It has been the historical fate of the works of the Canadian Group of Painters (CGP) to occupy the bottom-curve of the hammock of Canadian art history, slung between the two strong uprights of, first, the Group of Seven and, second (sharing one historical moment), both the Painters Eleven group in Ontario and Les Plasticiens in Quebec.
This has less to do, I should imagine, with the quality of the work generated by the CGP—which was almost invariably high—than it does with more pedestrian matter of branding.
The fact is, The Group of Seven sounds attractively like a lonely, beleaguered band of romantic outlaws (The Seven Samurai, etc.), while Painters Eleven has a nice, compact, linguistic swing to it and, because it conveniently rhymes with “Group of Seven,” sounds like a subsequent development from the Group. In the same way, the name Les Plasticiens invokes the seductive idea that what its dauntless fifth column of adventurous members managed to establish was an authoritative site for the growth of advanced abstraction.
Compared to the zip of these racy monikers, who can be expected to pay much attention to an association of artists with a leaden, bureaucratic name like The Canadian Group of Painters? It sounds like a union, not an art movement.
All this is rather a shame because the work generated by the members of the CGP, during its first twenty years of years of activity (1933-53), was, for the most part, forceful stuff.
Ample evidence of this is generously provided by an ambitious exhibition called A Vital Force: The Canadian Group of Painters—now at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen’s University, in Kingston until July 14 [the exhibition subsequently moves on to The Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, The Owens Art Gallery at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B and finishes its run at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon in the summer of 2014].
Curated by Alicia Boutilier, Curator of Canadian Historical Art at the Agnes Etherigton, A Vital Force is made up of forty-eight paintings by forty-eight “key members” of the association—artists of the stature of A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, Lawren Harris, Emily Carr, L.L. FitzGerald, Bertram Brooker, David Milne, Goodridge Roberts, Paraskeva Clark, Jock Macdonald, E. J. Hughes, Edwin Holgate, Marian Scott, Prudence Heward, Fritz Brandtner, B.C.Binning, Carl Schaefer, Jacques de Tonnancour, Andre Bieler, the always invigorating Isabel McLaughlin and others.
While there are magnificent things here from alumni of the Group of Seven such as Jackson’s brooding, eerie Radium Mine (circa 1938), and Lismer’s exhilarating Quebec Village (Saint-Hilarion), 1926—which now seems so masterful—much of the pleasure of the exhibition lies, or so it was for me, in the discovery or re-discovery of very strong work by some of the lesser known members of the CGP.
Just when a country’s art history seems closed off, a vigorous exhibition like the felicitously named A Vital Force can open it up again.
I had rather written off Charles Comfort, for example, as a competent but inevitably unadventurous painter, but I found myself transfixed by the stunning silences of his preternaturally still view of Tadoussac (1935) on an imperturbable sunny morning. And I greatly enjoyed the vigor of Sarah Robertson’s sparkling, windblown trees—under a superbly offhand sky of frayed clouds—in her October, Ottawa Valley (also known as Storm, Como) from 1937. And Goodridge Roberts’ strong, noble, sculpturally solid portrait, Marian, 1937.
Roberts seems to me to have been a really superb and still vastly underrated painter. A glance at the swift, sure, rudimentary treatment of the model’s hands, at the rough but virtuoso handling of the black and white patterning of her dress, and the creation of the spare pillar of her sweatered right arm ought to be enough to convince anyone of the painter’s brilliance.
And how good it was to see E.J. Hughes’s meticulous, jewel-like Qualicum Beach (1947), from the Hart House Art Collection at the University of Toronto! And B.C.Binning’s ever fresh Four Ships in Variable Weather (1948), reminiscent, in some ways, of the work of Ben Nicolson, but still as clean and sharp as the snap of a flag in the wind.
Some of what one thought of as the CGP’s lesser lights here provide some of the exhibition’s sharpest, most vivid moments. I found Bobs Cogill Haworth’s Ontario Gothic (1945) to be—despite its fluttery, inescapable David Jones aura—a little painterly sonata of febrile growth and the unstoppable energies of all intertwined things.
I also found Gordon Webber’s tightly organized Design No.4, Vermont from 1946—with its wonderful mottled background—to be enjoyably bracing. Same with Jock Macdonald’s fine, luminous, frost-lacy Winter (1938), from the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario. How can paintings of this power get so lost?
The same question could be asked of Lemoine FitzGerald’s strange, nearly surrealist Untitled (Broken Tree in Landscape) from 1931, or Edwin Holgate’s mountain-solid portrait, The Naturalist (1941). These are lovely, strong, entirely admirable paintings, and it was a privilege to look at them.
Not much in A Vital Force is bad. Lawren Harris’s late, abysmally slick abstract landscape, Riven Earth I (1936) certainly is, and Jack Bush’s The Ditch Diggers from 1945 isn’t up to much (a good thing he eventually hitched his wagon to Greenbergian abstraction). Kathleen Moir Morris’s McGill Cab Stand (c.1945) is insufferably dull, and A. J. Casson’s horribly glib First Snow (1947) is no worse and no better than any of his relentlessly mediocre painting was.
A few things stand out with particular force: one is Isabel McLaughlin’s astonishing Tree from 1935, a rendering of a bare tree (antennae-like branches, gothically mysterious striated trunk, etc.) from the ground up, a view that is vertiginous- in-reverse (note also the strange, dreamlike wildflowers growing large in the foreground, at the foot of this towering, inescapably mythic, Yggdrasil of a tree). This is one of the great tree- paintings of all time.
The other remarkable moment in A Vital Force is provided by Caven Atkins’s Arc Welder Working on a Bulkhead (1943). This diminutive painting (31.8 x 24.8 cm)—which is in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa—may officially be a “war painting,” but its superb organization, its dramatic compression (one figure doing one thing), its glowing but earthy colour, its careful array of centrifugal sparks, makes it as much a depiction of Vulcan at his forge as it is a vignette of a welder at work. It was good judgment to use it on the cover of the exhibition’s handsome catalogue.