• To the woods

Twenty years ago, in a break from a broadcasting and media conference in Toronto, I hired a car and drove to the northern outskirts of the city.  I’d heard word of a gallery in Kleinburg – the Canadian Art Collection begun in 1965 by Robert and Signe McMichael – featuring paintings by Canadian landscape artists from the 1910s and 20s.  Nothing prepared me for the immediacy of the work of Tom Thomson and, to differing degrees, of other artists such as Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson and J. E. H. MacDonald.  I remember afterwards driving much further out, in the direction of the Algonquin Park, and getting out for a long and rough scramble off the beaten track. It was autumn, so the colours outside were as vivid as those of the paintings I’d just seen inside the McMichael Gallery.

These memories came flooding back at the Dulwich Picture Gallery this week when I went to see ‘Painting Canada’ (19 October 2011 – 8 January 2012).  Although I find the Gallery’s special exhibition space cramped and its monitoring of visitors unduly zealous (an unexplained ban on shoulder bags, close patrolling by ear-pieced attendants), the art itself is greater than these unwelcome intrusions.

Not for nothing is the exhibition subtitled ‘Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven’.  Thomson (1877-1917) rightly takes pride of place.  His most famous large-scale oils, both from 1916 – The West Wind and The Jack Pine (below) – face the visitor in the first room.

At the opposite end of the gallery – and of the stylistic spectrum – are the abstract landscapes that Lawren Harris painted c. 1923-31.  They made a distinct impression on me both then and now, first among them the many versions of his view of Mt Lefroy in Western Canada.

The really fascinating and revelatory element in ‘Painting Canada’ are the many so-called ‘sketches’ made by Thomson on his forays into the wilderness, primarily in Algonquin.  These were painted on wood panels c. 8.5″ x 10.5″.  His paint box, with measurements to match, had several slots in the lid into which he could place his most recent panels to dry safely while he set to work on the next.  Some three dozen such ‘sketches’ are exhibited, several of them with larger-scale canvases based on them displayed alongside.  This affords a detailed comparison.  For my money, the plein-air sketches win hands-down every time.

I was curious to understand why this should be so.  Thomson’s views of the wild, chaotic scenery of lakes, trees and scrub are always vibrant.  But the panel sketches are even more alive.  I suddenly realised why.  Thomson seems to have painted straight onto (what now are the golden-orange) panels, with no colour wash.  He sketched the primary tree shapes in the foreground and middleground in blacks and whites (silver birches were his favourite subject). Then, in thicker strokes, he added the horizontals between the verticals – sky, hills, lakes, scrub.

The revelation came when I realised that the vivacity of these sketches came in large measure from the unwashed panel background.  The mainly horizontal brush strokes filling the space between the verticals do not stretch to the edge of the trees, as can be seen in April in Algonquin Park (1917, above).  This gives the trees an almost tangible vibrancy, as if they are in motion.  Some might see such spaces as auras, because the panel’s colour lends a warm, potent glow to the image.

Somehow, this elasticity became ironed out when the image was transferred onto a large canvas.  Compare the iconic The Jack Pine above and its sketch (1916, below).  I know which one speaks more eloquently to me (and it’s also because of the more violent brush strokes for the land, water and sky).

The Dulwich exhibition is well worth a visit.  Just try to go when it’s not crowded.  The catalogue is excellent.  The books that I bought in Canada twenty years ago are also excellent, although I don’t know if they or any revised versions are still in print: The McMichael Canadian Art Collection (25th anniversary edition, Toronto, 1989) and Tom Thomson: The Silence and the Storm (3rd edition, Toronto, 1989).

Postscript

Anyone interested in the history of the McMichael Collection – which is the major contributor to the Dulwich exhibition – should read Mary Ambrose’s article ‘War of Independence’ (The Independent magazine, 12 December 1998, 31-34).  She discusses the often bitter battles fought between the McMichaels and the provincial authorities over the principles of the collection, a battle which seems to have been airbrushed out of today’s official profile of this unique artistic endeavour.

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