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!