Even the best-informed American art lovers will likely stumble when pressed to say more than a few sentences about Canadian art. Most scholars, dealers, and connoisseurs know something about the Group of Seven, an assortment of Ontario-based landscapists from the 1910s through the 1940s inspired by Tom Thomson (1877–1917), the best-known name in Canadian art. It’s safe to say the art of Canada’s indigenous peoples is a mystery. Considering our well-developed knowledge of Mexican art, it’s odd we know next to nothing about the art of our other neighbor. Canada, after all, is our biggest trading partner. Most of its 35 million people share our language, our dominant Anglo culture, and our basic economic structure. It’s next door! Simply because Canadians don’t shout about their art doesn’t mean we should know so little about how good their art can be.
A good starting point is the McMichael Canadian Art Collection near Toronto. It’s a revelation, with a scholarly mission, a beautiful forest setting, and the best holdings of Canadian art in the world. Its log-and-stone façade makes it look rustic but, inside, it’s a modern museum. Its founder, Robert McMichael (1921–2003) was, in his words, “obsessed with the desire to bring together a large collection of art with an unabashedly nationalistic flavor.” McMichael made his money in the 1950s and 1960s in the field of wedding photography. His collecting of the work of Thomson, Lawren Harris (1885–1970), their Group of Seven friends, and, later, indigenous artists was always focused on a future museum. He and his wife, Signe, donated nearly two hundred paintings, their home in affluent suburban Kleinburg, and a special-made gallery to the Province of Ontario in 1965. The museum has grown to eighty-five thousand square feet and six thousand objects.
Like many American artists and most Canadian artists, Thomson’s background was in commercial art.
I recently visited the museum for the first time. It has an ambitious new director, Ian Dejardin, who led the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London for twelve years. Known for adventurous, intelligent shows, Dejardin arrived in 2017. At Dulwich, he passionately promoted Canadian art as part of his bold exhibition strategy. (Dulwich was also the first museum in Britain to mount serious shows on American Art.) His appointment shows the McMichael’s trustees are serious about raising their museum’s national and international profile.
In examining the foundation of Canadian art, it’s best to start with Thomson. Like many American artists and most Canadian artists, his background was in commercial art. He worked for Grip, Ltd., Toronto’s biggest supplier of advertising and product packaging art. His best paintings, all from the 1910s before he died in a drowning accident, draw from Ontario’s familiar rugged northern lakes, rivers, and woods. Canadians not only love their wild landscape, they also know it well through lifetime experience. It’s never far. On my visit to the McMichael, I heard more than once that “Canadians will drive anywhere,” and this says something about the aesthetic most comfortable to them.
Thomson’s art isn’t topographical. In looking at his paintings, we can’t pick the spot. American landscapists tend to be much fussier about presenting exact locations. Artistic license allowed, the viewer gets the facts. Thomson’s work is more experiential. His canvases are much more generic than American landscapes. His landscapes are felt. They’re sensual, with thick, tactile paint and high-key color. Design is simple and strong, as it would be in commercial art. It’s not coincidental his employer was called “Grip, Ltd.” Good commercial art grabs and holds.
Even the most snowbound, whitest land has plenty of color, and it surprises people how bright that color can be. It’s partly a function of light sharpened by crisp, dry air. Flora and fauna, even in spring and summer, might not be lush. Ontario’s great northern wilds can be barren with acres of rock. Still, Thomson and his acolytes saw and painted the riot of ochre, purple, ultramarine, and viridian existing in winter, late fall, and very early spring. Thomson, A. Y. Young (1882–1974), Harris, and J. E. H. MacDonald (1873–1932) painted plenty of autumn scenes with lots of gold and crimson. They painted every other season and weather condition. Skies are rarely clear blue. Even in winter, we see plenty of clouds.
Harris’s clouds as well as his trees and mountains have blunt contours. Nothing is soft and fluffy. The densely painted forms often feel like sculpture. They’re spare, yet saved from a severity that might have oppressed his iridescent palette. Of the entire Group of Seven crew, he’s the edgiest. Harris’s contemporary Emily Carr (1871–1945) called his work “a little pretty and too soft, but pleasant,” a brutal and unfair judgment. His landscapes have a distinctively neon palette that gives the otherwise unremarkable forests he paints some real zip.
Carr is a Canadian icon well represented at the McMichael, but I find her work obvious. She studied in France and became a Fauvist. Based in Vancouver, she looked closely at the design traditions of artists from First Nations or far western tribes. She absorbed the craggy forms and bright colors of totem poles. It’s Canadian primitivism, I suppose. Carr belongs to a school that crosses national boundaries and is based in Seattle, and this is unusual for her period. The Group of Seven, for instance, is its own affair and insulated from contemporary American landscape. We can judge it on its own merits. Viewed along with other Pacific Northwest artists like her friend Mark Tobey, Carr is not very strong.
Outside the Group of Seven, one star shines brightly. David Milne (1882–1953) was the only Canadian artist in the Armory Show. He studied at the Art Students League, absorbed the zeitgeist of Gallery 291, and was represented by N. E. Montross, the Ashcan artists’ dealer. He worked as a war artist during the First World War before returning to Ontario. His stark landscapes are beautiful. He makes the most of black and white as basic colors creating stick-like shapes. This deceptively simple formula empowers his other colors. His work looks like no one else’s. That said, think “Mark Tobey meets Charles Burchfield.” Clement Greenberg thought Milne was one of his era’s greatest artists, though he and other American critics loaded their writing with stereotypes about Canada. Even in the 1960s, he was calling Milne and his contemporaries “prairie artists” despite the near-total absence of flat, dry expanse and nary a buffalo.
I visited the McMichael soon after its “The Art of Canada: Director’s Cut” exhibition opened. Selected by Dejardin, it’s both an introduction to his leadership and a fine overview of the McMichael’s collection. It’s a beautiful show—Dejardin knows what he’s doing—and very much his own transformative vision. A gallery of small, open-air oil sketches on board seems to capture the essential spirit of Canadian painting. These artists’ response to the land, often using heavy paint, feels visceral rather than intellectual. It makes sense that most Canadian artists made their living as art teachers. Almost none supported themselves as full-time artists since the art market was never that well developed. Their art is material-focused. Fine finish isn’t a priority. The artist is always present. They loved painting outdoors.
Some colleges in the country offer a single survey course in Canadian art. Many offer nothing. This is telling. American art, on the other hand, is an academic specialty both widely and deeply taught. It’s also enmeshed in group identity and gender studies programs. Through American Studies departments, it’s learned via English, history, economics, and social studies disciplines. This makes for plenty of inside baseball, a take on art that’s driven by intellectual and ideological minutiae and not by connoisseurship. This creeps into art criticism, art schools, the art market, and, finally, the studios of working artists. For better or worse, Canadian art keeps things simple and transparent. There’s little ambiguity.
The McMichael began its history in the 1960s with a strong collection of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit art. The founder considered indigenous art as part of the art of Canada, a proposition that seems logical, but one that also diverges from the way Americans treat indigenous art. Native American art is often considered the province of anthropology or archeology. It’s a distinct discipline from Anglo-American art. I think this is wrong headed. It’s all American art, with so many historical and aesthetic crosscurrents that much is lost by building silos. Canadians don’t have this problem, in part because the indigenous population is big, about 1.5 million people, and the six hundred reservations are all over the country. About half the country’s aboriginal descendants live off-reservation.
Canada has also made a serious, ongoing effort to address and rectify some three hundred years of oppression, neglect, abuse, and mismanagement of indigenous people. The federal government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008 to examine and remedy the terrible problems arising from the Indian residential school system. These included child abuse, bad schools, forced separation of families, and coerced assimilation starting in the 1870s. The commission’s work evolved to embrace a broader reform campaign aimed at the legal system, housing, education, economic development, and the quality of reservation life. Though the commission was disbanded in 2015, the reconciliation mantra is now integral to all aspects of Canadian government, culture, and business.
The best indigenous art draws from everyday life, religion, and myth expressed in sculpture.
This spirit of recognition has enhanced the respect given to indigenous art and artists. Their best art draws from everyday life, religion, and myth expressed in sculpture, usually wood or simple soapstone. It is both beautiful and real. Made with hand tools, it conveys an ancestral affinity for local materials. Less convincing is the work of more recent indigenous artists like Kenojuak Ashevak (1927–2013) and Norval Morrisseau (1931–2007). They worked in traditional Western media, mostly painting and printmaking. Their art isn’t very good. It’s derivative and comforting. There are plenty of jolly natives rendered as stick figures, suggesting the artists supplied what an Anglo public expected and what their dealers thought they could sell. Morrisseau was known as the “Picasso of the North.” Both were famous and award-winning, possibly showing some tokenism as their work can be both predictable and unchallenging. Flat art just isn’t their natural thing.
The McMichael collection isn’t encyclopedic. There’s some Quebecois art but not much. Canada’s cultural bifurcation is well known. Quebec is different in countless respects from the rest of the country. This includes art. Far older, it produced in the eighteenth century an array of decorative arts like silver, furniture, textiles, and portraits, though never approaching the quality of work coming from Boston or Philadelphia. The rest of the country was wilderness. Anglo Canada’s artists are internally focused. Most were trained locally. Quebecois artists looked to Paris, and it shows.
The museum’s collection of the work of living artists is thin. It has never had an acquisitions endowment, and its collecting practices were driven by the founder while he was alive. Even after he died, keepers of the flame ran the place. Now, they’re gone, too, presenting a big collecting challenge. The art scene in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver is vibrant. Like living artists in the United States, Canadians are all over the lot in subject, style, and media. Little of this new work resonates with the core of the McMichael’s collection. It’s also expensive, and Canada has a supply of new museums specializing in the art of today. Big museums like the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal also collect it. Though different in many respects, the McMichael is like the Clark Art Institute or Dejardin’s old home, the Dulwich Picture Gallery: small, focused, with the best of its kind. This institutional core can be augmented by temporary shows of contemporary art, but I wouldn’t spend much money buying it.
McMichael wanted a collection of art with “an unabashedly national flavor.” But that flavor is hard even for Canadians to describe. Brand Canada might begin with “well, we’re not American.” But it’s clearer—and more profound—than that. Soundness, trustworthiness, and likability are key to the nation’s sense of self. Canadians seem to prize consensus. America’s Fourth of July celebrates a revolution and the primacy of individual freedom. Canada Day celebrates a union around common ideals hashed out in a conference. Canada wasn’t founded by Puritans, slavers, or conquistadors. There’s not much of a protest culture. Canadians take pride in believing their country is a safe, gentle place. They are patriotic and in wartime heroic. They’ll fight to protect their identity. The trouble is that consensus, dependability, quietude, reticence, and tolerance don’t make for cutting-edge art. Still, they can, and do, give us art of impressive dignity, harmony, and charm.
1 “The Art of Canada: Director’s Cut” opened at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, Ontario, on December 9, 2017 and remains on view through November 18, 2018.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 7, on page 45
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