Monday, June 11, 2018

Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven by Ross King

A detailed history of Canada’s groundbreaking painters
Canadian author Ross King has made a career of taking art history and crafting it into surprisingly enthralling bestsellers. Having previously read his fascinating book The Judgment of Paris, about the rise of French Impressionism, I was excited when I found out that King had written a book on some of my favorite artists, The Group of Seven. Defiant Spirits, published in 2010, tells the story of these groundbreaking painters who strove to forge a distinctly Canadian school of modernist painting at a time when Canada struggled to find its national identity.

I have previously read several books on the Group of Seven, including F. B. Housser’s contemporary account A Canadian Art Movement, but their story has always felt incompletely told. Defiant Spirits is the most comprehensive history of the Group I’ve ever come across. Even so, for such an important group of artists, it still feels as if there’s surprisingly little extant documentation on their lives. The bulk of King’s book is comprised of historical context—what was going on in Canada at the time these painters were active. While the reader gets a meticulous history of Canada during World War I, for example, often the narrative of the artists’ lives just reads like a history of lakes they visited, with little concrete insight into what actually went on there. If the source material is sparse, however, King does a great job of wringing it for all it’s worth.

As is often the case with books about the Group of Seven, some members are given preferential treatment over others. Here as usual Tom Thomson, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, and J. E. H. MacDonald receive the most in-depth examination and are credited as the driving forces behind the formation of the Group, with Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley regarded as second-tier members. King provides a surprising amount of information about Varley—in fact, far more than I’ve ever seen him covered in any other book on the Seven. As is often the case, Frank Johnston and Franklin Carmichael are treated as lesser contributors, perhaps because they were less actively involved in the promotion of the Group, but likely also because they generally get an unjustified lack of respect from art historians for producing the most “graphic” or “decorative” work of the original members, as opposed to the others’ more post-impressionistic style of painting. Carmichael is almost absent from King’s narrative, to a shameful degree. The later members to join the group—A. J. Casson, Edwin Holgate, and Lionel LeMoine Fitzgerald—are only mentioned by name once or twice in the epilogue. In a book where we get a mini-biography of every artist, critic, politician, and fishing guide the Group ever met, couldn’t King have at least given the same treatment to the three artists that the Group invited into their ranks?

The book ends with the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Park, London, where the Group were featured in an exhibition showcasing Canadian art. This stopping point feels inconclusive because although the Group were praised by British critics, they still had failed to find much appreciation in their home country. In an epilogue, King explains that there is still little consensus among Canadians as to the value of their most famous painters. Fans of the Group of Seven, who are used to adulatory coffee-table treatments of the artists, will find King’s perspective surprisingly ambivalent. He takes a refreshingly even-handed approach, taking varying critical responses into consideration. Due to this rather dispassionate tone, Defiant Spirits may not be the page-turner that The Judgment of Paris was, but it is highly informative and fills in a lot of the blanks in the historical record of these remarkable artists’ lives and careers.
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