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  • National Oil and Acrylic Painters Society 2021 Spring Online International Exhibition

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  • Call for Proposals: AGO X RBC Artist-in-Residence Program 2021

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  • “Winter” International Call - Art & Literature Journal - Deadline February 28, 2021

    Location: Toronto, ON

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  • CALL FOR ARTISTS: VENICE INTERNATIONAL ART FAIR 2021

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  • The Salt Spring National Art Prize $41,000 in Awards Call to Artists Open January 1 - May 31, 2021

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Tom Thomson

By Robert Amos January 20, 2003

} Tom Thomson It¹s in my blood. I grew up in Ontario and went to summer camp, canoe tripping south of Algonquin Park. My family¹s summer cottage is in Muskoka near Georgian Bay. The Canadian Shield is Tom Thomson country. His paintings present the ultimate Canadian myth of man and nature, blue lake and rocky shore. So it was imperative that I make the trip to the Vancouver Art Gallery to see the definitive exhibition of Thomson¹s paintings, part of a tour organized by the National Gallery of Canada (until January 5, 2003, telephone 604-662-4719). Of course I was not disappointed. There are 140 of Thomson's paintings on show, including many of his large works, Canadian icons such as Northern River (1914-15) and the Jack Pine (1916-17) from the National Gallery, and The West Wind (1916-17) from the Art Gallery of Ontario. Most of this extensive show is made up of the small, lushly painted little panels for which Thomson is justly famous. Each panel is about 21 x 26 centimeters - smaller than an ordinary sheet of paper, a size chosen for his convenience in painting on the shore or in the woods. The panels were cut to fit his sketchbox, which is here on display. Photos of and by Thomson in Algonquin Park add context at every turn. Thomson brought to the task a somewhat sophisticated experience gained in commercial art studios in Toronto, where styles like 'arts and crafts' and 'art nouveau' were filtering down to the colonies. In the few short years after he gave up commercial art, he blazed a striking trajectory from tight 'realism' to an immediate and personal shorthand of intense colour and strong, poster-like design. wildflowers, summer 1915, oil on board, 21.6 x 26.8 cm, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, Ontario Like Van Gogh, Thomson grew and blossomed in a few short years. The paintings we know him for were created between his first visit to Algonquin in 1912 and his death in 1917. Each was cut off by death when in full possession of his genius. Thomson's death by drowning under mysterious circumstances in Canoe Lake set the seal on his personal legend. This show is mercifully devoid of speculation on the matter of his death. I was well prepared for the show by the extensive catalogue (published by Douglas and McIntyre, $65) reproduces all the paintings in colour (though a bit small for my liking). The story of Tom Thomson is presented here with lots of revisionist history and context, an art for citified tourists playing at the return to nature in a spent industrial site. The catalogue contains seven essays, remarkable for their clear thinking and new insights into the story. Also included are transcriptions of all his letters, and maps, photos and a definitive bibliography. Yet even poring over the book with a magnifying glass (as I did) does not replace the experience of seeing the real paintings. In one room of the Vancouver Art Gallery, nine little panels are shown without frames and visible from both sides. They are chosen to address the nature of what Thomson painted on - canvas board, wooden panel. They demonstrate how he used the bare surface of the wood, or prepared that surface with colours like warm grey or burnt sienna as an underpainting - colours which show through and around his vivid brushstrokes, an effect crucial to the effect of these little gems. It is a pleasure to see the back of the works, bearing the annotations by the artist or subsequent owners, and the practical reality of the support on which the artist worked. sketch for The West Wind, spring 1916, oil on wood, 2.14 x 26.8, Art Gallery of Ontario Thomson painted water spilling through a dam as if he was icing a cake. The paint is that thick! Autumn leaves are spackled into place, each bough a chunk of oil paint partially dried and set like a carnelian into a neutral ground. On examination, I came to realize that the dazzle of his colours depends on these neutral tints, be it a dun muddy umber or the faded khaki of a duffle bag. With work borrowed from every major collection in Canada, it is interesting to see how Thomson¹s works are presented. For the most part I find the framing works against the art. These fresh little panels are now treated with reverence, which means heavy gold frames. This is hardly appropriate for something painted in a canoe and dried in tent. The deep recesses of the frames cause the lighting to cast a shadow, sometimes hiding as much as ten percent of the top of the painting. Despite all the art history we've lived through since 1917, Thomson's legacy is still informing artists all over this country. And his myth grows larger day by day. If you need to know, first hand, what this is all about, you must see this show. ___________________________________________ Copyright © 2002 Robert Amos Robert Amos is an artist and art writer who lives in Victoria, B. C.. He can be contacted by e-mail and you can view his paintings at www.robertamos.com