The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson|
by David P. Silcox
Post Your Opinion
|A Review of: The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson
by Peter O'Brien
The Group of Seven and its attendant mythologies continues to define
Canada and Canadian art, whether we wish it or not. "Enough!"
you might say. We've had enough of their lush trees,tumbling hillsides
and iconic mountains. Enough of their images on calendars, of their
greeting card simplicity, of their omnipresence.
In fact, there are still many paintings by the Group that are not
generally known to the public, worthy biographies still waiting to
be written on most of the members, and not yet a catalogue raisonne
that has been produced on any one of them. There are also many art
historical questions yet to be explored, including research on the
influence of other painters who helped shape the Group's early work;
on the philosophical, theosophical and religious beliefs that defined
their work; on the stylistic and thematic differences among them;
and on the Group's sustaining grip, since their final show at the
Art Gallery of Toronto in 1931, on subsequent Canadian artists.
This book goes part way to filling in the complete picture, by
allowing more of the work to be generally known. Of the 369 full-colour
images in The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, 123 have never before
been reproduced, and there are 20 black and white drawings that
have not seen printing ink since 1925.
The abundance of images, lovingly reproduced, is this book's great
strength. Produced entirely in Canada, using a distinctly Canadian
typeface and printed on 100-lb archival paper, the book's many
images are so marvelously presented that it is possible to see on
the wooden panels and canvases the Group's spontaneous talent at
work and to trace their fluid brushwork and painterly gestures.
But if you are looking for the story of Tom Thomson and the Group
in words, you will still have to look elsewhere. (The recent
catalogue, Tom Thomson, by Dennis Reid and Charles C. Hill, and the
catalogue from the mid-1990s exhibition, The Group of Seven: Art
for a Nation, by Charles C. Hill are both fascinating and essential
reading.) Of the 444 pages of this book, only 68 are devoted to
David Silcox's historical and critical commentary, with additional
pages for a bibliography, a list of works reproduced and two indexes.
Silcox is the Managing Director of Sotheby's Canada and a noted art
historian and cultural administrator. In his catalogue raisonne and
biography of David Milne, he has produced among the most important
documents in Canadian art criticism. Here he gives us only snippets
and hints of greater goods.
Many times throughout these pages I was looking for more than his
teasing and inconclusive comments on spiritualism, on van Gogh's
influence, on LeMoine FitzGerald's pointillism, on Lawren Harris's
painterly affection for the Rockies, on Fred Varley's use of rich
colours in his Vancouver paintings, etc.
There is no question that Silcox knows these paintings intimately
and knows how to coax collectors and galleries into sharing their
painted riches. But, as Silcox says, this book is the story of the
Group and Tom Thomson "told primarily in pictures." And
there are so many delightful images to meander among. Fred Varley's
two "Open Window" paintings, one created in 1929 and the
other c. 1933 are marvelous to see in the same book, and then one
can wander over to LeMoine FitzGerald's quiet "From an Upstairs
Window, Winter", for a similar viewpoint but very distinct
It is always a shock to see the tumultuous and confident use of
colours in Tom Thomson's paintings, including "Sunset",
"Autumn Foliage"  and "Autumn Foliage"
. Frank Carmichael and A. Y. Jackson come close to Thomson's
brilliance, but they still can't match his flourish. Every time I
see J. E. H. MacDonald's "The Wild River", I can hear the
rumble and splash of water over rocks. And then there is Lawren
Harris, surely one of the finest artists of the twentieth century,
not just here in Canada but anywhere. To see him move from the
portrait "Dr. Salem Bland" to "Winter in the Northern
Woods" to his magisterial mountains, as represented here by
"Isolation Peak", (unfortunately not by "Mount
Lefroy") is nothing short of breathtaking. That Harris kept
up such a pitch of insight for so many years is a joy to behold,
even though his final abstract works are less powerful.
And here, so that every artist in the book gets at least one mention,
are a few other favourites: Arthur Lismer's scratchy but affectionate
"My wife, Sackville River, Nova Scotia"; Edwin Holgate's
perfectly simple "Frances' Tree"; Frank Johnston's almost
abstract "Woodland Tapestry"; A. J. Casson's "House
Tops in the Ward" which always makes me think of Riopelle's
massive abstractions; and Edwin Holgate's inviting nudes from the
Whether we accept it willingly or not, Tom Thomson and the Group
of Seven will continue to help define Canadian painting for as long
as there are artists in Canada. Like Irish writers who must pass
through James Joyce's linguistic pyrotechnics, or American composers
who must wander through the musical landscapes of Aaron Copland,
Canadian painters as diverse as David Milne, Doris McCarthy, Allan
Harding Mackay, Mary Pratt and Will Gorlitz have all had to confront
the legacy and centrality of Tom Thomson's and the Group's power
and persuasive influence. It is a legacy that deserves our respect
and our affection.
Tom Thomson and the Group have also helped define the country itself
and how it changes over time. Given the choice, I'd rather have
them define the country than governments, corporations, the media,
religious groups and local community interests. Surely none of these
would be as purely inspired by the country's imagination, strength
and potential as a group of artists with no aims other than to
communicate the mysterious, ineffable beauty of this land.