Monday, April 9, 2012

The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson by David P. Silcox

Extraordinary artists, extraordinary book
First, a brief lesson for the uninitiated: The Group of Seven, along with fellow painter and inspirational leader Tom Thomson, were a group of Canadian painters active from around 1910 to the mid-1930s. Known predominantly for their landscapes, these eleven artists (yes, eleven; not seven; it’s a long story) revolutionized the art of their nation by rejecting the traditions of European painting in favor of Canadian subject matter and a uniquely Canadian aesthetic. By combining elements of impressionism, fauvism, and art nouveau they created their own style of painting which has had an unparalleled influence on the history of Canadian art.

David Silcox has put together the ultimate tribute to these amazing artists. The 70-odd pages of text in this book are very well-written, covering the formation of the group, their travels across Canada, and the cultural ramifications of their work. Though the essays offer enlightening reading, the main attraction here is the collection of 400 images. This is one coffee-table book that truly needs a coffee table. The mammoth size of this tome is a challenge to its own binding. It proves, however, that as far as content is concerned, size truly does matter. If you were going to put together a book on the Group of Seven, how would you do it? Would you show the most famous and memorable images, or search for hidden, unpublished gems? In a book this size you can do both! And Silcox does. Would you organize the images by artist, by subject matter (still lifes, portraits, World War I, etc.), or by geographic location (Algonquin Park, Rocky Mountains, the Arctic, etc.)? With a book this big, why choose? Do all three! Different portions of the book are arranged accordingly. Most books on the Group of Seven make the mistake of devoting too much space to the “big five”: Tom Thomson, Lawren Harris, J. E. H. MacDonald, A. Y. Jackson, and Arthur Lismer. Silcox finally gives the “minor” members their due respect. Franklin Carmichael, F. H. Varley, Frank Johnston, Edwin Holgate, A. J. Casson, and Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald are all well-represented, and they hold their own against the big guns of the Group. About two dozen black and white drawings are included; the rest of the works are all paintings. The book doesn’t include any printmaking, which is unfortunate, since a few of the members—notably Carmichael, Casson, and Holgate—really excelled in that medium.

Browsing through these pages is the next best thing to strolling the hallowed halls of the McMichael Collection or the Art Gallery of Ontario. The Group of Seven have never looked so good in book form. This volume is elegantly designed, and the paintings are beautifully reproduced. Here and there one could quibble over the selection of images, but overall it’s hard to imagine another book improving upon this one. After setting the bar this high, perhaps the next step will be a digital catalog raisonné on DVD. Until that day comes, Silcox’s compendium will remain the ultimate visual reference on these artists.

Franklin Carmichael, October Gold.

Tom Thomson, Northern River

Frank Johnston, Fire Swept, Algoma

A. J. Casson, Mill Houses

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