Monday, November 8, 2010

Lasting Impressions: Interview with author Ross King (Defiant Spirits)

When we generally think of The Group of Seven, we envision a group of naturalist landscape artists enraptured and captivated by the Canadian shield. Rarely does the idea ever cross our mind that these artists, who included Tom Thomson (who died in 1917 before the Group formally began in 1920), A.Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, Franklin Carmichael, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and Frederick Varley, were not solely defined by the Canadian wilderness.

In his book, Defiant Spirits (Douglas & McIntyre, 2010), author and art historian Ross King does argue that that far from being woodsy ruralists the Group was more aethestically shaped by the explosion of modernist Impressionism in Europe, which included the work of C├ęzanne and Van Gogh. Furthermore, while the notion of being defiant and rebellious is seldom associated with being Canadian, Defiant Spirits explores how the dynamic paintings of the Group revealed a group of divergent painters who flaunted convention and were driven to interpret the rugged landscape of their country.

Besides writing Defiant Spirits, Ross King, who won the Governor-General's Award for The Judgment of Paris, a study of French Impressionism, also curated a show of the Group of Seven at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (which runs until January 30, 2011) in Kleinberg, Ontario. The purpose of the exhibition, as with his book, is to dig deeper into the idealized mythology of their work and explore instead the eclectic blend of styles that made them a part of the international avant-garde in the early 20th Century. We began our conversation at the Douglas & McIntyre office in Toronto by having Ross King first define the myth of the Group of Seven and why it developed.

kc: Your book, Defiant Spirits, puts the Group of Seven in a larger aesthetic context. How would you describe the common view held of the group?

The Group of Seven
rk: The way that we think of the Group of Seven are as these woodsmen who went out into the Canadian backwoods with their minds as blank as their canvases and let the woods talk to them. They were also responsible for this myth by claiming that the wilderness taught them to paint. But what I wanted to do in Defiant Spirits was look at the truth behind this myth. I wanted to see if Tom Thomson actually was this brute poet for whom the gods put a paintbrush in one hand and a canoe paddle in the other.

kc: Were you aware that there was this different history behind the group?

rk: I always suspected that there was because I knew that a number of them had studied in Europe. Some of them even came from England. But it’s a common fantasy for artists and writers to believe that they have no artistic fathers and are entirely self-generated. The Group of Seven is also far from alone in making that claim about themselves. When I first came to the project I thought that this was a nice myth. It’s a nice Canadian story where we’ve created this national school of painting. While there is some truth to it, there is still another side to the story. And it’s a story that the Group wasn’t that eager to tell.

kc: They’re not eager to tell it, but neither are Canadians willing to believe it. In the title of your book you have words like ‘defiant’ ‘modernist’ and ‘revolution’ which don’t normally get associated with the Group of Seven. What do you think led to our view of perceiving them simply as Canada’s naturalists?

White Pine by Tom Thomson
rk: Ironically, that’s not the way they were initially regarded. If we rewind back to the early teens of the 20th century, there’s an interesting parallel between the Group of Seven and the French Impressionists. The paintings that had shocked and scandalized the Paris salon in the 1860s are now seen as very tame and stylized. So when you study Impressionism, you have to rediscover what was so shocking and innovative about it. In the same way, these images of Canada by Thomson and the Group of Seven were once perceived as dangerous and shocking. Ultimately, they conquered their critics. But they stayed still and the world turned to meet them. This is why there are elements of the artistic community today that sees them as old-fashioned. That is true by our current standards, but what I was trying to do was recover what made them so shocking and earned them such scathing reviews. They had imported a style of painting in Europe, which was then considered shocking, and applied it to the Canadian climate and landscape. They weren’t painting with a knowledge that wasn’t known elsewhere. They were art world sophisticates who knew exactly what was happening in Europe.

kc: How unique was the Group in embracing the modernist style of painting?

Red Maple by A.Y. Jackson
rk: What was happening with the Group around WW I, when they had all come together as one and became the Algonquin School, was no different than anywhere outside of France. If you look at American art at that time, they were still trying to find their own national style of painting. They finally found it under modernist Marsden Hartley who used a post-impressionist style. So the Group was not unique in their quest to find a national identity. Rather they were part of an international movement to find an artistic voice. That’s what’s been lost over the many decades. We tend to think of them as hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. People today tend to perceive them as solely a Canadian phenomenon.

kc: People also think of naturalism as something serene but these artists were hardly a harmonious bunch. Right?

Author Ross King
rk: True. But speaking of their art, what we now think of as these trademark iconic images, were not seen that way when they started painting. One of their greatest critics was Prime Minister Mackenzie King who said that modernist art was a perversion. According to him, what they created was decayed trees, not the beautiful picturesque Northern Ontario that he thought he knew – or, in fact, what any Canadian knew. So I wanted to show how these icons of Canada had to struggle to find a place in the Canadian imagination and heart. The internal struggles in the group did surprise me as I researched Defiant Spirits. We tend to view them as if they are a Stanley Cup-winning team where it’s all for one/one for all. But like any team there is feuding within, especially when you have a number of alpha males fighting for position. But what I want people to understand as they finish the book is to feel that they know the painters as individuals. I want them to know more about Tom Thomson other than that he died mysteriously in 1917. He was the best painter among them who became a great enigma. I also want them to understand that A.Y. Jackson is more than just a gray-haired avuncular figure who resided in Kleinberg in the last years of his life. I’d like them to see Jackson as the young artistically insecure painter in Paris who struggles to find his own style of art.

kc: Although we’re always attracted to rebels who stand up to the status quo, we ultimately seek to tame them to make them more appealing and safer figures to worship – Is that also true of the Group?

rk: Absolutely. With the Group, they come with this wonderful back-story. They’re this group of painters who had a vision and the vision was initially rejected. And yet they gradually won Canadians over and became the orthodoxy. That might be the fate of every rebel. It harmed them just as it harmed the French Impressionists. You become the orthodoxy that must be overthrown by the next generation.

Mount Lefroy by Lawren Harris
kc: Although you have de-mythologized the Group of Seven in your book, you’ve done it in a way that’s becoming rarer today. You don’t trash the Group in doing it. What you’ve done is rehabilitated that rebellious spirit and showed how they got boxed in. What kind of legacy do you think you’ve left for the Group?

rk: I didn’t want to trash them. We should pay attention to them. Why they have been celebrated so long is that they created a distinct body of work. But I wanted to shake up that myth without denigrating their art. I didn’t want to detract from their originality and the power of their vision. But no painter can get rid of prior influences. Their art was vital then and it is today. They created a critical mass for culture that could spread beyond the visual arts. What they were trying to do was arrest the brain-drain of Canadian artists who left the country to seek their fortune elsewhere. They helped lay the foundation for staying home and doing whatever kind of art you wanted. The Group helped create a market and the institutions that would help support a national culture. There is such a thing today as Canadian art. And they helped create it.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

No comments:

Post a Comment