Wilderness as Myth and Form

  • Wayne Larsen
    Tom Thomson: Artist of the North. Dundurn Press
  • Pascale Guibert
    Reflective Landscapes of the Anglophone Countries. Rodopi
Reviewed by Richard Brock

In October 2011, the first exhibition composed exclusively of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson’s work to be held overseas opened in London. Iconic and ubiquitous at home, these paintings and the wilderness aesthetic they helped to inspire have taken the best part of a century to garner an appreciable international presence, but a body of work exploring their global significance in the histories of modernism and landscape art is emerging. Two books published in 2011 demonstrate the diversity of contemporary responses Thomson and the Group excite, from the national to the global, from the mythologizing to the deconstructive.

Wayne Larsen’s Tom Thomson: Artist of the North is the latest Canadian art-related entry in Dundurn Press’ Quest Biography series on remarkable Canadians, to which Larsen has previously contributed volumes on A. Y. Jackson and James Wilson Morrice. Focusing on Thomson as national icon, the book at times seems to have taken a checklist of tropes directly from Sherrill Grace’s masterful study of Thomson biographies, Inventing Tom Thomson. It begins with an extended fishing metaphor (“The artist can lose a painting on the panel just as easily as an angler can lose a fish off the hook”) and an epigraph from Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler before transitioning into a mystery-novel style opening in which Thomson’s remains, long presumed buried near his family’s home in Owen Sound, are unearthed beside Canoe Lake by a small group of aging but devoted friends.

The novelistic treatment of Thomson’s life proceeds in the episodic fashion standard to accounts of Thomson: the brooding loner finds inspiration in the wilderness, meets and mentors the future Group of Seven at Toronto commercial art firm Grip, and dies just as he is reaching the peak of his artistic powers. The novelistic touches are a mixed blessing: occasional hints of Thomson’s complexity are quickly reabsorbed into a portrait of unambiguous heroism—hence Thomson’s violent temper and misanthropy become virtues of the same order as a (surely apocryphal) magnanimity in the face of armed robbery—and the use of uncited direct speech throughout blurs the distinction between fiction, conjecture, dim recollection by Thomson’s contemporaries, and archived history (though there is an extensive bibliography of the latter two categories at the end of the book). The novelistic style does, however, create at least one moment of genuine poignancy: when the masterpiece The West Wind sits on its easel in Thomson’s iconic shack, waiting in vain for its drowned artist to return and apply his finishing touches. The book’s most compelling moments, in fact, are those in which its accessible narrative style is juxtaposed with authoritative descriptions of the paintings, as Larsen’s keen landscape painter’s eye imagines now-iconic works in progress.

The peculiar appeal of Thomson underlines the paradoxical nature of wilderness depiction, juxtaposing an insistence on an inaccessible space of human absence with a desire for human identification with this absence. The mediation between these desires, and between the human and the physical/social environment, is embodied in the “reflection” that forms the focus of Pascale Guibert’s edited collection, Reflective Landscapes of the Anglophone Countries. This volume contains two substantial contributions on Canadian landscape. The first, by Claire Omhovère, uses Augustin Berque’s concept of médiance to reimagine Northrop Frye’s “garrison mentality” as “a symbolic relation between the materiality of geographical space, the fictions that address its specificity, and the aesthetic response they elicit from the reader.” While Omhovère to some extent retreads familiar territory (with reference to familiar texts), her emphasis on the mutual construction of social identity and geographic environment is welcome, as is the essay’s demonstration of Canada’s central role in global discussions of space and identity.

Much of the work of Jonathan Bordo, the collection’s other Canadianist contributor and arguably the most important contemporary critic of the Group of Seven’s art, has been devoted to exactly this point: that Canadian landscape depiction, and the Group and Thomson’s works in particular, represent exemplary articulations of the symbolic value of wilderness. In “The Wilderness as Symbolic Form,” Bordo uses his definition of wilderness as “a landscape without a witness”—developed in his work on the Group and Thomson—to read Grünewald and Thoreau and to demarcate a contradictory form that is “an intrinsic quality of nature itself,” “abhuman,” “archaic,” and “the name of the earth in so much as it is a commons.” A valuable theoretical piece applicable to a diverse range of situations, Bordo’s essay, in the broader context of Guibert’s collection, is of especial interest to Canadianists because it demonstrates the centrality of Thomson, the Group, and Canadian landscape depiction, not only to settler-national mythology, but to the global discourse of space and identity.

This review “Wilderness as Myth and Form” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 170-71.

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