A century ago, people who fancied themselves connoisseurs were certain of one thing: Art was designed to soothe, not stimulate. Strong colours were disturbing and should be avoided. According to conventional wisdom, "a good picture like a good fiddle should be brown." Thus, when J.E.H. MacDonald first exhibited his masterpiece, The Tangled Garden, in 1916 at the annual show of the Ontario Society of Artists, he must have been apprehensive. The painting showed heavy-headed sunflowers drooping over a riot of red, purple and yellow late-summer perennials in his backyard in Thornhill, Ont.
Sure enough, the art critic for The Toronto Star called The Tangled Garden (now in the National Gallery of Canada) "a purposeless medley of crude colours," and Hector Charlesworth, assistant editor of Saturday Night magazine, dubbed MacDonald's work "Drunkard's Stomach" and "A Hungarian Goulash."
One of the surprising things in Ross King's Defiant Spirits is how frequently members of the Group of Seven (the "Algonquin Park School" prior to 1920) had to fight such innuendo and how often they or their supporters referred to them as "red-blooded men," or had to call their work "virile," to somehow neutralize the idea that strong colours and Post-Impressionist experimentation equalled effeminacy. Tom Thomson, the most mercurial and extravagantly talented of the Algonquin painters, was particularly sensitive to such accusations, since as a pacifist he did not enlist to fight in the First World War, and, King suggests, may have been given an ignominious white feather on the streets of Toronto.
A Canadian who lives in England, King has made a specialty of folding art history into social and cultural history. After three books on the Italian Renaissance, he wrote The Judgment of Paris in 2006, about the winners and losers of the French art world in the 1870s, when painting underwent a transformation. The McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., is to be commended for persuading King to look homeward.
He follows the group for 20 years from 1912, when its members first came into contact at the Arts and Letters Club or at Grip Ltd., a commercial design firm in Toronto, through their joint exhibitions in the 1920s, after the drowning death of Thomson. It's a well-known tale, but King freshens it up by embedding it deeply in historical context. He emphasizes that the struggle of the modern was harder and more protracted in this country than in Europe or the United States. While the National Gallery and the province of Ontario bought some of the group's work, it was scorned by private collectors; most of the artists lived in straitened circumstances until late in life.
As late as 1932, a Vancouver journalist named J.A. Radford, whose idea of good Canadian art was paintings of cows and "handsome women," reviled the group for its "hideous and unnatural modernism." That same year, MacDonald died of a stroke in his office at the Ontario College of Art, and the group effectively disbanded. Some art historians have suggested that A.Y. Jackson and Lawren Harris overstated the opposition they had to face down, but King's account confirms that there was no exaggeration.
He paints vivid portraits of the artists: the wealthy Harris, energetic and generous, spiritually troubled, caught in a bad marriage he had no way to end; MacDonald, frail, kindly, overworked, constantly worried about supporting his family; the feckless and belligerent Fred Varley, the group's only true bohemian; the careerist Frank Johnson, who decided after the group's first show that he did not want to be associated with a bunch of painters whose work didn't sell; the irrepressible Jackson, a rebel and confirmed bachelor; the idealistic yet ambitious Arthur Lismer, a born teacher.
Only Franklin Carmichael, the youngest member of the original seven, remains shadowy. He is introduced at 21, upon his return to Toronto in 1914 from Antwerp, where he was studying art until Germany invaded Belgium. We learn that he worked in a graphic design firm, was close to Tom Thomson, and conducted a long courtship before he could afford to marry his sweetheart, Ada. But fairly soon he drops out of the story. About his art, King has nothing to say.
Defiant Spirits is timely. Postmodern academics (their views are collected in 2007's Beyond Wilderness) have attempted to dislodge the group from its central place in Canadian art history, minimizing their achievements and calling their motives into question. These commentators charge the group with being privileged white males, with nationalizing the landscape, ignoring the country's immigrant mosaic, pretending that the land is unpeopled and therefore available for resource exploitation, and erasing the aboriginal presence in their wilderness paintings.
In other words, they demand that these seven artists (10 by the time the later additions A.J. Casson, Edwin Holgate and Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald are factored in), born in the Victorian era, think just as we do in the 21st century.
King's approach leads to a clearer understanding of what it was like to persist in artistic activity in a city with almost no enlightened collectors, no proper art school and - until 1918 - no purpose-built art museum, in a country of about eight million people that had no embassies, no independent foreign policy and could not sign an international treaty until well after the First World War. When Prince Edward visited Canada in 1919, he was given as an official gift a painting by Charles Russell, an American "cowboy artist" from Montana. "Canada was as yet unwritten, unpainted, unsung," Lismer wrote. There was a lot of work to be done and the group buckled down to it.
In his epilogue, King mulls over why the group, despite the enormous sums its work now commands, has lost some of its lustre. When the CBC asked the public to name the 100 greatest Canadians in 2004, the only artist on the list was Emily Carr (No. 85).
King proposes various explanations, none totally convincing: that Canadians today are ignorant of their history; that they have become more urban and removed from nature; that the nationalism of the group, their optimism about the future of Canada, has no resonance today.
Nevertheless, there is no denying the achievements of these gifted artists. They created new standards of beauty and changed our vision forever. Setting out to answer the question, as Northrop Frye put it, of "Where is here?" they left their answer on the gallery walls.
Judy Stoffman writes and collects Canadian art in Toronto.