A comprehensive exhibition of works by Canada’s Group of Seven opens this week at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. The Canadian High Commissioner Gordon Campbell told an audience of a few hundred patrons at the gala opening that he was pleased to see the work receiving a long overdue international reception.
On view are 123 paintings on loan from the National Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the McMichael Canadian art collection and such private collectors as David Thomson. They include works by Thomson, A.Y. Jackson, J.E.H. MacDonald, Fred Varley, Arthur Lismer, Lawren Harris, Franklin Carmichael and Frank Johnston. Three of the Group – Lismer, Varley and MacDonald – were born in England, which may explain some of the interest, yet the clear star of the show is Thomson, who died under mysterious circumstances in 1917, three years before the Group was formed.
The artists, sometimes known as the ‘Algonquin School’ at this stage, received indirect monetary support from Harris (heir to the Massey-Harris farm machinery fortune) and direct support from Dr. James MacCallum, a Toronto ophthalmologist and collector. Harris and MacCallum collaborated to build a studio building that opened in 1914 to serve as a meeting and working place for the proposed new Canadian art movement.
In the early twentieth century in Toronto, the first stirrings of a new movement of painting were being felt. A group of artists started to engage with the awesome Canadian wilderness, a landscape previously considered too wild and untamed to inspire ‘true’ art. Tom Thomson paved the way for this artistic collective, the Group of Seven, and their works have become revered in Canada. This exhibition will reintroduce their stunning impressions of the Canadian landscape to the British public for the first time since the 1920sThomson’s seven artist friends reunited after the war. They continued to travel throughout Canada, sketching the landscape and developing techniques to interpret this wild and diverse terrain. In 1920 they finally came together as the Group of Seven and held their first exhibition under that name. Prior to this, the art establishment’s view of the northern Canadian landscape was that it was either unpaintable or too wild and uncouth to be worthy of being painted. Reviews for the 1920 exhibition were mixed, but as the decade progressed the Group came to be recognized as pioneers of a new, Canadian, school of art. Today, every schoolchild is familiar with masterpieces such as Thomson’s The Jack Pine, arguably one of the most famous and beloved paintings in Canada.
Ian Dejardin, director at Dulwich Picture Gallery, said: “These artists produced some of the most vibrant and beautiful landscapes of the twentieth century. The Canadians have kept this particular light under a bushel for far too long – I am proud, and frankly amazed, that this is to be the very first major exhibition of their work to be held in this country since the sensation of their first showing here in 1924. As for Tom Thomson – what he achieved in his tragically short career (just 5 years) is extraordinary. He is Canada’s very own Van Gogh.
“We are delighted that a British admirer of the Group of Seven, Ian Dejardin, chose to mount an exhibition of Canadian art to mark the Bi-centenary of the Dulwich Picture Gallery,” said NGC director, Marc Mayer. “Although contemporary Canadian Art is now quite prominent in the world, our historical art deserves a much larger international audience. I am confident that this fine show will turn the tide and for this we are grateful to Dulwich and to Ian.” The exhibition runs from 19 October 2011 – 8 January 2012 For more information: dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk