Surely they are out of place here: vast windswept bays in a city of narrow, busy streets; wilderness tangle in the land of the clipped English garden – and not a single human face in a stately museum largely dedicated to portraits by Old Masters.
And yet, it seems only appropriate these Canadian landscape paintings return to London – many of them 87 years after they were first seen, and appreciated, by British eyes. The exhibition that opened this week at the Dulwich Picture Gallery – Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven – is, in many ways, a tip of A.Y. Jackson's beret to the nation that embraced Canada's now-iconic art before Canada itself was able to do so with any confidence.
Canadians, of course, prefer to hear applause from beyond – for Anne Murray, for Mordecai Richler – before they are willing to put their own hands together in enthusiastic support of homegrown brilliance. And so it was, too, with the Group of Seven, a largely Toronto-based gathering of painters formed three years after Thomson's mysterious death in Algonquin Park in July of 1917.
Thomson, Jackson and their painting friends – J.E.H. MacDonald, Lawren Harris, Arthur Lismer, Fred Varley, Franklin Carmichael and Frank Johnston – wished to break the colonial and American bonds of painting and create an art that was as Canadian as, well, today they would say "as Canadian as the Group of Seven."
It was not an easy ambition to realize. When these artists first dared show their works in the days just before the First World War, they were dismissed as the "Hot Mush School" of art. A later attempt had critics suggesting the paintings not be called after wilderness sites but go by such titles as Hungarian Goulash and Drunkard's Stomach.
"Those who believe that pictures should be seen and not heard," sniffed Saturday Night's Hector Charlesworth at the time, "are likely to have their sensibilities shocked."
The painters persisted, however, inspired by Thomson's near-manic obsession with capturing the dancing colours of Algonquin Park. Thomson himself saw little success, writing just before his death to his patron, Dr. James MacCallum, in the hopes that MacCallum might sell one of his sketches. "If I could get $10 or $15 for it," he wrote, "I would be greatly pleased – if they don't intend to put in so much, let it go for what they will give." Today a Tom Thomson sketch might fetch $2-million at auction.
The painters had some success, but it was only after several of their works went on display at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition in Wembley that they broke through. Though members of the stuffy Royal Canadian Academy of Arts protested over the number of paintings that came from the Group, the British press raved; the prestigious Tate Gallery even purchased a Jackson. Their paintings, noted one critic, embodied "the buoyant, eager, defiant spirit of the nation."
It is somewhat baffling that art given such praise in a major arts capital would fail to return to that capital for 87 years. And had it not been for serendipity, the Canadian works might never have come back. Ian Dejardin was working as a curatorial assistant at London's Royal Academy in the late 1980s when, partly out of curiosity, partly boredom, he opened a book that a student had just returned. It was on the Group of Seven – "I had never heard of them" – and the page that fell open showed MacDonald's Falls, Montreal River.
"I was smitten," says the 56-year-old co-curator of the exhibition that will run through Jan. 8 at the 200-year-old Dulwich. Those who were given looks prior to Wednesday's official opening were equally impressed.
"I was blown away by it," says Simon Poe, who was at Tuesday's press preview and writes for British Art Journal, "and as far as I could tell, so was everyone else. I think the exhibition will be received very positively by the critics here and I am sure that the public will be enthusiastic. The British love landscape painting, and the beauty both of the paint and of the magnificent country represented in these pictures are bound to strike a chord."
"It's a little jewel of an exhibition," agrees art critic James Woodall. "It might not be the kind of show you 'just drop in on,' but those who do come to see it are in for a tremendous surprise. It's beautifully hung and I thought it was absolutely lovely."
All week long at the Dulwich gallery there have been lectures on Thomson and the Group. As well, there was a special Canada Club dinner and a showing of West Wind, a new documentary film on Thomson's life and death by Peter Raymont and Michèle Hozer. Two major Thomson paintings – West Wind and Jack Pine – are the first Canadian works visitors encounter at the new show, both hanging on the same wall.
"His story is absolutely gripping," says Woodall. "He's more than a folk hero – he's an iconic figure."
Dejardin says the film on Thomson's life so choked him up he could barely speak. "I was sobbing away like a child when they showed that empty canoe floating," he says. "It got me."
Dejardin – whose grandfather emigrated to Canada but was forced to resettle in Edinburgh to care for a widowed mother – began to dream of mounting an exhibition of these little-known Canadian treasures, never expecting that it would take 25 years to pull off, and that "I would be first to do it." He is fascinated how, in only eight exhibitions between the group's formation and its end in 1933, the painters were able to "move from being dismissed as the innards of a 'drunkard's stomach' to being the art establishment."
Many of those Canadian painters who succeeded them were heavily influenced, whether they followed suit or reacted against this "sacred cow" in order to form their own identity. "So many contemporary artists are in the business of rejecting the Group of Seven," Dejardin says, "that there is a danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater."
The view from here is that Thomson and the Group of Seven remain the very definition of Canadian art, regardless of what has been done since. While some Canadian artists – many of them photo-based – are known in London art circles, this exhibition remains the greatest exposure any Canadian artists have had here since 1924.
The Dulwich show features 123 works, including several from private collections as well as those on loan from the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. One Thomson original of maple trees is owned by a European collector and has not been seen in Canada for decades. As well, an entire room is devoted to the works of Harris, considered by Dejardin the most "brilliant" of the Group.
Following the Dulwich showing, the exhibition will move on to Oslo, Norway, and then to the Netherlands. While the original plan had been to borrow the paintings for four months, that has now been extended. Early planning was to have the paintings tour Canada after Britain, but the National Gallery, in particular, felt that since the paintings were all together for once – gathered at a cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars – it made more sense to have non-Canadians see them and, perhaps, gain a new appreciation for Canadian art.
"That was my feeling, as well," says Dejardin.
One curiosity that has fascinated him is the air of "insecurity" sometimes encountered when talking up the paintings to, of all people, Canadians. "This has been a bit of a surprise to me," he says, "because I'm a fan – I've always been a fan. I love the work. To me, this has been a dream to achieve and I set out to do it hardly believing that I was going to get there first. So I feel the privileged one here.
"But it has been raised to me that Canadians perhaps would be worried about these paintings being abroad in case anyone … laughs at them. And the thought of laughing at any of these artists just fills me with astonishment.
"I guess it's a kind of national insecurity. And in that case, I hope all the more that this is a great success, as I'm confident it will be, because it's about time the rest of the world got to see these works."
Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven runs at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London, to Jan. 8, 2012; dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk . The show appears at the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo, Norway, from Jan. 29 to May 13; and at the Groninger Museum, in Groningen, the Netherlands, from June 3 to Oct. 28.