Friday, March 11, 2011

Ross King's Defiant Spirits (about the Group of Seven)

If you've read Ross King's wonderful The Judgement of Paris (about the Impressionist painters), you'll know how compellingly he puts together research to tell the story of a period of art history. In Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven, he tells a Canadian art story, putting it in the context of a broader world (I'd say an international one, but that was narrowly defined by the times -- Europe and the United States, primarily).

The Judgement of Paris moved back and forth between two painters: Ernest Meissonier, the pre-eminent French painter of the period immediately preceding and then overlapping the Impressionists, and Edouard Manet. Because of this structure, the book allowed (at least, so it seems to me in retrospect) more room for developing a biographical narrative. Given the number of artists in The Group of Seven (despite the name, the group did swell loosely from time to time, and members changed), I found it harder to get a clear sense of character. To be fair, the book isn't trying to be a biography, but the wealth of biographical detail tended to get in the way for me without quite sticking meaningfully.

That said, Defiant Spirits does a great job of sketching the cultural climate of the day. (It makes me want to go back and re-read Nick Mount's When Canadian Literature Moved to New York, which depicts a just-slightly-earlier period). The struggles these artists had against the conservatism of the day are inspiring; they're also somewhat amusing to read about now, when these Seven have become iconic representatives of Canada themselves -- and, indeed, often favoured by the conservative among us who eschew the work of today's strugglers. King neatly points out this shift, and he also points out the group's own emerging conservatism, as well as their masculinist, Eastern perspective, their preference for the heroic, their construction of an empty wilderness  (ignoring First Nations) to suit their own mythologies. Still, he describes much to admire in their insistence that Canadian artists should find modes of expression that suit our own landscapes, find techniques that somehow paint our nationality into the work.

King weaves in a wealth of quotations from letters, newspaper articles, and journals. Perhaps most amusing are the words of the critics, which often verge on hysteria. Samuel Morgan-Powell, for example, apparently wrote of  one artist's exhibition that his works were "travesties, abortions, sensual and hideous malformations" which "would shame a school boy. . . . disgrace an artist of the stone age." With most of the art-buying public taking their cue from critics such as these, A.Y. Jackson not surprisingly complained in a letter to a relative that as wealthy Canadians "buy only the works of dead artists, it's kind of hard on the ones still living." Given this climate, I was fascinated to see the effect of a few generous supporters in helping nurture important developments in the arts. A Dr. McCallum, in the case of the Group of Seven (indeed, McCallum helped out financially long before the Group thought of themselves as such) and Edmund Walker who championed these artists, buying their work for the National Gallery.

As a western Canadian, I could have wished for a more expansive consideration of what was going on out our way at the time -- especially given the connections later formed between Emily Carr, working against even more cultural obduracy and in even more isolation, and members of the group, Lauren Harris in particular. As well, I can't help regret all the First Nations Art ignored by the group and perhaps worthy of mention in a book that sets a context for our first collective foray onto the world's art stages. King does bring Carr in partway, if briefly, though, and the movement is primarily an Eastern Canadian one. It would be unfair of me to linger on such minor quibbles.

The book is a commitment at over 400 pages (not counting the very thorough and helpful endnotes), but it's well worth reading for anyone who wants to know more about Canada's early art scene. It also illuminates that period in our national cultural history when, especially because of our role in WWI, we were moving past our sense of ourselves as a colonial country and insisting on speaking up as a sovereign nation.. As well, for those who might generally limit their interests to European art history, the book offers a sense of how the influence of the Impressionists and post-Impressionists played out across the Atlantic.

Given the commitment, I suppose few of my readers will have picked this up, but do tell me what books you might have read recently about art and/or artists. And I'm also curious, as a Canadian wondering about our perception elsewhere, have you heard about our Group of Seven?

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