Sunday, October 24, 2010

Leading the Group of Seven Out of the Wilderness

Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution and the Group of Seven is Ross King's attempt, as he puts it, to site the celebrated gang of woodsy painters in a greater esthetic context.

Well, imagine that. But be warned — the very suggestion can make one fear for the esteemed historian's safety. With any luck, King had the prescience to hire bodyguards for the inevitable manhunt that might ensue. After all, death by caning — the executioner's weapon of convenience, given the blue-haired brigade he's most likely to offend — would be a rough way to go.

Undaunted, King, who both wrote the book and curated an exhibition now at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, has made nothing less than an historical reclamation project of the group, trying to exorcise the myth of idealized naturalists making art in a vacuum of Canadian shield wilderness. Many of the group worked in advertising, as graphic designers, and witnessed the creep of mass-commercial billboard imagery first-hand.

Industrialization was the major force of their world. Maybe it provoked their retreat into the wilderness, but not before central group figure Lawren Harris made several urban paintings that stand in stark contrast to the pristine wilderness myth with which they're most often associated. How do you think they got to Algonquin Park, anyway? Tourist trains and logging roads, like anyone else.

King notes the disservice the myth does to a clued-in group of painters whose legacy is far more complex, and plugged in, than its enshrinement as national symbols allows.

To read more of this content at The Toronto Star, click here

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