A mysterious death can do wonders for an artistic career. The attention paid to Tom Thomson's 1917 death at age 39 on Algonquin Park's Canoe Lake has often overshadowed the Canadian painter's extraordinary body of work – long a frustration for filmmaker Peter Raymont.
"I've wanted to make a film about Tom Thomson all my life because I grew up with him in a way. I went to a summer camp on the edge of Algonquin Park," says Raymont, an award-winning documentary filmmaker ( Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire). "I read every book I could lay my hands on; I was just fascinated with the guy and loved his art. But the films about Tom Thomson, apart from an NFB film made back in the forties, a short, are all about his death, the mystery of his death, how did he die, why did he die, where is he buried. There's very little about his life, about his art, about his creative genius."
Raymont set out to rectify that with the documentary West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson, which will have its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival on Saturday. Along the way, Raymont, co-director Michèle Hozer and writer/co-producer Nancy Lang uncovered new revelations about Thomson's life, his art and, yes, his death.
Most remarkable, in terms of Thomson's art, is the discovery of what is believed to be his first oil painting – a small landscape depicting Lake Washington made during the four years Thomson spent in Seattle at the turn of the last century working as a commercial artist.
While there, he is said to have fallen in love with Alice Elinor Lambert – who went on to become a romance novelist – to whom he apparently proposed. It's unclear what transpired between the couple, but he left town quickly, and gave her this painting. In the 1970s, Lambert sold the painting to Martha Edmond, who was then studying art in Vancouver. Edmond now lives in Ottawa, and when she heard Raymont was making this film, she got in touch and told him she owned what she believed to be an early painting by Thomson. That has now been authenticated.
"I have no doubt this is a Thomson; there are many similarities. I find that the composition is very similar to The Marsh, Lake Scugog," says curator Dennis Reid in the film, a Canadian art historian and Thomson expert. "The unusual thing, though, is this never surfaced. We never heard anything about it. This is something very, very special."
A number of Thomson's works featured in the film are being seen for the first time publicly, including Moonlight, which is in the extensive private collection of David Thomson (no relation to the artist), who gives a rare interview for the film (and whose family's holding company owns 85 per cent of The Globe and Mail.)
Heard for the first time in this film is an audio recording of former Algonquin Park ranger Mark Robinson, a friend of the artist's. "He'd been audiotaped years and years ago, back in the fifties, I think, and it was stashed away," says Raymont, "this voice from the past who really knew Tom Thomson."
On the tape, Robinson tells the story of meeting Thomson for the first time ("a tall, fine-looking young man" carrying a backpack) and explains why he doubts the official story: that Thomson's body was exhumed and moved to the cemetery in Leith, Ont. (near Owen Sound), where Thomson had grown up. Robinson believed the artist's body remained buried at Canoe Lake.
There's long been debate about a skull unearthed at Canoe Lake years after Thomson's death. That skull was initially believed to belong to Thomson, but was declared by Ontario's attorney general at the time to be that of an aboriginal man half Thomson's age.
But as West Wind notes, forensic archeologists say the skull could not have belonged to anyone but Thomson. A pivotal scene involves Globe and Mail columnist Roy MacGregor, who has written extensively on the artist. In the film, he compares photos of Thomson with the work of a forensic artist, who, working blind, created a facial image based on that skull. "When she finally did deliver her work," MacGregor says, "I opened it up. I was looking right at Tom Thomson."
While the revelations around Thomson's death are intriguing, Raymont hopes it's the painter's life, and especially his work, that really stay with the viewer. "I think it's more than new evidence about his death and his remains and new paintings," he says. "I think it's just a deeper appreciation of who we are as a country and as a people, the extraordinary creativity that we have in this country. And the tragedy of this man who was still relatively young who had so much to offer us, but left behind wonderful, wonderful things that we can treasure forever."
West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson plays at VIFF Saturday at 6:45 p.m. at the Granville 2 and Sunday at noon at the Granville 4. For details, visit viff.org.