rocks and trees, mountains and tundra:
forever in the woods with the group of seven

The Group of Seven
and Tom Thomson

David P. Silcox
(Firefly Books, 441 pages HC)

buy it

David Silcoxí book on the work of the eleven men who were the inaccurately-named Group of Seven strives to be the definitive book on the subject, thanks to the authorís access to over a hundred never before seen images from private collections, and a stern decision to stick closely to the thirteen years when the group was active.

Founded in 1920, the group included eight men in spirit, as all of the members acknowledged the inspiration of Tom Thomson, who had died three years earlier in a canoeing accident. Three more would be added over the next decade or so, as the Group became a movement of sorts in the Canadian art scene, mixing their peculiarly Protestant spiritualism with a benevolent nationalism to create a body of mostly landscape work that ended up defining the way Canada looked at itself.

This, at least, is the conventional wisdom on the group, and it has a kind of historical weight when you consider that, as Silcox points out, eighty percent of Canadaís six and a half million population lived in small towns and rural areas when the Group was founded. By 1933, when the Group disbanded, that was rapidly changing, and the Depression, World War Two, and waves of postwar immigration would reverse that proportion permanently.

The Groupís most renowned images - Tom Thomsonís paintings of Algonquin Park and Georgian Bay, Lawren Harrisí images of the Rockies and the Arctic - have become part of the national memory. Indeed, thereís a sort of peculiarly Canadian thrill when you see the wind-scourged trees and the scraped rock of Georgian Bay for the first time as an adult and marvel at how much it resembles the paintings you saw in museums and galleries on school field trips.

Lawren Harris: The Eaton Manufacturing Building, 1911

But itís the chapters on The Groupís work in the cities, specifically Toronto, where they were based, that inspires thoughts of what might have been. Most of the groupís core members, and Harris in particular, spent years before and after the founding of the group painting glimpses of a Toronto thatís long vanished, a place that looks like a village in some canvases, like a huge factory in others.

With our hindsight knowledge of how urban Canada was to become, itís tempting to fantasize about how our conception of Canada would have changed if the Group had documented the steamrolling transformation of cities and towns instead of the sometimes intimidating, brutal vastness of the forests, mountains and tundra.

©2003 Rick McGinnis