Friday, June 26, 2015

More from the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and the Group of Seven!

Quote by Lawren Harris on the wall of the
McMichael Canadian Art Collection
My work is often compared to the paintings by the Group of Seven.  For a long time I wondered if all landscape painters in Canada were compared to them simply because we paint landscapes?  I think it's more than that.  Then of course, I thought people were just being nice and paying me a huge compliment?  But I think it's more than that too.  Once in a while I do see glimpses of their influence in my work.  My mentor Shane Garton recently commented on my blog "Next time you are at the easel Caprice, imagine as you are painting that one by one your favorite artists are quietly coming in looking over your shoulder. The studio is full...then slowly as you progress into your work they leave...gone. Then magically as you lay down the final strokes...even you leave. You then see your work and are amazed and ask, where did that come from?"  I love the idea that each one of my art heroes is with me while I paint!

What is it that draws us to the paintings by the Group of Seven?  So much has been written about them that I hesitate to write more but thought I would write from a painters perspective.  Since visiting the McMichael Canadian Art Collection last month, I've had many of the paintings I saw swimming in my mind.   Something magical happens when you see their original paintings rather than seeing them in a book.  It's a strange sensation but I really feel like I got to know them just by being with their work.   

From my notebook...notes on my impressions of
Emily Carr painting!
"Edge of the Forest" by Emily Carr
McMichael Canadian Art Collection
 For one thing, their brushstrokes were simply amazing and each painter had their own individual style.  It was a thrill to be able to view the paintings right up close and memorize individual strokes!  How did they do that?  Tom Thomson's paintings have such thick paint that you would expect it to almost fall off the canvas.  On the other hand, Lawren Harris must have done layer after layer of thin paint.  His strokes are barely visible but still handled with so much grace.  In books his paintings look very hard-edged but in real life his ability to handle paint in such a spectacular way is very near to genius.  If you look at the crazy notes I took during my visit to the collection, you will see that on occasion it was a single stroke in a painting that drew my attention.  In the Emily Carr painting called "Edge of the Forest" I took note of a single bright blue stroke in the middle of the trees.  How did she come up with that?  It's a stroke I would have never noticed if I had not been sitting in front of the fact, as I look at the reproduction, I can't even see this one brilliant stroke!


3 versions of "Mt. Lefroy" by Lawren Harris
McMichael Canadian Art Collection
Seeing the original paintings also gave me ideas on the processes the artists used.  Several of the artists would do small studies of paintings before turning them into large oil paintings.   I can certainly see how they worked out difficulties in the small paintings prior to tackling the large canvases but I personally find that when I try to do that, some of the magic is lost along the way.  Can you imagine trying to paint the exact same subject matter four or five or more times?  It worked very well for Lawren Harris as these photos prove.
"Mt. Lefroy" by Lawren Harris
McMichael Canadian Art Collection

"Mt. Lefroy" was not on display at the McMichael this time, but I had the priviledge of seeing the large original at the Glenbow Museum in 2002 during the "Group of Seven in Western Canada" exhibition.  This painting continues to be one of my favorite Harris paintings.  For some of the other painters, I found that I preferred the small study over the large studio painting.  An example of this would be these 2 Tom Thomson paintings: 
"In Algonquin Park" by Tom Thomson
McMichael Canadian Art Collection
"In Algonquin Park" by Tom Thomson
McMichael Canadian Art Collection
Two small Tom Thomson paintings
McMichael Canadian Art Collection
The Tom Thomson exhibit was a thrill.  I had the pleasure of seeing a larger exhibit of his work at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2003 but the McMichael presented his work in a more intimate way.  Some of my favorite pieces that were on display were his tiny on location paintings.  I know they would have been done very quickly possibly only taking minutes of his time.  Thomson had some art education but it was his raw talent that makes his works stand out above so many others.  Very difficult to believe one man could produce so many masterpieces in only four years when his untimely death took him way too soon.  Thomson's death is one of Canada's greatest mysteries.  He was an exceptional outdoorsman and was most comfortable alone in nature.  He was an experienced canoeist and swimmer, yet somehow drowned in a lake that he was extremely familiar with.  There was a large bruise on his head and many that new him felt that foul play was involved.  Thomson died in 1917 and therefore was not an official member of the Group of Seven since it was not formed until a few years later.

Lawren Harris painting in his studio.
I am currently re-reading one of my favorite books called "Inward Journey: The Life of Lawren Harris" by James King.  Since returning from the McMichael Collection, I like to try to put myself into the mindset of the painters.   I try to imagine their lives and what it would be like to be a painter during two World Wars and the great depression.  How on earth did they do it?  I love to imagine the Group all working together in the Studio Building in downtown Toronto.  Lawren Harris painted while wearing his suit and tie...always a gentleman!  He even wore his tie on his hiking trips through the Rockies! Can you imagine doing that?  At the McMichael, they had Lawren Harris' paintbox and brushes on display.  I wished I could have touched them and maybe some of their paint magic would flow into me!  J.E.H. Macdonald's paint box that he carried for miles through the bush was on display as well.  What a thrill to imagine that strapped around his shoulder as he travelled to painting locations throughout Canada!
J.E.H. Macdonald's Paintbox

Lawren Harris' painting supplies
I think one of the reasons we are so very drawn to the Group of Seven is because of all that they were able to accomplish and the fact that it will never happen again!  Why do I think that?  They worked and painted together and fully supported each other and artists today rarely do that.  In fact when I rented an art studio in downtown Calgary many years ago, I didn't talk to a single artist that worked in the building.  How sad is that?  Times are certainly different.  They managed to create an entire art movement here in Canada and went out into the wilderness and painted the landscape in ways that had never been done.  As I sit here in my Studio and contemplate the paintings that I saw, I am deeply humbled by the fact that I would not be doing what I am if it had not been for them.  The old saying is true that all artist's stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.  I owe the Group of Seven a tremendous amount of gratitude.  When I look at their paintings, I am forever inspired but I also have a feeling of being completely inadequate!  This is a hurdle I have to overcome every time I go to art galleries.  It always takes me a while to get back into the groove and just let it all come through.  I am in awe of them but it also gives me hope when I see that not all of their paintings are great.  Yes, you read that correctly. In fact there are quite a few of their paintings, in my opinion, that are simply awful.  Nice to know that even the very best of the best can't win them all!  The Group of Seven represents so much more than what I have written here.  I have photos and notes on so many more paintings but decided to write today on my "big" impressions from my day at the McMichael.  They left an indelible mark and will stay with me for the rest of my grateful!
Here I am having some one-to-one time
with my favorite paintings!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

A Trip to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection - Oh Ya!

Now I do realize that fine art is not exactly main stream here in Canada but when I recently announced that I was heading to the McMichael I was a bit shocked when several people asked "what's that?".  The McMichael Canadian Art Collection is truly a hidden jewel located in the little town of Kleinburg, Ontario.  The museum features the largest collection of Group of Seven paintings but it is much more than that.  Would you believe this has been my second pilgrimage to the hallowed halls of the McMichael?  My first trip happened nearly twenty years ago when I had just barely picked up a paintbrush.  I saw it this time with completely new eyes but I still have memories of certain paintings as if I had just seen them yesterday - they are still so vivid in my mind even after all these years! "Every work of art which really moves us is in some degree a revelation - it changes us." (Lawren Harris)  Yes.  I am truly blessed to have had the opportunity to drink in the magic of the Group of Seven once again.  These are literally life changing moments that will stay with me forever!

"Montreal River" by Lawren Harris,
McMichael Canadian Art Collection
The museum began as a private property in 1952 when Robert and Signe McMichael purchased 10 acres in Kleinburg and built a beautiful log home there.  They began to passionately collect art, primarily of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, as well as Aboriginal artists.  Their first acquisition in 1955 was a painting called "Montreal River" by Lawren Harris.  They purchased it for $250 and since they could not afford that large sum they wound up paying for it in installments of $50 per month!  It's hard to wrap your head around the fact that six decades later the painting is now worth millions!  The home was frequently visited by artists, particularly the Group of Seven.  In fact, A.Y. Jackson lived there during the last months of his life.

View from the Museum
By 1965 the art collection had become quite extraordinary and the McMichaels decided to donate their collection, their home and land to the Province of Ontario and thus the McMichael Canadian Art Collection came into existence soon after.  The museum has dramatically expanded over the years and is now 85 000 square feet and the collection contains over 6000 pieces of art (only 10% of the collection is shown at any one time).  Although the house itself is no longer a home, several of the original beautiful log walls are still there.  The "feel" of the property still exists.  The museum has many floor to ceiling windows to allow visitors to look out on the forest that is reminiscent in many of the paintings found inside. The property itself now consists of 100 acres of forest with hiking trails throughout.  No!  This is not your typical art museum!

One thrilling sight for me was the Tom Thomson Shack that was re-located to the property from it's original location in Toronto.  Tom lived there for a few years and it was overwhelming for me to look upon the front door and I could imagine him as he walked in and out so many times.  I gazed in through the window to his studio and could picture him standing there creating some of the greatest masterpieces in Canadian art.  I truly hope some of his creative energy has rubbed off on me!

The Tom Thomson Shack
The Artists' Cemetary
Another moving experience was visiting the Artists' Cemetery.  Six members of the Group of Seven and their wives, as well as the original owners, Robert and Signe McMichael are buried on the property.  I sat in silence and had a quiet moment with Lawren Harris at his final resting place.  The gravestone for Lawren Harris and his wife Beth resemble a pyramid mountain reflective of so many of his great mountain landscapes.  You have to look hard to see his name engraved in the rough stone.
Lawren & Bess Harris' Gravestone

That, in a nutshell, is what the McMichael Canadian Art Collection is!  But I can hear you asking, "what about the paintings?"  Of course, they are the highlight of the entire museum!  There is a lot to tell you about so you will just have to be a bit patient and wait for my next blog post coming very soon, but here's a sneak peek...
Here I am hanging out with a Harris painting.  Do I look happy?