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Edward Burtynsky Nickel Tailings #6, Sudbury, Ont.,1995.
Edward Burtynsky Nickel Tailings #6, Sudbury, Ont.,1995.

Bold expressions of ‘unpicturesque’ land on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery Add to ...

Pioneers in different times, Lawren Harris and Ed Burtynsky are two of Canada’s most celebrated artists. Working decades apart and in different media, they have crafted stunning artistic records of the land. Group of Seven founding member Harris (1885-1970) often chose to paint what Ian Thom, Vancouver Art Gallery senior curator-historical, calls “unpicturesque” elements of the land, such as swamps. And Burtynsky, 59, creates stunning imagery out of humankind’s ugly interventions – photographing, say, an open-pit mine.

They have each gone to great lengths to create these bold expressions. To access and sketch the remote landscape a century ago, Harris in a sense conquered nature. In his photography, Burtynsky – also often working in remote locations – captures nature conquered. Coincidentally, the exhibitions Lawren Harris: Canadian Visionary and A Terrible Beauty: Edward Burtynsky open at the Vancouver Art Gallery on the same day, March 1.

Western Arts Correspondent Marsha Lederman spoke with Thom, who curates Lawren Harris, and with Bruce Grenville, curator of A Terrible Beauty, about one work from each show originating from the same general part of the country.


What are we seeing here?

You’re seeing, as the title implies, a swamp, and the only colours in it are the colours of the golden tamaracks and a whole series of dead trees, and in the background there is a hillside that has some green trees and some autumn colours as well. But it’s basically a not terribly attractive scene which somehow Lawren Harris has brought our attention to.

One of the things that’s really fascinating about the work is the fact that he doesn’t give you a convenient and reasonable place to stand as you look at this. In effect, when you look at this work, you’re in the swamp with him. And I think that point of view is kind of remarkable. It also is of course a reiteration of that constant theme you see in [Tom] Thomson and in other members of the Group of Seven: that screen of trees that you can see partly through but not completely through and that helps to define the space.

What do we know about the circumstances under which he created this work?

We know it was done in 1920 and we know it was a work that obviously meant something to him because he kept it his entire life. And we suspect it was done as a result of one of the trips to Algoma – this was before he started going up to Lake Superior. Presumably somewhere there is a sketch for it… And the other thing about it is that until it arrived at the Vancouver Art Gallery, no one knew that it was signed and dated 1920. It had previously been published as circa 1922. But it’s signed and dated in the upper left-hand corner.

Is there a message intended in the work?

I think the message is that there are aspects of the natural world that most of us might tend to ignore. And that in fact if you take the time to look at them, they reveal a remarkable beauty and interest, and that I think is the case in Tamarack Swamp.

Where does this work fit in the context of his career?

It’s really the very beginning of his involvement with the Group of Seven, although it was never exhibited in a Group of Seven show. It marks the point where he begins to turn his attention away from the decorative landscape that you see in the [1910s] and begins to do these sort of grittier and edgier kinds of landscapes that you see emerge in the 1920s.

How does this work speak to his artistic practice?

It’s a studio work. It’s based on something he did out in the field and then came back to his studio and worked on. And so in that sense it’s typical of what his studio practice was at the time. There are unlikely to be drawings for this because at that time he was very rarely doing drawings for paintings, but I think there is almost certainly a sketch somewhere. And the sketch of course would have been done on the spot.


What are we seeing here?

A nickel tailings pond in Sudbury.

What were the circumstances under which he created this work?

Ed was looking at doing a series of pictures that looked at the primary industries in Canada and the impact on the land across the country. So part of the series looked at mines and the mines in Sudbury use a certain process that results in tailings. Some people consider them to be recyclable and some people consider them to be a form of pollution, but the tailings are a residue that results from the mining and smelting process.

Is there a message intended in the work?

The show is called A Terrible Beauty, based on the refrain in Yeats’s poem Easter, 1916. The idea was that there was this sort of incredible intensity around the Irish uprisings with this idea of freedom from British control and the possibility of a free Ireland and the kind of extraordinary power and beauty of a dream like that – and the terrible martyrdom and the horror of the violence that was necessary to realize that. And seeing that in our actions as humans on the Earth, we engage in a very similar thing. We have this incredible technology, this ability to extract resources out of the earth and transform them into these amazing things that we couldn’t live without; we couldn’t reach this state in our culture without those things. And there is the horror of what we have to do to pay for that. So Ed’s works are observations of that.

Where does this work fit in the context of his career?

He starts working in 1982, ’83, that’s when he really begins his activity as a photographer, so the show captures that. Basically he’s kind of moved across Canada, looking at a wide range of subjects – everything from homesteading to the railway to transportation industries like the container-port pictures that are in the show. And then he starts to look at quarries and the idea that there’s something quite beautiful about them – the precision and the scale and the kind of monumentality of these incisions into the Earth and the stuff that comes out of them: the marble that’s used in architecture and art. And he goes from there to looking at mines. …

Ed has this need to represent what he sees around him in the world and the impact that humans have had on the environment that they live in. The idea of using the camera to observe the way that we inhabit the Earth, the land and, more recently, the water, is his life’s work.

How does this work speak to his artistic practice?

In Ed’s work, there are singular images which, like the tailings picture, are extraordinary images which make you look at things in ways that you have never seen before. And you realize that this is one of hundreds and hundreds of pictures that he’s made, that each one tells in a very specific way a story and each one connects to the other as this deep, broad document of what we’ve done.

Lawren Harris: Canadian Visionary is at the Vancouver Art Gallery March 1-May 4. A Terrible Beauty: Edward Burtynsky is at the VAG March 1-May 26.

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