The Group of Seven’s True North: Strong and Free, or Visual Colonization?

Scroll this

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.


This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Group of Seven’s inaugural group exhibition.1 This formidable collection was created with the intent to break free from the colonial regime, re-define Canada’s wild North and institutionalize a powerful visuality.2 But the Group’s images of unforgiving forests, bleak winters, and rocky coastlines are not innocent representations. They applied colonial methods and have, since then, served to silence Indigenous identity using landscape.

Every work of art channels power and is shaped by (as every creator is influenced by) the discourses of their day. Landscape paintings are more than just pleasant scenes on a wall. In John Berger’s words, “When we ‘see’ a landscape, we situate ourselves in it. If we ‘saw’ the art of the past, we would situate ourselves in history.”3 The Group of Seven exhibition helped to solidify a nationalist narrative in the imaginations of Canadians and even beyond Canada, making their works instrumental in twentieth-century colonization and the appropriation of supposedly empty landscapes.

F.H. Varley, Squally Weather, Georgion Bay. Oil painting of tree bending against wind with lake in background.
F.H. Varley, Squally Weather, Georgian Bay, 1920. Oil on Wood; 30.0 x 40.9 cm; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gifted by Mrs. S.J. Williams, Mrs. Harvey Sims, Mrs. T.M. Cram, and Miss Geneva Jackson, Kitchener, 1943.

The work to manifest such a narrative was well underway before the exhibition opened. In 1913, the National Gallery of Canada became a section of the federal government and was tasked with “the encouragement and cultivation of correct artistic taste and Canadian public interest in the fine arts, the promotion of the interests of art, in general, in Canada.”4 Instructed to educate the public about the Canadian aesthetic, the National Gallery started to acquire and use the Group of Seven’s landscapes to shape what is now a popular understanding of the North. Whoever selects the visual materials to embody the Canadian aesthetic, and whoever designs the exhibitions of these materials can control the national narrative.5 Even before the National Gallery was furnished with a federal mandate, its Director, Eric Brown, was musing about the significance of landscape paintings in determining what would be Canada’s heritage.6

Several of the Group’s members were undoubtedly influenced by modern European painters. J.E.H. MacDonald and Lawren Harris had visited the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo in 1913 to see an exhibition of Scandinavian Symbolist art. Both artists were excited by the bold colours, rhythmic forms and the Nordic artists’ abilities to trigger affect and emotion through powerful landscapes. Harris, Jackson, Varley and Lismer pursued art training in Europe.7 At the time, A.Y. Jackson was developing a style of painting indebted to the Impressionists and Van Gogh.8 One can see the same techniques employed in one of his most well-known works, Terre Sauvage (1913). In fact, MacDonald and Harris were the ones who reached out to Jackson in 1913 to purchase one of his works and to report that “a Canadian art movement was underway in Toronto.”9

The Group’s visual assertions of Canada’s rugged character, visible in paintings like J.E.H. MacDonald’s Falls, Montreal River (1920) or F.H. Varley’s Squally Weather, Georgian Bay (1920), employ many of the same techniques as the European modernists. What was innovative was the deployment of their modern style to portray the essence of their country’s landscapes as distinguishable from the British Empire.10

J.E.H. MacDonald, Falls, Montreal River, 1920. Oil on Canvas; 121.9 x 153.0 cm; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Purchased 1933.

The public adoption of the Group of Seven’s paintings as our visual canon is a reminder of how important and powerful visual culture is in our environmental history. Claire Elizabeth Campbell writes, “History – as conveyed in both academic writing and popular culture – affects how a place is imagined and how people imagine their relationship to it. …But if history shapes how a landscape is perceived, the landscape shapes what kind of history is told.”11 The landscapes that are upheld as sacred, according to our culture’s makers, are the landscapes that will get studied, politicized, managed and remembered. And our culture’s makers – painters like the Group of Seven – are regarded as better equipped to interpret ‘the North.’12


“The narrative of Canada’s iconic wilderness has displaced, erased or silenced any Indigenous knowledge or story that might have shaped or contributed to our national identity.”


Effectively, the narrative of Canada’s iconic wilderness has displaced, erased or silenced any Indigenous knowledge or story that might have shaped or contributed to our national identity. As Berger questions, “Who benefits from this deprivation? In the end, the art of the past is being mystified because a privileged minority is striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify the role of the ruling classes, and such a justification can no longer make sense in modern terms.”13 After a hundred years, perhaps it is time to accept that these landscape paintings helped to rearrange our reality by illustrating one story designed by white men who were heavily influenced by European modern art and buttressed by institutions that were designed to acquire and preserve a colony.



Notes

  1. The Group’s first exhibition opened May 7, 1920 at the Art Gallery of Toronto, now known as the Art Gallery of Ontario.
  2. Nicolas Mirzoeff (2013) defines visuality as part of colonial and imperial practice, by which powers can influence our interpretations of history across space and time. The Visual Culture Reader, Third Edition. (London: Routledge, 2013), p. xxx.
  3. J. Berger, Ways of Seeing. (New York: Viking Press, 1973), p. 11.
  4. National Gallery of Canada Act 1913.
  5. C. Duncan, “The MoMA’s Hot Mamas.” In J. Finn (Ed.) Visual Communication and Culture: Images in Action. (Don Mills: Oxford University Press). Originally published in 1989.
  6. Brown wrote “A national spirit is being slowly born, one might perhaps say it walked abroad, but as yet between the lights. There are painters who are finding expression of their thought in the vast prairies of the far West, in the silent spaces of the North, by the side of torrent and tarn, and in the mighty solitudes of the winter woods. The appeal of the great land is every year more manifest, and is being expressed with an indefinable solemnity and deference which is nothing less than the first national utterance of a young art awake to a mighty heritage,” in “Canada and Her Art,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (1913), v.45 (1), pgs. 171-176.
  7. Harris had studied in Berlin in the 1890s, and Jackson had studied in Paris in 1912. Varley and Lismer studied art in Sheffield School of Art and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp.
  8. R. King p. 87.
  9. R. King, Defiant Spirits: the Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven. (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2010), p. 89.
  10. Although not explicit, this sentiment is highly influenced by the work of Anne Whitelaw in “”Whiffs of Balsam, Pine, and Spruce”: Art Museums and the Production of a Canadian Aesthetic.” In Berland, Jody & Hornstein, Shelley (Eds.) Capital Culture: A Reader on Modernist Legacies, State Institutions, and the Value(s) of Art. (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000).
  11. C. E. Campbell, Shaped by the West Wind: Nature and History in Georgian Bay, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005), p. 96.
  12. B. S. Osborne, “The iconography of nationhood in Canadian art.” In D. Cosgrove and S. Daniels (Eds.) The Iconography of Landscape. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
  13. Berger, p. 11.

The following two tabs change content below.

Lauren Judge

PhD Candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University
I am a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. I come from an interdisciplinary background in history and the humanities, with a specialization in public history, enviro-humanities and a professional artistic practice where I develop bodies of work based in themes like ecofeminism. After completing my Master’s degree in 2005, I developed my professional arts practice while embarking on a wide-ranging administrative career. I returned to graduate studies to pursue a PhD in 2018, driven by a passion for the visual culture of the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula and its role in our changing relationships with the land.

Leave a Reply