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The Group of Seven in Western Canada

By Robert Amos July 14, 2003

} The Group of Seven in Western Canada at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, until September 14, 2003 (250-384-4101) The Group of Seven in Western Canada is a concert of seven individual exhibits with a common theme. Its thesis is this: yes, there is life beyond the Manitoba border. Many of our national image-makers, the hoary gents of the Group of Seven, were in fact passionate about the West and determined to paint the country beyond Algonquin Park and the north shore of Lake Superior. The show comes here direct from its organizer, the Glenbow Museum, and will be seen next at the National Gallery. This is the biggest show I've ever seen in Victoria's Gallery, presenting more than 190 paintings. Admission is $12 and I think it's well worth it. There is a lot to look at. For background, a full catalogue is available (Key Porter Books, Toronto, and the Glenbow Museum, 2002). Catherine Mastin both initiated and curated the show and edited this book. I recommend it, for pleasure and reference. Lawren S. Harris, Isolation Peak c. 1931, oil on canvas, Hart House Permanent Collection, University of Toronto. I'll describe the show. Each short paragraph is meant to describe a room richly hung with works relevant to the themes. In the 1920¹s J. E. H. MacDonald painted the Rockies. He was the top designer with Toronto's Grip Limited and a strong force in the Group style. He loved painting mountains. The Art Gallery of Ontario has loaned its subtle and impressive painting of an alpine pool with light snow falling, Mountain Solitude. This is one of 29 oils by MacDonald! Lawren Harris, a life-long mountaineer, invented the Group of Seven. After the famous Algoma boxcar trips, he went west. There, he began putting his theosophy into the landscape, creating intense mountain images. Twenty-three are in this show, and the best of them glow as if radioactive. His Isolation Peak (University of Toronto) is preeminent. In 1926 anthropologist Marius Barbeau arranged for some artists to travel west to paint 'the land of the totems'. (It was at the resultant show, seen in Ottawa and Toronto, that Emily Carr was discovered.) Barbeau had already commissioned paintings from A. Y. Jackson (11) and Edwin Holgate ( 3) while in the Skeena Valley. The Victoria Gallery¹s own Kispayaks Village by Jackson is a major canvas from 1927. Fred Varley was the bad boy of Canadian art. In 1927 he came to teach at the Vancouver School of Art. This led to a decade of drunkenness, adultery and creative inspiration. His inspirations were Vancouver and Vera. Vancouver is represented by his seven best paintings of Jericho Beach, where he lived with his wife and children. The Varleys had a boathouse with windows opening directly onto the waterfront. His other inspiration was his student and muse, Vera Weatherbie. Together Vera and Varley escaped to a cabin at Lynn Canyon in North Vancouver. She taught him about colour and he painted her repeatedly. Miraculously, all the major paintings created during that experience are here. The definitive portrait of Vera (1931), on loan from the National Gallery in Ottawa, is perhaps the greatest portrait in Canadian art. In another room, a long wall is dedicated to LeMoine FitzGerald. FitzGerald was, oddly, the tenth member of the Seven. He was also principal at the Winnipeg School of Art. A busy man, his production was small and highly principled. Among 14 examples of his rare oils are Pritchard's Fence (Art Gallery of Ontario) and Doc Snyder's House (National Gallery of Canada), truly the very best FitzGerald ever painted. More familiar are the 53 muscular outdoorsy panels and canvases of A. Y. Jackson. Jackson was a bachelor, and travelled constantly. He went up the Alaska Highway in wartime, and was later a guest of mining outfits and ranch owners. Confidently, he painted hills undulating to distant horizons and the vast sky shimmering with curtains of northern light. Fred Varley The final gallery is given over to abstract paintings. This will be most people¹s first exposure to FitzGerald¹s abstracts. In the modernist tradition he moved from representational images (the back lanes) to these meditations on platonic form. He did his thinking while on sabbatical at Saseenos and at Bowen Island. These light-coloured interpentrating planes of space are not the Group of Seven as you knew them. Lawren Harris closes the circle. We entered this show with his tiny radiant mountain paintings of the 1920's, which are just about the most valuable of any of the Group¹s work. But Harris drew away from overt forms of representation and, after 1933, painted only abstracts. It may come a surprise to learn that he moved to Vancouver in 1940 where he lived and painted until his death in 1970. Harris cultivated a taste for the higher things - like transcendence. Nine later abstract paintings conclude the show with a flourish, though they continue to be disregarded in the marketplace. This is a sympathetic selection of supreme examples by this hugely influential painter. I particularly enjoy standing up close to the sunshine radiance of Abstract R (1968), one of this great painter's very last works. In addition, the gallery's own estimable collection of a dozen (mostly late) Emily Carr paintings complements to this show perfectly. The Asian department presents our extensive gathering of Japanese woodcut prints of the 1920's and 1930's by Hiroshi Yoshida and his son Toshi, very much in harmony with the Group of Seven paintings ___________________________________________ Copyright © 2003 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