The Canadian painters who came together in 1920 as the Group of Seven were an alliance of like-minded artists dedicated - as A.Y. Jackson wrote in his 1958 autobiography, A Painter's Country - "to interpret Canada and to express, in paint, the spirit of our country."
The artists making up the Group were Lawren Harris, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, Fred Varley, Frank Johnston, Franklin Carmichael and Jackson himself. "The organization," Jackson adds, "was a loose one; it had a name and a purpose but it had no officers, no bylaws and no fees."
The work of the Group, as everyone knows, was met with remarkable hostility at first ("art gone mad," "the cult of ugliness," and so on), though, as Jackson amiably points out, by the time the Group was dissolved, in 1933, public horror at its "hot mush" style of painting had abated considerably.
It had abated so profoundly, in fact, that the art of the Group of Seven (and that of Tom Thomson, who had drowned in Canoe Lake in 1917, shortly before the Group was established) passed with surprising rapidity from outlaw status to classic status and finally, in most quarters at least, to the stuff from which posters, T-shirts, postcards and the lassitude of cultural tedium is made.
So why mount another big Group of Seven exhibition now? Because this new exhibition, Drawing Conclusions - now at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont. - is an exhibition not of Group of Seven paintings but rather of the Group's drawings.
Why does that matter? First, because of their hypersensitivity to light, drawings are not very often exhibited by museums. But more important, drawings - often used by artists as notation for major works in progress - invariably possess a spontaneity, an immediacy, that can welcome the viewer directly into the artist's creative process. Drawings are discourse, a living language.
And drawings have a central part to play in the careers of the Group of Seven painters. All of the Group except Harris (who was the well-to-do grandson of one of the founders of the Massey-Harris company) supported their painting careers by working as commercial artists (principally for the Grip company in Toronto). As the exhibition's guest curator, Toronto-based critic and art historian Terrence Heath, put it in a recent interview, "Curiously, there had never before been an attempt to organize a drawing show of work by these guys who, after all, were graphic artists."
Heath gathered the Group's drawings - there are 70 of them in the exhibition - not only from the McMichael's own collection, but also from the collections of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery of Canada and the Hamilton Art Gallery - as well as from private collections ("private collectors tend to collect only landscapes," Heath observed wryly). "There are hundreds and hundreds of the Group's drawings," he added. "These guys drew all the time!"
Heath says it was by studying their drawings that he came to see how really different the Group members were as artists - an important corrective to the too widely held idea that all of them painted hills, trees, lakes and mountains in more or less the same way. Heath can be engagingly specific about this: "For example, Jackson drew with curves," he notes (roofs, roads), "while Harris, by contrast, drew with straight lines" (roofs, mountains). He happily admits that in exploring their drawings, "the Group came alive for me."
As it will, presumably for the viewer. For there are intensely accomplished and exciting things in the exhibition. There are exquisite landscapes, of course: Jackson's gentle farmscapes, Fred Varley's elegiac war drawings (his watercolour Dead Horse Square, Munchy from 1918 is still as moving an anti-war picture as it must have been then), Arthur Lismer's wonderfully energetic ink drawings of writhing trees and Lawren Harris's careful preparatory drawings for his then radically abstracted mountainscapes (studies for Mt. Lefroy, 1933, and for Pic Island, 1940). And there are brilliant portraits - Lismer's study of early Group of Seven supporter Fred Housser, author of the first book about the Group, A Canadian Art Movement (1927) and Varley's powerful Portrait of a Lady (1948). And look for Lismer's tiny and utterly delightful drawing of Emily Carr with her Monkey and Dogs from 1933 - showing Carr, who almost became the first female member of the Group, stomping off heavily into the distance, clearly going her own way.
It seems important to add that the show's title, Drawing Conclusions, is a bit of a misnomer and does this exhibition a disservice in that it also refers to a companion collection, curated by the McMichael's senior curator Shelley Falconer, which is presumably meant to reference the Group's influence on contemporary artists.
This "adjunct exhibition" is merely a thin sampling of entirely inappropriate works by a tiny jumble of artists (Allan Mackay, Sheila Butler, Nobuo Kubota, John Ward, Brian Gable, Ann Kipling, Charles Pachter, Tony Scherman and Medrie MacPhee) whose anti-climactic inclusion in this otherwise majestic exhibition is both silly and depressing. If Falconer's exercise in curatorial bathos were really necessary, there are lots of Canadian artists more deserving of inclusion - such as, for example, David Bolduc, Alex Cameron, John Hartman, David Alexander, Brent McIntosh and, well, let's just say that, given a little thought, such an exhibition could have made sense.
Drawing Conclusions continues at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., until June 8 (905-893-1121 or toll free 1-888-213-1121).