reputed to be overweight and homely, a Hitchcock-like figure, who, like the famous film director, depicted beautiful women with more grace and style than any of his rivals. In the above image, Utamaro decorates an interior with a painting of a ‘ho-o’ bird, watched by curious courtesans. The bird is a fantastical amalgam of different parts and is sometimes referred to as King of Birds or Fenghuang. It’s meant to amuse, to delight, to astonish with its imaginative extravagance. (Reference: The British Museum)

Utagawa Hiroshige. Suido Bridge and Surugadai, from One Hundred Views of Edo, 1857

Carp-shaped wind socks mark a children’s holiday in Japan’s largest city. Hiroshige has created a startling effect by choosing a high angle, with the city landmarks receding in convincing perspective. The tail of the fish touches the river, giving the sense that it has leaped over the distant Fuji high into the sky.

The significance of the banners is explained in this note from the Brooklyn Museum: “Without the three immense carp banners, this view would have been a classic depiction of samurai Edo, looking southwest over the densest concentration of samurai households, from Surugadai on the left through Banchō in the distance. The banners and streamers indicate that the time is the Boy’s Festival, the fifth day of the Fifth Month. The three carp are standards used by commoners in imitation of the military streamers, which they were prohibited from flying. The banners drew on a Chinese legend of a fish so strong that it could leap a waterfall—an image considered an inspiring legend for young boys.”

Kitagawa Utamaro, detail from Girls’ Day (aka The Doll Festival), from Courtesans of the Five Festivals, 1805, and Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Boys’ Day from The Five Festivals, 1840

Often images that record festive themes, also showcase pretty young women, in this case, posing with doll and child. Take note of the elaborate coiffure of the woman on the left. To appreciate how much effort goes into such a look, the Art Institute of Chicago created a video called Recreating Ukiyo-e Hairstyles. In the picture with the boy, a fish-shaped flag, the same as in the Hiroshige, appears in a circle beside the vertical banners.

Fashion past & presen: Keisai Eisen, from Eight Views in the Yoshiwara, c. 1825. The model wears an embroidered top with clutch sleeves by Indian designer Manish Arora, S/S 2013.

Does anything beat a celebrity’s arrival on the red carpet or catwalk, as advertisement for trend-setting fashion? Think Met Gala to get an idea of the impact of parading ôirans in 19th century Japan. The print, top left, depicts the courtesan Nagatô wearing a dazzling tiger costume. Art historian John Fiorillo comments: “Nagatô is on public display during a promenade in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter. It is early spring, as she walks beneath a flowering cherry tree enclosed by a bamboo fence on Yoshiwara’s main street, the Naka-no-chô (“Middle Street”).”

“Many spectators would come not only to enjoy the blossoming trees,” Fiorillo comments, “but also to sit in the upper stories of teahouses to view the colorful spectacle of parading courtesans … Nagatô’s robes and accessories are of the most elaborate and expensive type for the period. Six tortoise-shell hairpins jut out on either side of her coiffure, and a large obi is tied in front. Most spectacular, of course, is the pattern of a fierce tiger standing on rocks amidst a waterfall. Such kimono were prohibitively expensive, affordable by only the highest ranking courtesans (gifts from wealthy patrons).”

Actor prints: Left, by Torii Kiyonaga. Kabuki theatre actors and orchestra, 1788. Right, by Tōshūsai Sharaku. Otani Oniji II, 1794.

The Kabuki theatres in the pleasure district offered entertainments that ran all day. Actor prints were one of the first genres of ukiyo-e: records of stirring performances, mementos for fans and ads for shows. The prints often depict actors in frozen poses, struck at dramatic moments in as showy a manner as possible. The brilliant and enigmatic Sharaku broke this pattern by concentrating on close-ups of actors’ heads.

Sharaku may have had the shortest art career on record, a scant ten months. Little is known of the artist or why his output of prints ended so abruptly. One theory is that his portraits were a little too scathing and gave offence to powerful people who shut him down. What makes Sharaku’s prints so brilliant is that he captures both a likeness of the actor in caricature, as well as defining the actor’s role. In the image top right, Sharaku depicts an actor playing a villainous servant, grasping, frowning, eyebrows furrowed in intense concentration. The conception is bold, dynamic and conveys character with graphic immediacy.

The teahouse and the music hall. Left: Utamaro, 1795, focusses on a smartly-dressed barmaid. Right: Toulouse Lautrec, 1893, sandwiches together audience, orchestra and performer.

Japanese ukiyo-e inspired and is often compared with 19th century French art. When we look at the two traditions side by side, similarities leap off the page: flat colours, compressed spaces, contemporary subject matter, interest in a demi-monde situated in a pleasurable world of escapist fantasy. The prints record a thriving commercial pop culture. Both Utamaro and Lautrec display a racy wit: Utamaro compares a barmaid to a classical poet; Lautrec compares the curve of the bass instrument with the gentleman’s cane. The gentleman has the attitude of a predator more interested in the young lady than the musical performance. Both images are mass produced prints appealing to a middle class audience.

In these images, we see a seductive side to modernity, with the ascendancy of popular culture centred on celebrities and entertainment, the rapid dissemination of news and gossip, the intermixing of classes, the explosion of print material, innovative fashion and art that breaks with tradition in order to reflect the spontaneity of contemporary life with all its amusements and sexual attractions.

Posted in Art