The Aesthetic of the Northland: How the Group of Seven gave a pass to the urban and industrial

Rain over the 30,000 Islands, May 2017. Photo: Douglas Hunter

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This post is part of a series called “The Group of Seven and the History of the Canadian Landscape.” On the 100th anniversary of the art collective’s founding, this series reads the Group of Seven through an environmental history lens.

Black Bay, August 2020. Photo: Douglas Hunter

After spending several days on my boat in Black Bay in northeastern Georgian Bay in August 2020, I posted a photo on Twitter, of wind-dappled water, glacier-smoothed rock, and pines bent by the prevailing westerlies. Someone in reply referenced the Group of Seven and ventured: “If that isn’t a stereotypical photo of the bay, I don’t know what is. Lovely btw.”


The artistic output of the Group and our aesthetic attachment to what they called the Northland (of which Georgian Bay was a significant part) are so inseparable that it is impossible to know if our appreciation of that aesthetic can be disentangled from our appreciation of their paintings. We may like certain Group paintings because they depict a landscape we like, but the Canadian eye unquestionably has been trained by those paintings to view the Northland with a particular awe and reverence, and not a little fear of nature’s violence: its squalls, thunderstorms, and snowstorms, and waves lashing rocky shores as the wind claws at defiant pines.


In fact, the artists themselves had to find their own way to appreciating the visual aesthetic with which they became synonymous. When one of the Group’s key members, A.Y. Jackson, first visited Georgian Bay in the summer of 1910, on a vacation at the cottage of cousins in the Cognashene area, he could not see anything to commit to canvas: “It’s nothing but little islands covered with scrub and pine trees and not quite paintable.”(1) By 1913, Jackson’s eye had been completely retrained. As he would recall in 1967, he was back at the Cognashene that year “with more experience. I could see no end of material to paint.”(2)

West Wind Island, August 2019. Photo: Douglas Hunter


Around 1911, the Group’s members began to coalesce in a Toronto-based landscape movement initially referred to by some critics as the Algonquin Park school, in honour of the paintings they started producing in early 1914 in Tom Thomson’s favourite haunt. But for Jackson and other Group members like J.E.H. MacDonald and Arthur Lismer, Georgian Bay came first as a sketching experience, in no small part because the Toronto ophthalmologist and art patron, Dr. James MacCallum, in 1911 had built a cottage just north of the Cognashene, at West Wind Island, and he invited them (and Thomson) north to paint there.


Cottagers in the nearby Cognashene area preferred to build their summer retreats on the sheltered sides of their island properties: “The exposed view to open water was deemed unattractive and the gusting west wind was an unpleasant force to be avoided.”(3) MacCallum in contrast planted his cottage on the exposed rock of his island’s northwest corner, with a magnificent, unimpeded westward view to the open waters of the bay. In 1921 (but perhaps as early as 1916, according to Maria Tippett), Frederick Varley, as a guest of MacCallum, painted the most iconic Georgian Bay view, Stormy Weather (now in the National Gallery of Canada) from an adjacent island.(4)


The aesthetic of the Northland that came to typify the Group’s output from its first exhibition 1920 until its dissolution in 1932 was not the artistic vision of Canada that everyone was calling for during the Group’s protean years, or that its future members were limiting themselves to. One of the most vocal proponents of a new, national landscape movement was Augustus Bridle, associate editor of The Canadian Courier and a founding member of the Toronto Arts and Letters Club, where the future Group’s members (and MacCallum) gathered. In his review of the spring 1912 exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists, Bridle praised efforts that captured “a Canada of east and west, of north and south, of railways and traffic and city streets, of types of people.”(5) He complained that the Royal Canadian Academy exhibition of 1911 had not captured the “modern Canada; at least not the Canada that builds railways at the rate of three thousand miles per annum.”(6)


The National Gallery of Canada played a role in steering the new landscape movement toward wilderness in its acquisition decisions. Under the guidance of curator/director Eric Brown, who had emigrated from England in 1909 and was the brother of Arnesby, a well-known member of the St. Ives artists’ colony in Cornwall, the gallery opted for the wild, the pastoral, or the bucolic over urban grit and industry. In 1912, the gallery passed on acquiring Lawren Harris’s fine working-class Toronto streetscapes and industrial scenes and MacDonald’s wonderful Tracks and Traffic (the Art Gallery of Ontario only acquiring it via donation in 1937, after MacDonald’s death), instead choosing Harris’s The Drive, a studio composition of logs being run downriver against a background of forested hills, and MacDonald’s In the Pine Shadows, Winter Moonlight.


Any chance that the urban and industrial would figure significantly in the new Canadian landscape school vanished after Harris and MacDonald made a famous pilgrimage to the Albright Fine Art Gallery in Buffalo in January 1913, to see a touring exhibition of contemporary Scandinavian art. Harris was impressed by the Norwegian Harald Sohlberg’s Mountains, Winter Landscape, whose stylized, massive white forms foreshadowed much of Harris’s postwar output.(7) It was a mystical, untamed Wildness, buried in snow much of the year, that would provide the foundation of a national identity shaped in oil on board and canvas.


Lynda Jessup has made a compelling case for the Group of Seven as an antimodern movement. “Based on a conflation of avant-gardism and arts-and-crafts aestheticism, it was nothing less than an all-embracing critique of modern production, both artistic and industrial.”(8) The ur-source of critical enthusiasm for detecting antimodernism in various cultural phenomena is American historian Jackson Lears’ definition in 1981 of a loose movement that took form in the United States in the 1880s comprising “journalists, academics, ministers and literati whose circumstances ranged from the wealthy to the moderately comfortable.”(9) Lears’ antimodernists “sustained a note of protest against a complacent faith in progress and a narrow positivist conception of reality.”(10)


There was much about the Group’s members, before they had formally united under the label, that aligned with Lears’ antimodernism: the stylistic sympathies with the Arts and Crafts movement, the focus on wilderness scenes and small villages in pursuit of encoding in paint an authentic national spirit that defied the reality of an increasingly urbanizing and industrialising nation. Some of the Group’s members also shared the American antimodern interest in mystical or occult beliefs, as well as the anti- (or alt-) science of Christian Science.


MacDonald was a poet as well as a painter, and his love of Thoreau and Whitman was infectious with other Group members. Jackson was a self-declared social democrat by 1916, disdainful of class distinctions and the corporate protectionism of the Borden government, and repulsed by the materialism and commercialism of modernity. Writing from Algonquin Park in early 1914, he assured his brother Ernie he was “far from the dust and din of commercialism.”(11) At the end of the First World War, in which he served as a soldier and war artist, Jackson proclaimed (overoptimistically) to a cousin that the allied cause had “made a new world, a better more enlightened world where the worship of vulgar commercial success will give way to nobler things.”(12) He was outwardly antimodern (in Lears’ sense) in his early desires to capture the “picturesque” in his paintings, and in his lamentations over the disappearance of traditional building forms and ethnic dress and the intrusion of internal combustion engines into rural life and even the air.


During their heyday, the Group annoyed some fellow Canadian artists with their focus on untrammeled vistas and indifference to urban and industrial realities. The modernist John Lyman, who returned to Montreal from Europe in 1931, considered regionalist movements like the Group to be “exoticism for consumption on the premises.”(13) Not all the criticism was necessarily accurate or fair; despite ranging widely in search of material—Jackson for one painted most every summer in Quebec, as well as in the Rockies in 1924 and the Arctic in 1927—the Group tended to be (mis)characterized as Ontario-centric.


Only six months after the first Group of Seven exhibition, A.Y. Jackson was wary of descending into clichéd depictions of Ontario’s Northland. “I want to do some small town stuff,” he wrote Eric Brown at the National Gallery, “and I think it should be rather interesting. We are rather overstocked with pine trees and I want a change.”(14) The Group’s focus remained on wilderness and the pastoral, and the occasional rustic village, which did carry a whiff of the antimodern: rather than depicting the nation that Canada was becoming (or wanted to be seen as becoming), these artists largely were celebrating what supposedly was being left behind. But there was also a strong note of discovery, and defiance. Something of enduring value lay beyond the factories, urban streetscapes, and many miles of railway tracks that should not be discounted, paved over, or forgotten. A national vision in art had to be more than something that reflected the components of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. The Group’s paintings of wild spaces across the country have come to be iconic representations of what Canada is, at least in the public’s hearts and imaginations.

Notes

  1. A.Y. Jackson to Georgina Jackson, n.d. [summer 1910]. From Portage Point, Penetang, Georgian Bay. Penciled date added “July 8th or so 1910,” Naomi Jackson Groves fonds, Library and Archives Canada, box 96.
  2. A.Y. Jackson, “How I Discovered the Georgian Bay,” ms. [1967], Naomi Jackson Groves fonds, Library and Archives Canada, box 98, file 32.
  3. David, Jennifer, ed., Wind, Rock, Water and Sky: The Story of Cognashene, Georgian Bay (Erin, ON: Boston Mills Press, 1997), 49.
  4. See Maria Tippett, Stormy Weather: F.H. Varley, A Biography (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1998), 76–79.
  5. Augustus Bridle, “A Season of Pictures,” The Canadian Courier 11, no. 18 (30 March, 1912), 6.
  6. Bridle, “A Season of Pictures,” 7.
  7. F.B. Housser, A Canadian Art Movement (Toronto: Macmillan Co. of Canada, 1926), 64.
  8. Jessup, “Bushwhackers in the Gallery: Antimodernism and the Group of Seven,” 131, in Jessup, Lynda, ed. Antimodernism and Artistic Experience: Policing the Boundaries of Modernity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.
  9. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture 1880–1920. New York: Pantheon, 1981, xvi.
  10. Lears, No Place of Grace, xv.
  11. A.Y. Jackson to “Mes cheres enfants” [Ernest Jackson and family, Lethbridge], n.d. [early 1914], Naomi Jackson Groves Fonds, Library and Archives Canada, box 94, file 19.
  12. A.Y. Jackson to Florence Clement, 12 November, 1918, Naomi Jackson Groves Fonds, Library and Archives Canada, box 95.
  13. Michèle Grandbois, “Morrice and Lyman: Light and Exile,” 71, in Lucie Dorais, Richard Foisy, François-Marc Gagnon, Marc Gauthier, Michèle Grandbois, and John O’Brian, Morrice and Lyman in the Company of Matisse. Firefly, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, 2014.
  14. A.Y. Jackson to Eric Brown, 30 November, 1920. Canadian War Artists correspondence, National Gallery of Canada archives, 5.42-J, Jackson, A.Y.
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I'm an independent researcher, writer, and artist in Port McNicoll, Ontario. I hold a Phd in history (York University 2015). My recent books include "The Place of Stone" (UNC Press, 2017) and "Beardmore" (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2018). I'm currently working on biographies of the late Dr. John Evans and artist A.Y. Jackson.

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