Saturday, January 12, 2008

Canadiana: The Group of Seven

As part of my ongoing effort to give our readers enough information to successfully infiltrate Canadian society and pass for natives, today we discuss a term that every Canadian I've ever met knows the meaning of: The Group of Seven.

Who were they?

The Group of Seven was a group of Canadian painters from the 1920s. They were landscape painters, influenced by Impressionism, whose work today goes for thousands of dollars, and is sold in prints all over Canada. If you have a Canadian grandparent, it's a safe bet to give them a Group of Seven print as a Christmas gift.

Were they an official group?

Yes. The original group consisted of: Franklin Carmichael, Lewlin Harris, Arthur Lismer, Frank Johnston, A.Y. Jackson, J.E.H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley. Tom Thompson and Emily Carr were also associated with the group, but never actual members. The seven met at the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto and noticed similarities in each others' work. They started meeting about 1913, were briefly delayed by the first World War, and reunited afterwards to travel through Ontario sketching and painting. They held their first exhibit in 1920. Incidentally, Thompson died in 1917 while canoeing; this is still somewhat mysterious because he died of a blow to the head and not drowning.

How long did they last?

By 1931, the Group was successful enough to exhibit their work alone, so they stopped exhibiting as a group that year.

Why are they important?

Canada is a beautiful country and the Group of Seven shaped how Canadians look at their land. They created a certain mythology of Canadian wilderness, which is still hotly debated. The Group of Seven has become a central part of what Canadians think of themselves. They're as Canadian as Norman Rockwell is American. Unlike Rockwell, they celebrate the land and not the people. The paintings are also gorgeous. I particularly like Carmichael's paintings as well as Harris's.

That said, part of the appeal of the paintings is that they're a bit anodyne. You couldn't imagine anyone ever being offended by the Group of Seven, although some European critics actually were; but you also couldn't imagine devoting your life to collecting them, or staying up all night debating them.


Holly said...

The debate was sort of awkward, in that they seemed more to be debating about whether Canadians are capable of environment engagement, than about the role paintings themselves in the Canadian sense of selfhood. Although surely the Canadian landscape has been morphed through the persistent ministrations of civilized Euro-settlement, that doesn't affect whether those paintings were "true" for the folks who painted them in 1930. It's normal to nostalgify a time/place combination like that. That's part of what makes German Expressionist painting so freakin' interesting--the Romantics already had a go at monumentality of natural landscape, and they were completely plowed under by gritty cubist-sur-realism.... also "true" for the painter/place/time.

And, let's be blunt, if you look at a Group of Seven painting, and DON'T feel at least a little guilty about the state of the environment, your soul is dead. I'm not sure it matters if you're Canadian or not.

Rufus said...

Yeah, it was a strange conversation, and about as heated as non-hockey debates get up here. What confused me was that the one guy was saying that, sure, that's what Canada looked like back then, but it doesn't look like that now, as if this is the painters' fault.

Holly said...

Valpy (I think?, the journalist? in the upstairs windowbox) seemed to be saying that because the Canadian landscape is damaged goods now, Canadians should (retroactively) stop liking those paintings, because they are now a symbol that Canadians don't care about what they've damaged, and never have, even when the pictures were painted. Also, his authority to say so was something about how he's a journalist, and therefore entitled to tell all of Canada which of her origin myths are true?

The whole thing was bizarre, and I found myself wondering why the moderator wasn't just screaming at the techs to unplug the crazy man's feed. Of course it could be the case that repeatedly asking him what, exactly, is wrong with looking at the pictures and feeling good about being Canadian is the Canadian version of that.

I guess, though, if I found Christmas cards depicting the Spanish Inquisition, I'd probably buy at least one. You know... just to have it.