Paint it or rape it: would the Group of Seven condone the tar sands?

3 Posted by - February 11, 2012 - Blog, Visual art
Lawren Harris, Lake Superior Sketch XLV (collection: A.K. Prakash)

Lawren Harris, Lake Superior Sketch XLV (collection: A.K. Prakash)

Rather like waiting for a London bus, you wait some time for a decent exhibition of landscape art and then two come along at once, or, at least, one behind the other.

Just opened at the Royal Academy in Piccadilly, London, is the much anticipated and now much applauded Hockney extravaganza, A Bigger Picture. In a manner more akin to a major retrospective, it fills the vast, Augustan galleries of the Academy with an abandon of vivid colours.

Large-scale canvasses, iPad drawings and banks of videos, using high definition cameras, record in minute detail the changing patterns of the seasons on the landscape of the Yorkshire Wolds in Northern England, where Hockney was born and raised and where he now lives in rural retreat, after abandoning the flesh-pots of California.

Its predecessor exhibition was less prestigious. It was held in a suburb of London, albeit a fashionable one, and featured a group of artists, far less fashionable and little known outside their native Canada. The venue was the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the artists were the Group of Seven who, in the years immediately after World War I, formed the first significant Canadian art movement, inspired by the magisterial immensity of the Canadian landscape and by the pioneering work of their precursor, Tom Thomson.

On the day the exhibition ended, January 8 2012, queues wrapped themselves around the gallery — many waited over an hour to get in and others were turned away — and exhibition catalogues were as rare and as sought after as Alberta ammolite. The exhibition broke records for attendance and may well have provided a timely advertisement for Canadian culture.

Canada gets a pretty poor press in the UK (except perhaps in the travel sections of newspapers and especially during the skiing season). Those in the UK who have even the remotest idea of who Stephen Harper is will almost certainly have learnt about him in the context of some environmental controversy, most likely in connection with Canada’s negative role at the recent UN Climate Change Conference in Durban; with Canada’s withdrawal from the UN Kyoto Protocol; or with Canadian plans to exploit the tar sands of Alberta, using expensive and environmentally damaging strip-mining techniques.

F.H. Varley, Stormey Weather, Georgian Bay, National Gallery of Canada

F.H. Varley, Stormey Weather, Georgian Bay, National Gallery of Canada

Few in the UK will register the Keystone Pipeline Project, associating Keystone, with a certain irony, either with crazy cops or US national parks. The pipeline might be said to be both crazy (certainly in the view of environmentalists and native peoples living downstream), and a threat to Alberta’s national parks and natural wilderness.

According to Dr. James Hanson of the Vancouver Island Health Authority, the exploitation of tar sands serves the interests of neither Canadians nor the rest of humanity. The mining process contaminates water supplies, damages human health, destroys eco-systems, including Canada’s iconic boreal forests and, perhaps more importantly, contributes to the destabilization of the world’s climate and signals to the world Canada’s lack of commitment to lowering its carbon emissions and pursuing clean energy projects.

It is a matter of speculation whether the Group of Seven would have shared this view if they had had the misfortune to confront present plans to disrupt and destroy so much of a landscape that they had devoted their professional lives to recording, promoting and protecting.

If few in the UK would recognize the name of Stephen Harper then even fewer would ever have heard of Tom Thomson and the seven landscape painters who followed him into the Canadian wilderness in the years after his mysterious death in 1917. At least until the Dulwich show. With reviews in the national press, together with the 41,000 visitors to the exhibition over its twelve week run, there now exists in the UK a small but influential group with a new perspective on Canadian culture, in its broadest sense.

Thomson’s followers were in the vanguard of a movement that both revitalized the arts in Canada and led to a new attitude to the Canadian wilderness. Canadians had consistently undervalued their landscape until the Algonquin painters portrayed it as a thing of beauty, a defining national treasure.

Their work also helped to portray Canada to the world as a country of both natural beauty and cultural energy. At the group’s Wembley exhibition in England in 1924, the work was described as representing “the buoyant, eager, defiant spirit of the nation” and, perhaps, the current European tour will produce a similar response, with Thomson’s Jack Pine becoming as iconic on the international art scene as it is at home.

Tom Thomson, The Jack Pine, 1915-1917, Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Canada

Tom Thomson, The Jack Pine, 1915-1917, Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Canada

The Group were not environmentalists but that is no reason why they should not be harnessed to the current environmental cause, allies to the likes of Edward Burtynsky, an up-front “interpreter,recorder of disaster and provocateur” whose photographs of the Alberta tar sands are a stark warning of the dangers of myopic short-termism and indifference to the depletion of the natural world.

Tar sand exploitation and fragile pipelines endanger us all. They represent the rape of the landscape. On Leonard Cohen’s new album, Old Ideas, Canada’s favourite son still tells it how it is: “I’m naked and I’m filthy and there’s sweat upon my brow, and both of us are guilty now.”

The art community needs to commit to preventing the lyrics from Anyhow assuming the prophetic qualities of a Cassandra.

Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven is currently touring Europe — London, Oslo, Groningen — until October 2012.

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