Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Compare and Contrast

On a recent visit to the current show of the Beaver Hall Group at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, I was struck by a comment that accompanied one of the paintings. A stark comparison was made between the vision of Canada's iconic Group of Seven and that of their contemporaries in Quebec, all working in the inter-war period.

March Storm, Georgian Bay, A. Y. Jackson
Here is an illuminating excerpt from the text that accompanied the A.Y. Jackson landscape, above. Note that Jackson belonged to both the Toronto-based Group of Seven and the Montreal-based Beaver Hall Group.
"A.Y. Jackson was an important catalyst in the formation of the Beaver Hall Group, and an ardent supporter of the work of many of its artists.... Yet his art is strikingly different from that of most of the Beaver Hall members. His paintings during the first half of the 1920s often present seemingly inhospitable landscapes as exemplars of Canada.... This type of subject did not always appeal to Quebec francophone critics, who were committed to the long and continuous history of Québecois habitation of rural landscapes, an important symbol of the survival of French-Canadian culture and values. When this painting was exhibited in 1921, Pierre Boucier wondered how Jackson, who had recently returned from fighting for 'civilization' in Europe during World War I, could now 'distance himself as much as possible from civilization' by focusing on painting nature at its 'wildest and most hostile'".
The work of the Group of Seven is widely seen as emblematic of Canada, though in fact it is largely Ontario-based. Here are some other examples of their work:
Red Maple, A.Y. Jackson

The Solemn Land, J.E.H. Macdonald

Autumn in Orillia, Franklin Carmichael
The Beaver Hall Group, mostly English Montrealers, distinguished themselves from the Group of Seven by typically choosing as their subject the settled landscape rather than untamed wilderness. Some examples from the current exhibition:
Beaver Hall Square, Anne Savage

After Grand Mass, Berthier-en-Haut, Kathleen Morris

The View from My Studio, University Street, Mabel May
In this, they were consistent with the orientation of French-Quebec painters, whose work in the early years of the 20th century most often focused on small "habitant" villages. The work of Clarence Gagnon is a prime example:

A Québec Village Street, Winter, Clarence Gagnon

Winter Morning in Baie-St-Paul, Clarence Gagnon

This divide between Quebec art and that of the Rest of Canada (or the RoC as we sometimes call it) is a new idea to me. Each of these artists was in fact celebrating an important aspect of our large and diverse country, whether the raw Northern wilderness, the settled, inhabited countryside or the pulsating urban scene. Vive la différence!


mona said...

I wonder whether the artists of the time were aware of how their respective cultures were influencing their view of landscape, or if this insight is only available in hindsight.

Heather Dubreuil said...

I think if this critic's response was at all typical of the reception that wilderness painting got from the French Canadian press, it would have been clear that there were "two solitudes".