It’s a good time to contemplate Canada, no? But perhaps after these many weeks, you’ve grown a little tired of all the analysis of the political landscape – and are craving a prettier picture.
A new show opening at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) this weekend examines this country through a painterly lens, exploring the history of artistic engagement with the Canadian landscape. Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven focuses on the period between 1840 and 1940, with 150 works by 60 artists – including Paul Kane, Tom Thomson, Emily Carr and David Milne.
(It does not, however, include any of the works attributed to J.E.H. MacDonald recently acquired by the gallery – despite earlier indications they would be shown here. More on that in a moment.)
“We wanted to have an exhibition that looked at the history of Canadian art,” says Ian Thom, senior curator-historical at the VAG.
“And as we move towards a new building, we want to think about how our collection works in terms of being able to tell that story,” Thom says.
But he adds that more than half the works in the show – 77 – came from a single collector (who wishes to remain anonymous). “This provides us with an opportunity to show probably more Canadian landscape paintings than we’ve shown in the entire time I’ve been here, in one exhibition.”
We’re talking in a room installed with five wtheorks by Tom Thomson – four of which are on loan, including the sublime Opulent October. “There are so few Tom Thomson canvases,” says Thom, gazing up at it. “To actually have a great canvas here is just an extraordinary privilege.”
The show unfolds like the history lesson it is – chronologically, allowing the visitor to view not only the artistic changes on the canvases before them, but the evolution in Canadian artists’ relationships to the land.
“I think in the 19th century there’s a lot of sort of dipping your toe into the landscape,” says Thom. “Whereas I would make the argument in the 20th century that they’re people much more embracing the landscape.”
The first painting in the show is Robert Clow Todd’s 1845 oil Corbeau at Montmorency Falls – a crisp, snowy picture-postcard scene where contented folk glide across the ice on horse-drawn sleighs.
“It’s a classic image of a tourist site in Quebec,” says Thom, explaining why he chose this work to open the show. “It was a thing that if you lived in Quebec in the 19th century, and you were well-to-do, you took your lovely sleigh and your horse out there and you demonstrated that you were well-to-do and you had a nice time. So that’s about embracing the landscape in Canada.”
The exhibition deals immediately with the portrayal of aboriginals in 19th-century art, including several works by Cornelius Krieghoff. As Louise Vigneault points out in her catalogue essay, the scale of the figures tends to be diminutive in relation to the landscape – evident in, for example, Krieghoff’s Autumn Landscape with Indians at the Big Rock or Paul Kane’s Ojibwa Camp in the Spider Islands.
Early in the show, Krieghoff’s 1860 painting The Royal Mail Crossing the St. Lawrence depicts a group of men struggling to pull their boat onto a hostile refuge of chunky ice – suggesting a cold, difficult land – and perhaps dreaming of pastoral lakes and streams (one imagines, looking at it).
But a more tranquil relationship to the land emerges in works such as Henry Sandham’s 1889 painting Catching Water-Lilies or Paul Peel’s The Young Biologist (ca. 1891), in which a young boy happily contemplates a frog.
The show – like Canadian art, you might argue – really hits its stride as it revs up into those great landscape embracers, with that room of Thomsons, followed immediately by the exhibition’s set piece: the gallery off the rotunda, installed with six stunners by Emily Carr – including Totem Poles, Kitseukla; Big Raven; and Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky. (“I didn’t want to overwhelm the show,” says Thom, of his decision to include only six Carrs.) This is followed by a large Group of Seven showing – nearly 50 works.
All of the founding members of the group are represented, including Lawren Harris, whose Quiet Lake (Northern Painting 12); First Snow, North Shore of Lake Superior and Red House and Yellow Sleigh, City Painting XXII will draw viewers to the back of a large gallery, which feels awash in his canvases’ mystical, snowy light.
Other highlights include eight works by David Milne, and in the final gallery – colourful oils by Painters Eleven member Jock Macdonald. Both Indian Burial, Nootka, 1937, and Drying Herring Roe, 1938, demonstrate the influences of some of Macdonald’s contemporaries and friends (Carr, Frederick Varley) shown earlier in the exhibition.
The show also includes several works by the Group of Seven’s J.E.H. MacDonald – but none of the 10 acquisitions announced recently that have raised some eyebrows in the Canadian art community. In a news release last January, the VAG said the donated paintings had been buried in a yard on MacDonald’s old property north of Toronto for decades – and that they would be presented as part of a larger exhibition this fall. The gallery’s then head of marketing and communications told The Globe and Mail in April that some of the works would be included in the Embracing Canada show.
Thom, when asked about this on Wednesday, said he had never intended to include the works in this show (the gallery says they had considered having them as an adjunct show). When asked if the sketches were being shown at the gallery at all this fall, he said, “We’re doing ongoing research on them.”
The Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa, which conducts scientific testing of historical art, says some of the paintings are scheduled to be tested in the spring of 2016 to determine if the materials used in those works are consistent with other J.E.H. MacDonald works studied in a research project. The CCI says the scientific analysis and interpretation of the results will take a few months.
When asked if the VAG is awaiting the CCI testing results before showing the works, Thom repeated, “We’re doing ongoing research.”
Embracing Canada is at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Jan. 24; at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary Feb. 20-May 29 and at the Art Gallery of Hamilton June 17-Sept. 25.