Monday, July 29, 2013

Northern Lights: Masterpieces of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven by Joan Murray

The Group of Seven’s Greatest Hits
Though little known south of the border, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven are widely considered Canada’s greatest visual artists. Through their idiosyncratic blend of impressionism and fauvism, they produced stunning depictions of Canada’s northern landscape and founded a uniquely Canadian school of art. Northern Lights provides a gorgeous overview of their illustrious careers.

This is first and foremost a coffee-table book, not a scholarly monograph nor an in-depth art historical treatise. The introductory essay is only five pages long. In it Joan Murray provides a nutshell summary of the Group of Seven for newcomers, while sprinkling it with enough new material not to bore the tears out of those already familiar with the plethora of existing books on the subject (many written by Murray herself). In compensation for the brief opener, the bulk of the book’s text appears interspersed throughout the gallery of 118 color plates. Each pictured work is accompanied by a paragraph or few offering valuable context as to where, how, and why each painting was created. In general these entries are quite informative, though at times Murray has a tendency toward excessive psychological speculation, as in “The artist must have been thinking [insert thought here] as he was painting this.” Really, must he?

The works pictured here for the most part represent a “greatest hits” collection of the Group’s most famous paintings. You won’t find much in the way of unusual departures, like Johnston’s airplanes or Harris’s Kandinskyesque abstractions. The masterpieces are arranged roughly in chronological order. Whenever possible, preliminary sketches are pictured alongside completed canvases, so you really get a good idea of the process behind the creation of these landmark paintings. Like many books on the Group of Seven, it stresses the work of the higher-profile “senior” members—Tom Thomson, Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, A.Y. Jackson, and Arthur Lismer—at the expense of the remaining “junior” members of the movement. I really like the work of some of the less-appreciated masters—Franklin Carmichael, Frank Johnston, A.J. Casson, and Edward Holgate in particular—so their scant representation here is a disappointment. I can’t deny, however, that this is a fabulous collection of artwork reproduced beautifully in an elegantly designed package. Among the many Group of Seven books I’ve seen, I would rank this one second only to the mammoth volume by David P. Silcox that came out in 2006. Whether you’re a Canadian who grew up amidst such masterpieces, or a foreigner who discovered them later in life (like me), Northern Lights will make a beloved addition to your art library.

A. Y. Jackson, The Edge of the Maple Wood, 1910, oil on canvas, 25.75 x 21.5"

Franklin Carmichael, Northern Silver Mine, 1930, oil on canvas, 47.75 x 40"

Edwin Holgate, Totem Poles, Gitsegiuklas, 1927, oil on canvas, 31.875 x 31.75"

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