Friday, November 2, 2012

The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson by George A. Walker

Ambitious in scope, inconsistent in execution
Tom Thomson was a Canadian landscape painter, active from around 1907 until his untimely death in 1917. He was associated with the painters known as the Group of Seven, and is considered by many of his countrymen to be one of the most important visual artists in the history of Canada. In this book, artist George A. Walker has created a wordless narrative of Thomson’s life and death comprised of 109 wood engravings. The mysterious circumstances surrounding Thomson’s drowning in Algonquin Park have led to the formation of various theories as to the ultimate cause of his death, including murder. In the book’s three-page introduction, Tom Smart very briefly summarizes these theories. He then goes on to compare the life of Thomson to the Epic of Gilgamesh, which seems a bit of a stretch. More satisfying is the equally brief afterword by Walker in which he discusses the influence of Thomson’s art upon his own work.

Pre-equipped with an interest in the subject matter, a love of Thomson’s paintings, an enthusiasm for woodcut illustration and pictorial narrative, and a limited familiarity with Walker’s prints, I expected to like this book a lot more than I did. The illustrations included here exhibit a consistency in style but an unfortunate inconsistency in quality. Not all are as compelling and attractive as the cover image. The couple dozen really excellent prints in the book make one wonder why so many of the others look rushed, poorly thought out, or crudely executed. The sinewy stroke of Walker’s engraving tool is most effective when emulating Thomson’s landscape paintings, but when applied to figures and faces it often yields misshapen heads and limbs. There are moments of brilliance throughout, like a wooden chair emerging sublimely from a shadow, or a conglomeration of rough, structural strokes that coalesce into a locomotive. Overall, however, the book left me with the feeling that I would have preferred to see a collection of 109 landscape prints.

Walker succeeds in capturing and infectiously transmitting Thomson’s love for the natural world. As for the storytelling, however, without prior knowledge of Thomson, the images alone would not suffice to convey the story of his artistic career and demise. Due to the nonverbal nature of wordless narrative, ambiguity is an inherent quality of the woodcut novel. At times, however, Walker crosses the line from ambiguity to a lack of visual clarity, and the reader finds himself asking questions like “What's that he's holding in his hand?” or “Who’s that second figure supposed to be?” These are questions one never needs to ask from the wordless novels of Lynd Ward, Frans Masereel, or Laurence Hyde.

Despite my reservations, Walker should be commended for keeping the art form of the woodcut novel alive. This book is beautifully designed. The typography, layout, and paper choices, coupled with Walker’s at times beautiful artwork, make for a stunning package. Unfortunately, he seems to have bit off more than he could chew with this entry into pictorial literature. On the one hand, Thomson’s story is perhaps too big to be told in 109 illustrations; on the other hand, the overall quality of the art would have benefited from fewer images. Walker admirably navigates the waters between this rock and hard place, but does not emerge unscathed.

See the publisher’s web site for more images from the book:

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