Why I will never tire of the Group of Seven

Today we ventured downtown to the AGO – having been denied the chance to go in the autumn (we went on a holiday Monday and they were closed), and having put it off during the dark days of winter, the warmer weather and shining sun finally coaxed us out of huddling in our apartment all weekend.And I am so glad they did. The AGO has a fond place in my heart; I remember it from the late 1980s and early 90s as a special place my family and I would venture to, out of the suburbs. Every trip to Toronto held its own mystery and sense of possibility when I was a child, and the AGO was no exception. It was here that I was exposed to artists such as Paul Peel; that image of the two children warming themselves by the fire became an art gallery emblem to me as I grew older, and I would often recall this image in art history lessons, or in conversations about Canadian artists. It was here too that my mother first taught me about the Group of Seven, those quintessential Canadian artists who documented and changed both our landscape and the art landscape for decades to follow.

The Group of Seven have appeared in my world and imagination at various points in my short lifetime. From that first introduction at the art gallery, to art classes, to calendars that still hang on my wall from year-to-year, to the Tom Thomson (who largely influenced the group) reproduction I bought at a charity auction last Christmas, to the history lesson I taught in November; after all of this, I will never tire of the Group of Seven. It seems they have been here with me at every stage of my life, and I hope they will continue to follow me as I move and change into different versions of my current self.

One of the information panels at the art gallery asked if there is any truth to the Group of Seven’s version of Canadian culture and life, and juxtaposed artists’ works from the same time period to highlight similarities and differences. Yes, there were some major differences, but I think I tried to ignore these, in an effort to counter anyone who may try to shatter my passion for the group. However, it did get me thinking about art and truth, and the fictionalized versions of our lives that we represent through different media. Perhaps it is true that the Group of Seven does not accurately portray everyone’s experience in the 1920s, 30s and beyond, but they certainly capture the beauty, movement and rawness of the Canadian landscape, a place most of us like to return to every once in awhile, in an effort to escape the other “reality” that is the stress of everyday life. Over 80 years later and it is still true that the masses venture north on the weekends or on holidays, craving the sound of water lapping against a sandy shore, or a sunset fading between the shadows of waving trees.

Recently, the AGO went under extensive renovations, and they have done an impeccable job with the Canadian artists section of the gallery on the second floor. I particularly enjoyed the historical sources they included, such as this quote, posted above a wall with a collection of at least 50 different Group of Seven paintings: “[The] new type of artist. . .puts on the outfit of the bushwhacker and prospector; closes with his environment; paddles, portages and makes camp; sleeps in the out-of-doors under the stars; climbs mountains with his sketch box on his back.” Frederick B. Housser wrote this in 1926, and for me, this captures the essence of the Canadian experience as our country was developing into a nation all its own.

Indeed it was these bushwhackers and prospectors who came to Canada: to discover, to settle, to encourage others to join in both the beauty and toil of the new immigrant experience. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Canada was still mostly a land untouched, and I think the Group of Seven capture this special bond between humans and nature that existed for most Canadians at the time. As a child growing up in Ontario, some of my fondest memories include camping, canoeing, and carrying those canoes on my back through the forests of Algonquin – the same forests where Tom Thomson spent much of his short life.

Nature is an experience that spans generations here, and I think this is one of the reasons why I feel so akin to these artists. So regardless of what the critics say, for me, the Group of Seven will always represent one side of the true Canadian experience, and one side of myself. And I will continue to enjoy their art for years to come: losing myself in the icy mountains and blue skies of a Lawren Harris, or traveling to a singular house in one of A.J. Casson’s country landscapes.

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