(Inter)National Art

  • Ross King
    Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven. Douglas & McIntyre
Reviewed by Richard Brock

It is perhaps reflective of the insularity of Canadian Studies as a field that studies of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson—arguably Canada’s foremost contributors to modernism in any area of the arts—continue to be conducted almost exclusively within a national frame of reference. Scholarship has tended to examine the Group’s international contexts only to evaluate their claims to uniqueness, with any resemblance to non-Canadian peers read as evidence of a lack. Ross King’s Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven positions itself against this orthodoxy, arguing that the continued assessment of the Group’s works with respect to a nationalist agenda— by critics and apologists alike—undermines the aesthetic value of “works of virtuoso design and emotional intensity that would grace any art museum in the world.”

Written as a companion to a 2010 McMichael exhibition, King’s text is, predictably, unabashedly celebratory of the Group’s art. Perhaps unexpectedly, however, it shares a revisionist spirit in common with the most radical interventions in Group scholarship. Stripping away layers of nationalist rhetoric, King finds a collective that was aware of, participated in, and contributed to work important to the development of international modernism. Exploring an influential art collective from the perspective of art history rather than national myth shouldn’t be revolutionary, but in this case it is. Restricting his analysis to the aesthetic domain allows King to sidestep controversial socio-political issues attached to the Group, except where these issues obscure a complete understanding of the works as aesthetic objects. What a pleasure it is for the literary critic who routinely dabbles in visual studies to be schooled in the Group’s use of line and form—to appreciate, for example, fine textural distinctions between J. E. H. MacDonald’s industrial smokestacks and Lawren Harris’.

The major obstacle to understanding the Group’s aesthetic, for King, is the construction of the Group as independent spirits engaged in the production of a definably “Canadian” art devoid of outside influence. Emphasizing this narrative’s spuriousness entails dispensing with a criterion for evaluation cherished not only by critics, but also by the artists themselves, and contesting now-canonical utterances that created and sustained an association with national destiny. In a cherished episode from Group lore, a reviewer’s satirical characterization of A. Y. Jackson as an adherent to the “hot mush school” is met with a stinging rebuke from MacDonald, trumpeting the Group’s patriotism and chastising a deeply conservative viewing public for its lack of authentically Canadian vision. King interprets this as mere “artistic flag hoisting,” arguing that MacDonald “was sincere in his desire to forge a new Canadian style, but his manoeuvre was disingenuous: patriotism was used as a stalking horse for an international style of art that, as reactions at both the Armory Show and the Art Association of Montreal revealed, the North American public was not prepared to accept.”

King’s arguments are supported by detailed visual analysis and meticulous research. In support of the assertion that “Harris was eager, later in his career, to shake the dust of Europe from his shoes, to cover his artistic tracks and present himself as a wholly indigenous talent,” King offers both informed speculation about Harris’ likely exposure to the art of German industrial modernist Franz Skarbina and a persuasive formal comparison of a Skarbina canvas with one of Harris’ early Toronto industrial scenes. Unburdened by the imperative to locate artistic merit in a mythic connection to the land, King treats the North as a logical source of subject matter rather than a quasi-spiritual source of spontaneous inspiration. More mischievously, Tom Thomson is cast as a canoeist of profound enthusiasm and average ability, whose overestimation of his own skills would repeatedly endanger himself and others long before his famous drowning. Instead of a focus on the “mysterious North,” King explores the Group’s consider- able artistic achievements in applying their “foreign-begotten technique” to depictions of the Canadian Shield.

As King demonstrates, the national-heroic narrative of the Group’s success shortchanges both artists and nation. Acknowledging the Group as products of international modernism makes it possible to recognize them as significant contributors to this movement, a stature conferred convincingly upon them by King’s aesthetic appraisals. And removing the nationalist elements from the narrative of the Group’s noble struggle against a recalcitrant art establishment recasts this struggle as part of a broader battle for the acceptance of modern art. As a result, early-twentieth-century Canada is no longer required to function as an atypically conservative colonial backwater juxtaposed with the forward-thinking US, emerging instead as home to an art-viewing public at least as progressive as that south of the border.

If King’s detailed research and convincing synthesis of primary and secondary material provide a solid basis for his revisionary history, it is the novelistic structure and momentum of his book that makes it compellingly readable. The major protagonists are introduced separately, the strands of their narratives gradually converging around the commercial design industry in 1910s Toronto, camping trips in Algonquin Park, and a shared purpose. While this novelistic style enhances the book’s readability, it also contributes to its one substantial weakness. Like any good novel, the plot of King’s book is sustained by its conflicts, and as such this history of the Group, like many before it, ends with the 1923 British Empire Exhibition in London. Here, the symbiosis between content and structure becomes strained: while the history suggests that the Group’s victory against their opponents with regard to the selection of Canada’s contribution to this exhibition was one among many small triumphs, the exhibition’s iconic associations (national associations, ironically enough) assign it the role of a climactic battle in the narrative structure, slipping into the orthodox mode scrupulously avoided elsewhere. This is a relatively minor quibble, though: overall, King’s book functions spectacularly, both as compelling biography and (more importantly) as internationally contextualized art history, and the thoroughness and quality of its research are sure to make it a standard reference work for students (of all stripes) of Thomson and the Group.

This review “(Inter)National Art” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 177-79.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.