Where is the dividing line between art and illustration? It's a question that will come to mind if you should find yourself in the current National Gallery of Canada touring exhibition of the lesser known Group of Seven artist Franklin Carmichael, now on show at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont.
Organized by the artist's granddaughter, curator Catherine Mastin (of the Glenbow Art Gallery in Calgary), Portrait of a Spiritualist pulls together 200 works from the holdings of the National Gallery, the majority of which were donated to the gallery from the artist's estate in 1997.
Rising to the occasion, the McMichael's Megan Bice has also put together a small exhibition of Carmichael holdings from her own gallery's vaults, including examples of his work as a commercial artist and book illustrator. Taken as a whole, the exhibitions drive you to one conclusion: On the great divide between art and illustration, Carmichael could go both ways -- but not perhaps always intentionally.
"When you are here in the office," Carmichael told his design protégé A. J. Casson, "you're doing commercial work; when you go out to paint you're a different person. Put that away and forget about it."
Evidently, this was more easily said than done. All of the Group painters and their colleagues have their facile moments on canvas -- probably least of all Thomson and Varley -- and all of them worked as commercial illustrators, putting in stints in the budding Toronto art departments of Grip Engraving Company, Rous and Mann and Sampson-Matthews. Among the Groupers, Carmichael and J. E. H. Macdonald were the most involved with commercial design; in fact, MacDonald was Carmichael's first boss at Grip. (Thomson and Arthur Lismer were his co-workers.)
Over the course of his career, Carmichael created everything from ceramics to furniture to chocolate-box covers, tourism pamphlets for the CN hotels and promotional brochures for the Ford Motor Company. Following his 20 years as a commercial illustrator and graphic designer, Carmichael went on to run the Commercial Art division at the Ontario College of Art from 1932 to 1945, where he gained a reputation as a tireless stickler for detail ("good enough is not good enough"), who expected a fiendish devotion to the craft of design. His design work, not surprisingly, is consistently brilliant. His painting, however, is not.
Portrait of a Spiritualist offers a slim overview of all periods of the artist's production, but there are enough important pictures in the mix -- such as The Upper Ottawa, Near Mattawa (1924) and The Hilltop (1921), and a fair sampling of his later La Cloche paintings, made north of Lake Superior -- that it allows for an evaluation of the artist's career as a whole. Rather than provoking one to see Carmichael as a visionary, the works by and large seem the product of a careful and strategic sensibility, with the artist executing the task of representation with painstaking planning and an overly careful eye for composition.
The resulting paintings can be gloriously decorative in an art-deco, arts-and-crafts sort of way, reminiscent at their best of the cloisonnism of Vuillard or Bonnard -- as in the two large oil paintings mentioned above. Or they can be strangely inert, like the watercolours of Grace Lake of 1934, or Wabajisik: Drowned Land and The Whitefish Hills of 1929.
Mastin writes in praise of her grandfather's watercolours: "The medium is challenging because of the ease with which the colour spreads in unwanted directions; however, Carmichael made no room for such occurrences. Beginning with a preliminary drawing visible beneath the paint, the artist handled the amount of water used and density of paint so as to reduce all elements of chance." Yet this no doubt is precisely why the pictures, painted in the most fluid and improvisatory of media, have such a stiff demeanour.
Most of the oils seem to suffer from the same affliction. Snow Clouds (1938), which depicts a barren landscape of undulating hills beneath a scowling, dark sky, feels turgid with premeditation, with the paint laid on in dense swatches. Its slanting bars of heavenly light are a common feature of Carmichael's landscape work, sometimes coming across as a prefabricated trademark of God's presence in the world. Nowhere in the picture do we feel the surprises of an artist working through the materials to find meaning or record sensation -- as we do in his little gem La Cloche Hills (1939). Here, sky, water and land seem locked in a dance of interrelatedness that is recorded in sensuous passages of paint. Rarely in Carmichael's paintings are we brought in this way to the threshold of his sensations.
As well, one can sense the artist trying on the styles of his Group of Seven colleagues. Lawren Harris haunts his Lake Superior (1929), a lumpen clone of the older artist's transcendental paintings of Pic Island, and a small 1928 landscape picture, also titled Lake Superior, is built up of waving hills and vales of ochre and mustard under a cobalt sky. A. Y. Jackson anyone?
Where Carmichael's own personality came through unequivocally, though, is in his design work, some examples of which can be found in Bice's small exhibition. His book illustrations, finely detailed woodblock prints, are utterly charming and remarkably fine. His chocolate-box designs for Neilson's are radiant floral apparitions set within elaborate geometric borders, matching their contents pleasure for pleasure.
His illustrations for the new Ford sports coupe for ladies, advertised in a lavish brochure titled "Her Personal Car," shows a wonderful sense of geometric design, exquisite Japanese-influenced art-deco flair, a subtle play of colour, as well as a refined sense of the dramatic moment. We find the elegant lady in question engrossed on the telephone, while beyond her pillowed chaise longue, through the wide windows overlooking the drive below, her Ford stands at the ready, awaiting her next outing. The page shows its maker to be as shrewd a student of human desire as he was of the finely wrought line -- as any great commercial artist must be.
One finds oneself pining for an exhibition that would bring Carmichael's -- or the Group's -- commercial work together again for reappraisal.
Carmichael's spirituality, the subject of Mastin's exhibition, shines unmistakably in the beautiful designs the artist made for his Christmas cards, in his illuminations of John Milton's poetry, and even in his paintstakingly detailed and sumptuous roster of events for the Arts and Letter's Club Boar's Head Feast, an annual event in the Toronto cultural circuit -- all of which can be seen in Bice's smaller show. These latter examples were self-assigned tasks executed in Carmichael's private hours, and they show a devotional attitude to everyday living and to the rituals of the Christian calendar that speak volumes of his approach to life.
Painting was by all accounts a rich and sustaining activity for Carmichael on a personal level, and his devotion to his craft was unrelenting. But that is not to say it was necessarily his area of greatest or most unique accomplishment. A painting like The Upper Ottawa, Near Mattawa is undeniably appealing, with its soft shapes and pleasing colours, but one needs to see the artist in all his facets to divine his full artistic character. Observed in the round, Carmichael emerges as a man of great taste and visual refinement, whose quiet gifts have added much sweetness to the world.
Portrait of a Spiritualist: Franklin Carmichael and the National Gallery of Canada Collection, and Franklin Carmichael: Works from the McMichael Collection continue at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection until Feb. 17.