The iconic landscape paintings of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven are a national treasure that defined a new visual language in Canadian art in the early decades of the 20th century. These exuberant depictions of Canada’s vast wilderness still influence how we view our country – but to date, they have been comparatively unknown overseas.
That’s now changing, thanks to a landmark exhibition co-curated by two York University scholars: Anna Hudson, associate professor of Canadian art and curatorial studies and associate dean in the Faculty of Fine Arts, and Katerina Atanassova, a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Program in Art History and Visual Culture, and chief curator at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario.
Hudson and Atanassova were invited by Ian Dejardin, director of the famed Dulwich Picture Gallery in London/UK, to join him in a three-person curatorial team to assemble Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.
“The Group of Seven produced some of the most vibrant and beautiful landscapes of the 20th century,” said Dejardin. “As for Tom Thomson – what he achieved in his tragically short career (just five years) is extraordinary. He is Canada’s very own van Gogh.”
Painting Canada was a record-breaking hit at the Dulwich, drawing the largest single-day attendance in the gallery’s history and earning critical acclaim as “one of those shows that does more than transplant the viewer… It feeds the imagination” (The Guardian/UK). Following two more hugely successful European stops, in Norway and the Netherlands, this remarkable showcase has returned for an exclusive Canadian engagement. The exhibition opened at the McMichael Gallery on Nov. 3 and runs to Jan. 6, 2013.
Painting Canada features over 125 works by Thomson and the Group of Seven, drawn from more than a dozen galleries and private collections. The curators conceived the showas a visual journey across the country from east to west, framed by Thomson’s electrifying depictions of Algonquin Park and Lawren Harris’ otherworldly paintings of the Arctic and the Rocky Mountains. Between these two poles, the exhibition presents a selection of the best work by Thomson and the artists in the Group of Seven.
“The timing was right to rethink the contribution of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven within the context of international cultural modernism,” said Hudson. “It gave us the chance to see how quantum physics reshaped spiritualism into scientific humanism in Canada.
“Just as importantly, the show brings many little-known gems to light, alongside the great iconic paintings like Thomson’s West Wind.”
Half of the works in Painting Canada had never been shown publicly or reproduced in books. For the McMichael showing, the curators added another nine works never before exhibited.
A.Y. Jackson (1882-1974), First Snow, Algoma, 1919/1920, Oil on canvas, 107.1 x 127.7 cm, In Memory of Gertrude Wells Hilborn, McMichael Canadian Art Collection
A special feature of the exhibition is the juxtaposition, wherever possible, of the artist’s initial sketch with the finished canvas. With few of the original sketches held in the same collection as the paintings they engendered, tracking them down to pair up the works was a particular curatorial challenge. At the McMichael, the show is also augmented by personal belongings and artifacts of members of the Group of Seven, such as paint-boxes, brushes, letters and diaries.
The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue. The curators invited European scholars to contribute essays to the publication, bringing fresh perspectives and consideration of links to Scandinavian art and the Expressionist movement in Europe.
“These perspectives enrich our scope and understanding of the art,” said Atanassova.
After its launch in Dulwich (Oct. 19, 2011 – Jan. 8, 2012), Painting Canada went on to the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo, Norway (Jan. 29 – May 13) and the Groninger Museum in Groningen, Netherlands (June 3 – Oct. 28). The McMichael is the exhibition’s final engagement.
“I’m very proud to bring Painting Canada home,” said Atanassova, who has been swamped with media interview requests all week. “When I visited the show in Europe, viewers told me they were so moved by the images, it made them want to come to Canada to see the actual landscapes in person. I hope it will similarly inspire Canadians to appreciate our beautiful wilderness.”
The opening of the exhibition at the McMichael was marked by a symposium exploring the significance of Thomson and the Group of Seven at home and abroad, in their time and ours. Hudson, Atanassova, Dejardin and other scholars and experts gathered at the gallery on Nov. 4 for a full day of talks.
Panellists included Jacques Des Rochers, curator of the Musée des Beaux-arts de Montréal; York University alumna Georgiana Uhlyarik (MA ’98), assistant curator of Canadian art at the Art Gallery of Ontario; Marietta Jansen, curator of 20th century art at the Groninger Museum, Netherlands; Canadian art critic and journalist Sarah Milroy; Virginia Eichhorn, director/curator of the Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery, Owen Sound; and filmmakers Peter Raymont, Michèle Hozer and Nancy Lang, creators of the recently-released feature documentary West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson.
For gallery hours and more information about the Painting Canada exhibition and related programming, visit the McMichael Canadian Art Collection website.