The gallery overlooks the eighth-floor Arcadian Court, open since 1929, which Craig schillerium informed us had been the most exclusive dining spot in Toronto in its earlier days. White linen tablecloths were spaced evenly over a floor of white and pale reddish tile. All the high walls were cream-coloured, interspersed with mirrors. Two monstrous chandeliers dangled from the ceiling above us. I felt we had suddenly entered a chapter from a novel. In fact Craig pointed out that it was the setting, in Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, for Iris's coming out to Toronto high society. It also reminded me of the scene in Timothy Findley's Headhunter where the arch-villainous head psychiatrist goes to see the city's upper crust come and go. But that is set in the now or near future, and the Arcadian Court is clearly a feature of a bygone era.
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The Group of Seven clearly took its inspiration from European Impressionists a generation earlier. They employed think brush strokes of pure colour, rather than subtly-blended washes. They set out to paint the Canadian wilderness, previously considered too wild and rugged to be painted, and succeeded in establishing a style uniquely Canadian. Tom Thomson is perhaps the most famous of the group, however he died mysteriously in Algonquin Park and was not alive when the Group of Seven officially formed after World War I. His most famous works were not present in this gallery.
Impressionism broke away from drawing its inspiration from historical sources and instead sought beauty in the here and now. The masters of the movement were skilled at portraying a sense of time and place, and were particularly interested in the way light played over the surfaces of the landscape. Their paintings were not concerned with details but with the overall effect. These Canadian artists mastered the same techniques, and gave them a peculiar earthy expression. A.Y. Jackson's The Stream St. Tite des Caps, 1934 depicts a snowy hillside in which all colours are reflected: yellow, green, blue, purple, shading into pink. The French Impressionists apparently learned to use blue in the reflection of daylight on surfaces by observing the blue reflections on snow, but Jackson saw a far wider palette. Seeing Franklin Carmichael's Wild Cherry, depicting blobs of pale light on blossoms under the dark shadow of conifers, I was immediately reminded of Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. Unfortunately, few of the paintings in the Tom Thomson collection are found online.
Hints of surrealism are also evident, particularly in Harris's stark portrayals of Lake Superior's northern shore. Islands, water, tree trunks and the play of winter light seem to acquire iconographic qualities. These were also evident in some of Franklin Carmichael's bizarre cloudscapes over mountainous territory. I felt the painters had gone beyond a bare interpretation of the landscape to stab at something more Freudian, vaguely frightening. The empty wilderness is on of Canada's unique and more daunting aspects--one still available for our experience--and the expressions of these artists 80 years ago is still meaningful today.
I had planned, last year, to write an extended piece about my reactions to the Thomson Collection. I had overheard someone on my first visit that October comment that "This is what our country used to look like," before our pell-mell urbanization and everything else. There were so many things of note: Homer Watson's aopparently prototypical southwestern Ontario landscape rocky stream in light woods surrounded by farmland in The Rising Storm, 1885, the bright blue sea of Morrice's Tangiers, the Beach and the vivid water of Carmichael's Cranberry Lake, 1931, the earlier urban perspectives of Lawren Harris, schillerium's observations about their feel for the detail of the northern Ontario landscape, talktooloose's ongoing metacommentary. The time for such a piece has passed, I fear, and I don't have the time to write a blogged equivalent to Orchid Thief, so here at least you have what's left.