\\ Painting // Performing Trees // Background // Portrait // For Art History //

Re-photographed in 2006 from photos taken in 1984 (base for paintings in 90s). © 2006, L. Moriarity.

Readings and re-readings, past and contemporary art discourse, of Group of 7 landscape paintings write Canadian Shield rock outcrops in Ontario and the lone wind swept pine tree into iconic motifs in Canadian Art (Harris, Hill, Reid, O'Brian). These motifs and the group's texts, 1900-39, appear in the canon of Canadian art history, yet the colonizing view is not stated or claimed.

According to members of the group, Group of 7 artists 'bushwhacked' through forests and made meaning in paintings of the land for people living in Canada, becoming a nation (Harris). The Group's paintings, texts, and speech, around their work and paintings, reveal the presence of the other by their absence: immigrants, First Nations, women, species, and Nature. The absent other fulfills the desires of becoming in texts and empty landscapes. The vision of members of the group, and the paintings, are conflated with the new nation. The members of the Group of 7, all white men, some with working-class backgrounds and lead by mostly wealthy English and Scottish immigrants, travel to the Canadian wilderness, land and wet lands, lake shores and rivers, to paint. Did they do so to escape the over populated and impoverished new immigrant neighborhoods in the city of Toronto? Did they do so to escape the heat and busy-ness of a city? Are the Group of 7 paintings racist statements, reflect nationalist intentions, and a doctrine prescribed for people living in Canada or Canadians?

The director of the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) supported and acquired the work of the Group of 7 painters and promoted the artists as well, casting the painters as Plato's warrior heroes in the 1920s-30s. Thus the republic ideal of civilization is applied to the new nation, Canada. As a visual arts undergraduate and painting student, at the turn of 20th century, my family and I are implicated in this fine arts discourse, Nationalist and Canadian. It is alleged, by a few fellow students, we are (were) either complicit or ignorant of it.

The content of the Canadian art history survey class I encounter in Vancouver, BC, in the late 1990s, includes the texts on Canadian landscape painting and coincide with the terrain I know growing up in eastern Ontario. As I grew up, I heard (and still hear) stories of our working-class lives lived, of lakes, and memories of cottages and house building, road building, logging, good times, injuries, deaths, births, of fishing, boating, and hunting, of tragedies, and joys, etc. While attitudes and lifestyles change, generations continue in the tradition of my parent's generation who drive a few hours north/south/east/west from cities and towns to cottages, fishing and hunt camps, built on Canadian shield rock, in forests and on water front in the province of Ontario. They are generations of settlers, we settle the land. Contemporary art, or any art for that matter, does not much matter t/here. In my family's case, our cottage is in the area where my German-Jewish great-great-grandmother's parents travel too in the late 19th Century, to live and work the land, to farm, where generations still live, while some moved onwards, and elsewhere. It was also some of the geography the Group of 7 artists travelled through in Ontario in the early 20th Century. The painters sometimes sketched from, or painted images from, this land and in regards to their finished paintings, wrote and spoke about it as Nature: empty, and as the wilderness. Some members spoke about the spirit of the nation, while in letters they also briefly mentioned their concern for the loss and disappearance of the forests because the first growth (?) wilderness they painted from was being damaged by resource industries: forestry and mining development (Hill).

The paintings by the Group of 7 and the identity of Canada as a Nation are also stories told in my Ontario grade school. This fulfills one of the aims set out by the Group (Lismer), to educate Canadians in the fine arts, and to embed the Group of 7 into art history. The references of a Nation's are not of the land my family know, friends, neighbors, and I, or First Nations, and other others, such as Nature, but the images made by the Group of 7, immigrants (newcomers/settlers). It is a significant moment for this new colony, the confederation, for some of the men, and women, living in Canada and overseas during WWI, and according to Historians, i.e. the battle for and win of Vimy Ridge, and other losses and battles. Representatives of the Dominion of Canada sign the end of war agreement independent of England, the home country, the colonizer, and war times bring many changes to society and the environment of Canada.

In war's aftermath, images of the death and trauma of war appear in the Group of 7 artist's paintings of landcapes. The similarities can be seen in the battlefield paintings from WWI of Souchez, France, by A.Y. Jackson and later landscapes of forests damaged by fire, or water; as can the application of paint. The thick application of paint (impasto) and bold colors by members of the Group, taken from Tom Thomson's technique, is unlike the minimalist and feared approach seen in later painter's, after WWII, minimalist application of paint that reflects the fear 'of uncontrollable, unexpected, stirrings of their own 'interiors,' as Mira Schor describes (Schor, 149). Instead, the 'goo,' the blood and flesh of wounds and death, are apparent. The heightened bright colors of a Group of 7 painting represent samples of a world beyond the earth's identity aligning with Plato's republic, the renderings of warrior heroes. It is this unworldly place that is described in and that provides continuity to the republic of Plato (Plumwood 98). The warrior hero (in this case the artist?) "experience[s] nature in the form of death, as a hostile force that sever[s] continuity" (Plumwood 99). Nature's impermanence, always changing, suggests the need for an idealized image not in the real or present:

"decked with various colors, of which the colors used by painters on earth are in a manner samples. But there the whole earth is made tip of them, and they are brighter far and clearer than ours … Of these and other colors the earth is made up, and they are more in number and fairer than the eye of man has ever seen … for there all the stones are like our precious stones, and fairer still. The reason is that they are pure, and not, like our precious stones, infected or corroded by the corrupt briny elements which coagulate among us and breed foulness and disease both in earth and stones, as well as in animals and plants" (Plumwood 96).

This philosophic, and dissociative, representation of land by the Group of 7 is the ideal other world, which conveys the hopes for the future for the 20th Century of war veterans and painters, and the director of an art museum. Now in the past, today this vision may appear bright(er) for some, based on western philosophy (Plato's writings). The paintings by the Group of 7 are thus not representations for people who will gain their character from the land, but rather representations of the colonized spirit of a new nation: Canada. The spectator, the viewing public's mind, will conflate with this modern view, upon looking at these paintings and become a colonizer and colonized, besides witnessing the colonized view. 

How do I reconcile these views? In BC (another province in Canada), upon seeing an exhibit of Group of 7 paintings at the end of the 20th century entitled 'Art for a Nation', and the 'Spirit of a Nation', I am reminded of the place very close to me, where I grew up and where some of my family still lives. 

The mpg clips in Painting Class - Memories of A Non-Dutiful Artist were taken over one year, 2005, when I returned to Toronto from Vancouver. The 'lake' in this piece is one of the areas in Ontario the Group of 7 artists travelled too and painted from for a very short time.

-- L.M. Moriarity, BFA, MA, B.Ed.


Hill, Charles. The Group of 7: Art for a Nation. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada. 1995.
Lismer, Arthur. A Short History of Painting with a Note on Canadian Art. Toronto: Andrews Brothers. 1926.
O'Brian, John. "Wild Art History" in Beyond Wilderness: The Group of 7, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. 2007.
Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London: Routledge. 1993.
Reid, Dennis. A Concise History of Canadian Painting. Toronto: Oxford University Press. 1973
Schor, Mira. "Figure/Ground" in Wet. Durham/London: Duke University Press. 1997.

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© 2006, L.Moriarity.