They called themselves "The Group of Seven for their first exhibition on May 7, 1920. Reviewers were more descriptive. "The contents of "a drunkard's stomach" said one. Critical opinion would change, however, and by the peak of their fame in the mid-fifties, reproductions of their paintings hung on classroom walls in every school in the country. Their works held pride of place in Canadian museums and every discussion of Canadian art inevitably acknowledged their importance to the evolution of a "national vision".
But how much did the art of the Group of Seven really have to do with an authentically national inspiration?
Four decades after Confederation, when the Group of Seven came on the scene, Canada was finding its feet as a nation - politically, socially and economically. In the realm of culture, however, it had not yet wrested its independence from Old World traditions. Canadian landscape art consisted primarily of anonymous views seen through the cloudy screen of European academicism. The small community of Canadian art collectors had little interest in artistic innovation.
In this moribund atmosphere, a group of painters began meeting in Toronto as a kind of mutual support group, to look at each others' paintings, to share ideas and to discuss the sorry state of affairs. They included Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Franz Johnson, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and F.H. Varley. Another artist, Tom Thomson was a member of the small circle, but he died before the group formally organized.
|Members of the original Group of Seven, Toronto 1920. Clockwise from left front: A.Y. Jackson, Fred Varley, Lawren Harris, Barker Firley (not a member), Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer and J.E.H. MacDonald (Art Gallery of Ontario).|
Thomson, however, had a profound effect on the formation of the group. An untrained but extremely talented painter, he was an outdoorsman who encouraged the other members to paint the Northern wilderness. It was here that they found the imagery that would imprint itself on the Canadian consciousness: depictions of the rugged wind-swept forest panoramas of the Canadian Shield that would eventually be equated with a romanticised notion of Canadian strength and independence.
Despite their emphasis on the need for a specifically "native expression, the Group were aware of and drew inspiration from the French Post-Impressionists Van Gogh and Gauguin. But the real turning point in their search for a style came in 1912, when MacDonald and Harris travelled to Buffalo to see an exhibition of contemporary Scandinavian painting. The two friends were struck by the approach of the Scandinavians, their use of simple areas of flat, bright colour to create vivid depictions of Northern landscape. They realized that the subjects of these paintings could as easily have been Canada's Northern wilderness. It was the synthesis of Northern subject with this new treatment that created the distinctive images that would become the hallmark of the Group of Seven.
From the start, the Group's exhibitions sparked controversy, and if anything it was this heated debate that kick-started their fame. The negative reviews and letters to the editors received clever and passionate responses from the painters and their supporters and the discussion was always directed to the importance of their work as the product of true nationalistic expression.
Other factors contributed to their success. Several of the Group were excellent teachers, writers and speakers and they worked energetically with the National Gallery and with other groups to mount touring exhibitions that showcased their artworks - shows to the US, Great Britain and to Paris. It helped, too, that the Director of the National Gallery, Eric Brown, was a strong supporter.
Something else worked in their favour. The bright colours and bold patterning favoured by members of the Group (most of whom had worked as designers) lent itself ideally to reproduction and mass distribution.
Nationalism created the Group of Seven, but in the end it limited their accomplishment. In time their influence waned. The Group were so successful in presenting their art as the visual expression of nationalism that the quality of their art is often overlooked. Taken as a whole, the members of the Group varied in achievement, just as individual works varied in quality. Often the most celebrated paintings, the ones most commonly reproduced, seem overblown and stale when seen "in the flesh. Their small oil sketches, however, especially those by MacDonald, Varley, Jackson and also by Thomson, include some of their most inspired paintings, full of life and feeling.
The Group introduced the idea that Canadian art could be important, that it could make a noise, and that it might be seen on the international stage. It galvanized the national art community and in the end it stimulated the development of the museums and government bodies that would pave the road for artists who followed.