A new exhibition devoted to the nature paintings of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven opens this weekend at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection near Toronto. But what, you may ask, for all the advertising and promotion, can possibly be new about it?
The McMichael's raison d'être for almost a half-century has been the display, at one time or another, in one way or another, of the 1,700 paintings, oil sketches, drawings and the like by Thomson, Lawren Harris and their fellow canoeheads from its permanent collection. While the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery in Ottawa may each have larger and perhaps more impressive G of 7/Thomson holdings, it's the McMichael, on the bucolic shores of the Humber River, site of the graves of five of the original Group and of Thomson's cabin, that is the mother ship for the whole phenomenon.
So when the McMichael starts to tout its new Group/Thomson show, titled Painting Canada, as something "special" and "fresh," one can be forgiven for wondering if this might be a case of carrying coals to Newcastle – or, as a Canuck might put it, selling snow to the Inuit of Baffin Island?
Still, you can understand if not embrace the excitement that the McMichael is striving to impart. After all, Painting Canada is at heart the same touring show of close to 125 Group/Thomson works mounted at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London late last year and, more recently, at the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo and the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands. An unprecedented show of force for classic Canadian landscape art before audiences who, in most instances, didn't know a Harris from a Lismer, Painting Canada drew an impressive 103,000 visitors.
Moreover, the exhibition's lead curator wasn't some fusty Canadian expert, but an Englishman: Dulwich director Ian Dejardin, whose first encounter with the Group was in the mid-1980s when he came across a book on the seven while at the Royal Academy of Arts and was sufficiently impressed to make a mental note that, should he ever get a major curatorial post, he would try to organize a show of their work. A quarter-century later, he got his chance when the McMichael, the National Gallery, the AGO and several private collectors threw open their "vaults" to give him almost carte blanche. Among his coups: permission to borrow perhaps the three most iconic Group/Thomson pictures of them all – Thomson's The West Wind and The Jack Pine, and Varley's Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay – plus the sketches they used as the bases for those masterworks.
No doubt all this was an eye-opener, maybe even an excitement, for Dutch and British viewers and for Canadian expatriates too long in foreign climes. And it may prove similarly revelatory for those among the tens of thousands of new Canadians living in the suburbs around the McMichael and unversed as yet in the Group and Thomson but willing to try a greatest-hits package. But for those familiar and overfamiliar with the artists, Painting Canada will be a case of déjà vu all over again.
Certainly the McMichael has worked hard to make it not so. There's a superb new paint job on the gallery walls, a selection of often stunning works not shown overseas, a spaciousness of presentation and – a Canadian first – the pairing of a 1915 National Gallery sketch by Thomson – Maple Woods, Bare Trunks – with the canvas of the same name that's been in an English private collection for decades, unseen by the public.
Finally, though, it's one more shuffle of a well-thumbed deck, albeit with an outsider dealing the cards.
Interviewed earlier this week, Dejardin said he approached his curatorship largely as "a fan and enthusiast. … Coming at it almost purely visually, very often I'd walk firmly past a painting that [Canadian co-curators Katerina Atanassova and Anna Hudson] were pointing out as incredibly famous and 'You really should consider this' and I'd say, 'No, don't like it' and move on, not meaning to give offence at all. But the thing is, I was coming not only from 25 years of putting together exhibitions but from a place where I was looking at old paintings with fresh eyes."
In the end, Dejardin decided to organize his selections mostly around the regions where the artists visited and painted, setting aside dedicated spaces for Thomson and Harris. The collection's director and CEO Victoria Dickenson hopes the structure enables visitors to see the show with what she calls "double vision" – at least some of the newness the Europeans must have felt and with a refreshed perception as Canadians. In the end, however, it feels like a trick the eyes can't quite perform: like being asked to see, at the same time, the urn and the profiles in a Rubin vase.