Author: David Silcox
The following review was contibuted by: NORM GOLDMAN with the collaboration of LILY AZERAD-GOLDMAN
To read the Interview with author David Silcox Click HERE
Art historian, cultural administrator, and managing director of Sotheby’s Canada, David P. Silcox, has produced a colorful testament to Canada’s Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, artists who had broken with tradition and established a new way of painting Canada.
This lavishly illustrated coffee table book comprising three hundred and sixty nine stunning color paintings and twenty black and white portfolio drawings reflects why this group of painters (there were in fact eleven who were part of the movement) was historically significant in influencing the style and spirit of Canadian Art in the early part of the twentieth century.
In addition, they were also instrumental in paving a new and novel way Canadians began looking at and appreciating their vast nation that lay before them.
The book’s primary objective, as indicated in the author’s introduction, is to understand the role that the artist played in creating a country’s identity, and to illustrate the importance of art in our lives. On both accounts, the book succeeds admirably.
The group was formed in March 1920, and initially the plan was to form a group of nine. We do not know why there were seven members.
The first members of the group were Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, F.H. Varley, Frank Carmichael, Frank Johnson, and A.Y. Jackson.
It should be mentioned, Tom Thomson was not part of the Group of Seven, although his spirit was present. Thomson had accidentally died in Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park, in 1917.
Lawren Harris wrote of Thomson in The Story of the Group of Seven, “I have, in my story of the group included Tom Thomson as a working member, although the name of the group did not originate until after his death. Tom Thomson was, nevertheless, as vital to the movement, as much a part of its formation and development, as any other member.”
Other members, who had been part of the group at one time or another, were A.J.Casson, LeMoine Fitzgerald, and Edwin Holgate.
Originally, Dr. Silcox’s publisher, Firefly Books, had approached him to reissue his previous book, Tom Thomson, The Silence and the Storm. However, after several exchanges of ideas, it was decided to publish a unique book that would embody paintings published in 1925 at the height of the Group’s power and had not appeared anywhere since. Consequently, the book includes one hundred and twenty three never before reproduced images from seldom seen paintings that are in private collections.
The ten sections that constitute the pattern of the book reflect the awareness of the vast differences of Canadian landscapes and scenes.
The reader is given a geographical tour from Quebec to Algonquin Park, across the Prairies, the Rockies, and the Canadian Arctic depicting, as the book mentions, “a thousand different aspects of the physical environment, life and spirit of Canada.”
No doubt, the Group’s preponderant legacy to Canada can best be summed up as the sense of awe these painters held for their country’s beautiful natural resources, its people and its huge potential.
Included in the book are major iconic works of each painter, although Lawrence Harris has been given a predominance of paintings- the result of his impetus and overwhelming influence he had on the group, as well as his enthusiasm that kept them together.
It should also be noted that he was the most productive of the group with fifteen hundred to two thousand paintings to his credit.
These works are all listed at the back of the book indicating the artist’s name, media, size of painting, year, present home of painting, and date of their purchase. In addition, readers are treated to brief biographical essays of each of the Group’s members, myths and legends surrounding the Group, concise accounts of their most important exhibitions, public response, and the reaction from critics. There is also a detailed chronology of significant milestones of the Group and its members.
In order to pursue further research, a comprehensive bibliography is provided listing books, articles and parts of books, exhibition catalogues, public collection of catalogues, and motion pictures and video recordings.
All of this is evidence that the book can rightfully be described, as the publishers contend, the most comprehensive and extensive collection of the Group’s work.
Perhaps, if we were to compare the Group of Seven to an American counterpart, the Hudson River School would be most appropriate.
Just as the American Hudson River School was probably the first coherent school of American art, this is equally valid of Canada’s Group of Seven in relation to Canadian art.
Moreover, both groups were influenced by spiritualism, and the transcendentalist writings of Emerson and Thoreau.
Dr. Silcox most aptly describes the Canadian painters, when he asserts: “all found that their attraction to the natural world gave rise to profound ideas about the basis of life and, especially, to the spiritual dimensions of human life. The urge to find the extraordinary, or to treat the ordinary in an extraordinary fashion, and to push past the superficial or decorative to the deeper meaning of nature was a compelling idea among them.”
Reading Emerson’s essay on Nature, we notice his comments pertaining to the fine arts, and the influence he must have exerted on both of the groups.
“Thus in our fine arts, not imitation, but creation is the aim. In landscapes, the painter should give the suggestion of a fairer creation than we know. The details, the prose of nature he should omit, and give us only the spirit and splendor. He should know that the landscape has beauty for his eye, because it expresses a thought which is to him good: and this, because the same power which sees through his eyes, is seen in that spectacle; and he will come to value the expression of nature, and not nature itself, and so exalt in his copy, the features that please him. He will give the gloom of gloom, and the sunshine of sunshine.”
When we examine some of the paintings in the book and compare them to the Hudson River School we notice, however, their differences. The American school painted with glowing warmth, using hazy, misty harmonious gradation of light. Colors are soft and subtle, almost monochromatic and quiet.
On the other hand, the Group of Seven’s objective was to depict Canada as a true northern country, strong and free. As a result, foliage is bold and colorful, light is much purer and brighter, and the tints are more vivid.
As mentioned in the book, another fascinating contribution of the Group of Seven was the influence they had on future generations of Canadian artists.
One such example is Emily Carr, who had been inspired by the Group, and in particular Harris. In fact, it was her enchantment with the works of Harris, and his encouraging letters to her over the years that as Dr. Silcox’s notes, “prompted her exploration of theosophy (although she preferred the transcendentalism of Thoreau and Walt Whitman) and triggered a change in her painting to work that was more powerful in its forms and aesthetic organization.”
In viewing the many images of the Group, we should be reminded that they continually moved into every corner of society endeavoring to convince everyone of the importance of art, and in their particular vision of Canada. They also invited other artists to exhibit with them, and the Group was eventually dissolved in favor of a much broader assembly of artists from across Canada.
One noteworthy qualification, however, as Dr. Silcox mentions, “the egalitarian approach to art that the Group espoused philosophically did not extend to women artists. Although Jackson was admiring of the women artists in Montreal who formed the core of the Beaver Hall Group there, no women were invited to become members of the Group of Seven.” Nonetheless, women artists Sarah Robertson, Marion Scott, Ann Savage, and others, were at least invited to exhibit their work with the Group.
The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson exposes the art of these great artists in a new and refreshing way, and will definitely prove of be an invaluable companion for students of art history, as well as art lovers and gallery goers.