Centre and Periphery: place defines / deforms history

The Group of Seven are, in many ways, a complicated proposition: although they’re mythological ‘Canadiana’, many people who’d cite them as ‘art’ when asked for any example have not, in fact, viewed their works in person.

Further, the art historical / social / historical / regional / political canons have informed – or deformed – many individuals’ ideas of them, which, when you dig even slightly deeper than surface, are shown to be facile or false interpolations of the artists. If you’ve endured the film Lawren Harris: Where the Universe Sings, you’ll have already had a serving of the hagiography, which in ignoring or omitting wider and contested narratives, serves neither the subject nor the audience.

For example, there are some who consider WWI to be a major fracture to the Group, and this would be further (and literally) illustrated in paintings by members like Varley or Jackson whom were among some of the first official War Artists (neither offered milquetoast platitudes). Harris, on the other hand, never served but suffered an emotional ‘breakdown’ during this period. If one considers the recently passed commemoration of Vimy Ridge as a ‘defining’ moment in Canadian history, how the Group responded to this, individually or collectively, offers a more authentic and more relevant (both then and now) story to many Canadians.

Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell, sometime #arthistorianfromhell, proffers this approach to the Group: experience the works in person, engage them outside the too frequently often proliferated ‘calendar’ images / narrative, and be mindful of the era the artists lived and died in. Being ahistorical is the worst form of arrogance and ignorance, a mortal sin next to a venial one, which can be repaired with repentance and atonement. It is necessary to think of that oft cited idea of terra nullius and frameworks of empire and colonialism, but good art offers – insists – upon more than a ‘one size fits all interpretation’, and art – like history – is both a contested narrative and a complicated, perhaps contradictory one.

Luckily, there is an exhibition currently at display at the Riverbrink Art Museum here in Niagara that is an excellent opportunity to do all that. Curated by Asta McCann, Centre and Periphery features several works that are lovely, almost precious in their size and detail, and will offer some familiar and some new ideas about the Group. Or, perhaps, I should simply say ‘about these artists’, as dispensing with the blanket concept of the ‘Group’ might be the first step towards seeing instead of assuming.

Before engaging with the works chosen from the Samuel Weir Collection, here’s the succinct statement regarding Centre and Periphery: The Group of Seven: “While The Group of Seven is known for depictions of the seemingly uninhabited Canadian wilderness, they also sketched and painted urban scenes of civilization and industry….this exhibition considers the complex relationship between the urban and the rural in the Group’s work.”

The first work you’ll encounter is by the aforementioned Harris, titled Study for “In the Ward 1, City Paintings”, from 1918. This is on your right hand side, as you enter the second floor space, and the domestic space of the Riverbrink Art Museum (RAM, as I may refer to it later on, here) gives this wall prominence, appropriately. From the Harris, you have two Thomsons, two J.E.H. MacDonalds (all three names you hopefully know) and then a Cullen (in conversation with McCann, I suspect this might be her favourite work in Centre), and then to a Jackson. Not a large selection, but being a proponent of ‘slow art day’, consideration over quantity is a good thing.

Lawren Harris, Study for ‘In the Ward 1’ City Paintings, 1918.

Harris’ Ward works are among his best, and are paintings that formally and conceptually are striking, in their use of colour but also in their humanity and realism. Several years ago, the Riverbrink was the host of the launch for Contrasts: In The Ward – A Book Of Poetry And Painting, which was edited by Greg Betts. This text highlighted how Harris also wrote about these scenes that he painted (personally, I found his words a bit stilted, or perhaps I just prefer the visuals to the words Harris produced, though I want to use the word ‘dilettante’, perhaps harshly). Perhaps the reality – or the expressive, emotive quality of his paintings – is so authentic that the words seem extraneous.

The four pieces on this side wall are the best in the show, and offer imagery both familiar and new that engage in a dialogue, if read right to left, vice versa, or however you prefer. Among these is a ‘painted sketch’ by Tom Thomson, dated at prior to 1914, that’s now thought to be a representation of what would later be the studios that the Group often worked in, in Toronto. Others still consider the possibility that it might be Thomson’s own cabin. The subtle blues in Twilight are familiar to anyone who’s experienced the variant colours of snow in fading twilight or early morning light, and the dashes and dabs of more intense colour balance this small jewel of a painting (“in the blue Canadian winter an iceman roams / building railroads made of iron, sweat, and skin”, to quote The Rheostatics, in a fitting mix of imagery, and Canadiana…).

The uncertainty regarding the site makes this a very good work to encapsulate McCann’s Centre and Periphery, as this vagueness flouts any easy labelling as urban or wilderness, and lets the painting stand more so on the physical rendering of an artist’s memory and experience, transmitted to us and our own ideas and emotions. Pieces like Cullen’s The Cache River, March Thaw (1934, the grips of the Depression) or J.E.H. MacDonald’s Thornhill Garden (1915, when WWI had truly begun to bleed back to Canada) have contested meanings here: perhaps similar to how Levine Flexhaug’s landscapes are superficially kitsch, but offer a sense of escape and hope manifest in an “eden-esque” landscape, from the ramshackle ruins of Harris’ Ward, from the drudge of labour….

McCann is an independent curator, and though her focus is usually in new media and contemporary artists, her eye here offers a different perspective on the Group: as someone who’s also worked with contemporary and historical exhibitions, there is no real point when ‘then’ stops and ‘now’ begins, and influences are both immediate and subtle. This is especially true for the Group, as I alluded to earlier.

Another smaller painted moment – Tom Thomson, Sketch for The Jack Pine, dating from the Spring of 1916 – is textured and a century later has an almost runny, melted quality to the paint. The wind and the weather is echoed in the rapidity, the flow and fluidity of Thomson’s strokes: Harris is quoted, in the film I mentioned earlier, Universe, as saying he didn’t consider himself the equal of Thomson as a painter. This is something I’d agree with, as regards landscapes, though this is informed, or coloured, if I may, by my reverence for Harris’ Ward urban vignettes. Perhaps, as well, Thomson’s early death (unless he just vanished into the wilderness, a theory I enjoy proliferating) allows his works to stand in a more separate manner, like other important, but vague, art historical figures (Cimabue of the Early Italian Renaissance, for example, who’s a landmark of Western Art, but there’s less than a dozen works known).

Thom Thomson, Sketch for Jack Pine, 1916.

McCann’s curatorial statement offers this considered point: “At the beginning of the twentieth century, this artificial division, between urban and rural landscapes, was essential to the construction of the image of Canada. This exhibition invites viewers to reexamine the dominant narratives…and to pose a number of questions: why has the wilderness landscape become so ingrained in the Canadian imaginary? Can the image of Canada developed by the Group be seen as “born from the land” [the idiot savant / artist genius mythos, I interject here], without colonial influence, as they claim? How has their work influenced contemporary ideas of national identity and place?”

The latter question was in my mind as I looked on A.Y. Jackson’s Rosebud, Alberta in Centre, with a grain elevator and ramshackle housing, a desolate telephone pole under a tumultuous wavy painted sky, and a colour palette of yellows, browns, oranges that all seem dirty and worn. This is “next year country” (as it dates from 1944, long before the oil boom and bust cycle): a term I know from my time on the Prairies, with empty elevators sometimes being all that’s left of the corpses of small towns that once were fertile in both people and production, and now are dust on the landscapes of memory….

If you’ve never visited Riverbrink Art Museum, you’ll find it in Queenston, Niagara-on-the-Lake (appropriate to this article, one of the oldest cenotaphs in the region sits across from it). Like many cultural spaces, the genesis for this site were the many works in many mediums “assembled by Samuel E. Weir. An Ontario-based lawyer and avid art collector throughout his lifetime, Weir acquired the majority of the works in the museum, which continues to collect through donations and purchases.” On a past visit, I spent significant time in the library, among Weir’s books and later additions, and he had a penchant for Quebecois sculpture of the late 1800s which excited the art history nerd in me greatly, I say without shame. The historic (both in terms of architecture and artworks) space has been open to the public since 1983 (there is a show on the first floor, The Power of Niagara, curated by Director / Curator Deb Antoncic that I must revisit, especially after seeing the Welland Museum’s upcoming exhibition on Atlas Steels, as history is written in many spaces that intersect, whether in Queenston or the rust belt wonderlands of Niagara that I favour…).

J.E.H. MacDonald, Thornhill Garden, 1915

Centre and Periphery is at the Riverbrink Art Museum throughout the next few months: go see it, and visit several other exhibitions within that space and consider the dialogue between, and how Power of Niagara relates to the Canadian Mythos of land and resource, history, hope and what happened / happens compared to what we ‘think we know. History is perhaps not what you’ve been told, or assumed, ahem.