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Monday, March 3, 2008

GUILTY PLEASURES The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity and Contemporary Art

March 3, 2008, Books in Canada

Beyond Wildernes
The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity and Contemporary Art
John O’Brian and Peter White editors
McGill-Queen’s University Press
392 pages, $49.95 paper
ISBN 978-0-7735-3244-1

The compilers of this slick tome seem deeply upset by the success of the magnificent Group of Seven exhibition organised to mark the 75th anniversary of the Group’s first exhibition in 1996 and the equally magnificent Tom Thomson exhibition of 2002. The former was apparently “seriously misleading and deeply insensitive”. They are particularly upset that the exhibitions were accompanied by lovely big books with many more nice pictures than this one.

The Group of Seven, Tom Thomson and similar Canadian landscape painters you see did not just paint pretty pictures. They were emptying the North of its native people and claiming it for capitalist exploitation. Indeed the theory is that all landscape painting is just a claim for new rights to own land following on the decline of feudalism.

Critical theories have been multiplying in the academy since the 1960s but they do not seem to have put a dent on public appreciation of Thomson and the rest. Even more scandalously the market for their works has never been stronger. Beyond Wilderness vainly tries to correct this situation.

After the compilers’ introductions, which give their message loud and clear, the book is a jumble of short pieces, a few specially commissioned, and a few included to show what the post-modern crusaders are up against.

Much of it serves as a sampler of current academic writing in what pleases to call itself cultural studies. The important thing is not to make an argument, still less to lay out facts, but to invoke a theory and apply it to any old thing, in the instance Canadian landscape painting. You pick up the lingo: “privileged forms in a pervasive discourse of social management”; “landscape as a category not only symbolizes but enacts colonialist desire.” You throw in the odd “imbrication”, invoke Michel Foucault and Fredric Jameson. When invoking authorities big names are not necessary and indeed are best used sparingly. When expounding a theory it is enough that anyone has published a similar theory. For people who stopped thinking years ago a reference to a theory takes the place of thinking. That it is all drivel, right back to Foucault, hardly matters.

There are also accounts of or, to the extent possible with what is to some extent conceptual art, illustrations of, what the compilers believe is corrective art for our times. Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale, which he modestly proposed as “a gigantic landscape film equal in terms of film to the great landscape paintings of Cézanne, Poussin, Corot, Monet, Matisse and in Canada the Group of Seven” is reverently described. It “has been hailed as a ‘masterpiece’” by Paul Virilio, the noted dromologist, no less. Three hours of edited footage from a camera installed somewhere north of Sept-Îles it has scandalously failed to catch on with the benighted art loving public. Iain and Ingrid Baxter’s humourless jokes as N. E. Thing Company “poked gentle fun at existing boundaries in order to improve the quality of life for themselves and others while inadvertently leaving a partial social document of their hybrid and polymorphic milieu.” These and Greg Curnoe’s literally hateful anti-American “Amendments to a Continental Refusal” have dated as much as platform shoes and disco. The Group of Seven, while obviously old, have not dated any more than Ruisdael. That’s what’s so annoying.

All these and the other newer, more correct, artists featured in Beyond Wilderness have received official patronage as Tom Thomson and the Group did. The 1993 Michael Snow Project of the Art Gallery of Ontario was as unmissable as the Group of Seven show three years later. Snow’s sometime wife Joyce Wieland got the full treatment from the National Gallery in 1971 and from the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1987. But they have not taken with the public.

Thomson and the Group are condemned as notoriously dead white males and Anglo-Saxon Protestants to boot. Three of them were actually born in Britain! On the basis of Lawren Harris’ reference to “the great North and its living whiteness” Scott Watson condemns them all as racists. The post-modernists detect a puritanical strain in their work, which is odd coming from people so puritanical themselves. They do not actually adjure us not to enjoy the Group’s paintings but their theoretical sensors are ever alert to the post-modern equivalents of sin, privileging, colonialism, Othering. They are the precisians of art. The moral tone is undermined by sneering, “Thomson and his cronies”, and cheap shots. John O’Brian reports the perfectly meaningless fact that A. Y. Jackson’s “Terre Sauvage” was painted in a studio above a bank branch.

The book takes a naively accepting line on multi-culturalism. In 1971 PET decreed multi-culturalism, and it was good. Questions of what exactly it means and what is good and what may be bad about it, which exercise academic colleagues of many of the contributors, are never addressed. The important thing is that the old painters were “white bread” and out they must go.

There is a strain of Marxisant paranoia in the book. Elite patrons and arts bureaucrats seem to conspire to foist the Group of Seven on the masses to sustain their colonialist capitalist ascendancy. Or am I guilty of a kind of intentionalist fallacy, thinking that people must mean what they do or do what they mean. It is conceded that “many members of the Group [might not] be altogether sympathetic to the ideological edifice that has been erected in their name.” But that will not get them off the hook. And the banker and Maecenas Sir Edmund Walker may have meant well in promoting Canadian art but he was an agent of capitalism and colonialism all the same.

Oddly, the only straightforward art appreciation in the book comes from Barry Lord’s silly Maoist The History of Painting in Canada: Toward a People’s Art. The compilers are rather condescending to Lord, whose old hat Marxism has been left behind by Marxisant post-moderns. Lord allowed that the Group represented a national bourgeoisie, progressive in its time, before it was overcome by the compradors of capitalist imperialism. He can therefore write unaffectedly that in J. E. H. Macdonald “Leaves in the Brook” “The rich colour and rapid movement are conveyed to us with all the freshness of the original autumn scene.”

Many of the pieces in Beyond Wilderness have been severely edited. The late Robert Stacey’s deeply informed and argued “The Myth - and Truth - of the True North” is cut off less than a third of the way through when his defence of the Group has barely started. Perhaps other contributions would be more insightful and persuasive if given in full. Most don’t get beyond striking a pose.

For their purposes the compilers and most of the contributors exaggerate the importance of the empty wilderness in Canadian art. You would not guess from their book that Lawren Harris painted many townscapes, which, dare I say, sell very well. The auction record for a Group of Seven painting is held by Harris’ “Pine Tree and Red House, Winter, City Painting II” at $2,875,000. It does have a tree and snow in it.

The callow prejudice that passes for insight in Beyond Wilderness is typified by the compilers bald statement that “The concept of northern development has decidedly negative connotations today...”. That would be leaving aside the fact that there would be no paper to print their book on without northern development and much less wealth to tax to keep them and their contributors and the new artists they promote.

Benedict Anderson, the New Left Marxist and leading critical theorist of nationalism attended a symposium that was part of the “OH! Canada Project” staged by the Art Gallery of Ontario as a defensive gesture at the time of the 1996 Group of Seven exhibition. Much thanks they got for it. An excerpt from Anderson’s paper is included in Beyond Wilderness. If the compilers and contributors are uncritically accepting of multi-culturalism they are completely at sea about nationalism. They want to reject Old Canada nationalism but the whole structure of support for the arts and academic study of Canada rests on a national ambition for Canada, the belief that a nation must have its art and self-understanding to the end that we can imagine our national community.

No doubt there is something to be written about the reasons for and the limitations of the Canadian attachment to the rough sublime of the North. As the compilers and contributors allow, the appeal of the paintings partly expresses and reflects Canadians’ consciousness of Canada’s vastness and complex relations to it. When it comes to the paintings they must be looked at closely to see their complexity and with respect for the achievement of Thomson and the Group and their contemporaries that won them their place ahead of their predecessors and still at the peak of Canada’s art. Marxisant reductions and processing by theory blind them to what the great public happily sees.

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