Friday, December 14, 2012

A Canadian Art Movement: The Story of the Group of Seven by F. B. Housser

Lacking in detail and insight
I’ve read a lot of books on the Canadian painters The Group of Seven, but mostly of the coffee table variety. Hoping for some more detailed biographical information on these artists, I turned to this book, which is often cited as a source in the bibliographies of said coffee table books. First published in 1926, when most of the artists in the movement were still alive and active, this biography of the Group was written by F. B. Housser, an art collector, friend of the artists, and, judging by his writing, their biggest booster. Unfortunately, despite its over 200 pages of length, there’s not a great deal of useful information here above and beyond what you find summarized in the brief introductory essays of heavily illustrated volumes.

This book contains no illustrations, which is just fine for a biography. The problem is, due to the lack of pictures, Housser feels the need to fill many pages—entire chapters, in fact—with descriptions of paintings. While this was a common practice in early 20th century art criticism, today’s reader can just type the title of a painting into Google and see what it looks like. There’s little need or desire to read page after page of “orange trees in the foreground, purple mountains in back,” etc. Housser also quotes long excerpts from exhibition reviews, most of them derogatory towards the group. This may be of interest to historians, but not particularly useful to those who are simply admirers of the painters and their work. It’s odd how little biographical information seems to be available on the members of the Group, even basic facts like who was married and who had kids are absent from this account. Most of the biographical information contained here consists of travel itineraries—who went on which painting trips to what geographical locations and when. There are excerpts from letters written by the painters, mostly praising the scenery of the locations they visited. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the book is that it really only discusses five artists: Tom Thomson, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, and J.E.H. MacDonald. There might be one page each on Franklin Carmichael and F. H. Varley; the other artists associated with the Group are barely mentioned, if at all.

Housser repeatedly hammers home the point that these artists were breaking with the traditions of Europe, creating their own uniquely Canadian form of expression. The clear light of the Canadian North, he claims, could not be reproduced by the traditional methods of the Barbizon school, and demanded a new style of painting. He also stresses that these artists were uneducated in academic methods, then contradicts himself when he tells of their trips to Europe to study painting. Housser continually tries to create the illusion that the Group of Seven sprung up in a vacuum, with little ties to the past. It comes across as a disingenuous assertion. Those who truly enjoy the Group of Seven’s work may find a few nuggets of inspiration and enlightenment within this inadequate account of their lives and careers, but it’s too dull and uninformed to hold the attention of most readers. If there is a really good detailed biography of the Group of Seven out there, I haven’t found it yet.

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