What happened on Canoe Lake? Deathly undercurrents lie beneath the paintings of Canada’s vast wilderness…
For the first time in over 90 years, the paintings of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven are being shown in England in an exhibition called Painting Canada, at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. This extraordinary collection of vibrant works inspired by the late nineteenth century Parisian style enables the viewer to quietly reflect on a vast Canadian wilderness. But while the stillness of these works is quiet and contemplative, the mysterious death of Tom Thomson lends them an eerie quality.
On the 8th July 1917, Thomson’s canoe was found empty on Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park. Nine days later, the artist’s body was found floating on the lake, with head injuries and no evidence of drowning. The causes of the artist’s death remain unknown. In the three years leading up to his death, Thomson produced an astounding 300 sketches while on and around the lakes of Algonquin Park, along with thirty complete paintings. These works were to inspire a group of artists known as the Group of Seven, who formed in 1920 and consisted of Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley.
The first room of the exhibition is titled Tom Thomson and Algonquin Park, and reveals a selection of Thomson’s works produced in isolation while out in the wild. Under the influence of the late nineteenth century Parisian style of Post-Impressionism and more specifically Fauvism, Thomson has painted these works with thick impasto; the paint is applied in thick dollops, giving the paintings a rough, organic texture; this technique can be seen in Burnt Land, 1915. In addition to the thick application of paint, Thomson applied unmodulated tones to the canvas; colours were mixed on a palette and applied individually to contrast against one another. This use of unmixed colour combined with the thick application of paint may be compared with the work of the Scottish Colourists such as John Peploe.
Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven painted out-of-doors, en-plein-air, a technique first used by the Impressionists to explore the effects of light and colour. Many of the works in this exhibition are sketches, produced out in the wild to capture subtle hues of light. Smoke Lake, 1915, by Tom Thomson captures the vibrant orange hues in the sky as the sun is depicted either setting or rising. The power of nature and the dramatic changes between the seasons is a recurrent theme in the works exhibited. Particularly impressive is Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay by Fred Varley, which in the vein of Romanticism indicates the almighty power of nature; strong parallels may be drawn between this work and Scottish Colourist William McTaggart’s Natural Harbour, Cockenzie.
This huge exhibition consists of over 140 works and is a powerful display of the relatively unknown yet authoritative temperament of Canadian artists working in the early twentieth century. To coincide with the opening of Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Canada, the official exhibition App for all tablets and smartphones has been designed by Artfinder. The Apps uses ultra high resolution imagery to enable users to closely examine the paintwork with the zoom function, and provides background information on works in the collection with text and audio guides.
Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven runs from 19th October 2011 until 8th January 2012 at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.