Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven
Those cosmopolitans, the Group of Seven
Do we really need a British resident, whose previous works focused on great European art and philosophy, telling us about those beloved Canadian painters we call the Group of Seven?
After all these years, do we still require the validation of our culture by a foreign-based critic?
To both questions: Well, yes, we do.
In Defiant Spirits, Canadian-bred Ross King brings a new perspective to the Group of Seven that challenges and also enriches the appreciation of our iconic and iconoclastic heroes of art. This is sorely needed today.
Sure, some of us revere their memory and keep their pictures of windblown pines, pristine glaciers and brush-tousled streams deep in our hearts as symbols of Canada, alongside maple syrup and rolled-up rims.
But, let’s face it, the Group of Seven don’t really seem relevant to Canadians today, do they? As Ross points out in Defiant Spirits' last chapter, "End of the Trail", the nationalism they promoted, even the idea of a national art presenting the rugged north as the country’s central image, seems outdated and backward now.
The Seven—who actually numbered five, six, seven, or eight, depending on when you count—officially disbanded at the end of 1932 and arguably reached their pinnacle of acclaim in the 1950s and 1960s, after most of them had died. But since the 1970s their cause has become remote to Canada’s city-dwelling cosmopolitans who are more likely to patronize abstract and pop artists or to hang multicultural totems on our walls.
Ross doesn’t say it, but this is probably nowhere more true than in Toronto. In the city where the Group began.
Ross’s great achievement in Defiant Spirits is to cast new light on what those young artists of the 1910s and 1920s were up against. And, as noted especially in the book’s subtitle, to clarify what exactly was the revolution they carried out against all obstacles. Which brings into focus why we should care today.
The myth is that a small group of unlettered artists working in isolation from the rest of the art world in the early 20th century were inspired by the wilds of Northern Ontario to create a unique style of painting to reflect the Canadian spirit of survival. Which is only partly true.
Ross starts with the work of founding members Tom Thomson, J.E.H. Macdonald and Arthur Lismer at one of the country's most fashionable graphic arts firms. And with A.Y. Jackson’s absorption of modern styles such as pointillism in his extended European sojourns. And Fred Varley and Lismer’s training in England and Antwerp. And Lawren Harris’s assimilation of the cold post-Impressionist styles of Scandinavia. And the continued interest all members of the group showed in the changes heaving up the art world—reading, travelling and discussing it among themselves and with their few sympathizers.
They were excited by these international movements and tried to apply the new techniques both to local urban scenes and to Canadian landscapes. Their efforts met with little support. Newspapers and magazines derided their works throughout their most active period as hideous, infantile, unnatural and "hot mush". At times it seems they had only two supporters, the National Gallery that occasionally bought their works and Toronto art connoisseur Dr. James MacCallum who threw them continual lifelines. Think of this the next time you read about a Group painting getting knocked down for $2 million.
Even in their heyday, they suffered continual attacks by the artistic old guard, along with grinding poverty and neglect from a public that refused to buy their works, while they struggled to bring the modernist revolution to the provinces.
And, incredibly, they succeeded. Without which success, we might still be an artistic backwater, as none of those movements that later rebelled against the Group of Seven’s influence might have taken hold.
This is Ross’s thesis in appropriately very broad strokes. There is much else of interest in his story of the lives and lost lives of these fascinating men. The story is told very well.
Small wonder that Defiant Spirits, which was published in fall, was nominated for this year’s Charles Taylor non-fiction prize.
Included are 35 plates of some of their milestone works in full colour. Unfortunately they are reproduced rather small. But then, you can easily view many of the originals at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Vaughan and at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
Anything else Ross would like to tell us about ourselves would be appreciated.
— Eric McMillan