PRINT Summer 1984


“THE MYSTIC NORTH” was a sweeping survey of Symbolist landscape painting in Northern Europe and North America, organized by Roald Nasgaard of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, where it was first shown this spring before its only other stop, at the Cincinnati Art Museum. The show’s title came from statements by J.E.H. MacDonald, one of the Group of Seven artists who determined, shortly before World War I, to found a mode of painting that would be rooted in Canadian experience. Inspired by a show of modern Scandinavian art that he and Lawren Harris saw in Buffalo in 1913, MacDonald and his cohorts set out to make paintings that would be “true souvenirs of that mystic north round which we all revolve.” The Scandinavian landscape paintings MacDonald and Harris saw, some of which reappear in the present show, impressed them as being the work of artists “not trying to express themselves so much as trying to express something that took hold of themselves.” The Scandinavian painters “began with nature rather than with art,” as MacDonald and Harris wished to do, and produced an art that could be “understood and enjoyed without metaphysics.” One purpose of “The Mystic North,” and of the fine catalogue Nasgaard wrote for it (copublished as a book by the Art Gallery of Ontario and the University of Toronto Press), was to trace the threads of sensibility linking modern Canadian painting with the early works of Edvard Munch and Piet Mondrian, and with the work of less celebrated Scandinavians such as Gustaf Fjaestad, Pekka Halonen, and Karl Nordström. But what the show and catalogue accomplished additionally was a historical outline of one mode of resistance to the esthetics and theory of French Modernist painting.

Many of the Scandinavian artists represented were deliberately searching for imagery and painting styles that would express their consciousness of nationality. Ironically, as Nasgaard demonstrated, several of these artists, such as Jens Ferdinand Willumsen, Pekka Halonen, and Akseli Gallen-Kallela, sought northerly wilderness subjects at about the same time and for some of the same reasons that Gauguin left Paris for Tahiti. In Willumsen’s case, the stylistic and adventurous influence of Gauguin was direct, for the two artists were acquainted and corresponded. Willumsen produced some curious painted wood and metal reliefs that reveal plainly his admiration for Gauguin’s “cloissonist” handling of form. One of them, the Spanish Chestnuts, Ornamental Landscape Composition, 1891, must have been striking for Canadian visitors to the show who know the work of contemporary Ontario painter Paterson Ewen. In this piece, Willumsen painted and routed pictorial elements made of wood in a manner that Ewen was to capitalize on seventy-odd years later. In his catalogue Nasgaard makes no mention of Ewen, and there is no obvious basis for supposing Ewen was aware of Willumsen’s art. Still, the affinity is striking, for if Nasgaard had continued his survey of Northern visionary landscape paint ing further toward the present, he would not have been able to overlook Ewen’s stark, battered land views.

While Gauguin went in search of an uncorrupted society, the Northerners sought out landscapes that were nearly or wholly empty of signs of society. And in formal terms, they were also moving in a direction opposite to that of the Impressionist and Post Impressionist painters in France. While many an artist in Paris was thickening facture and collapsing pictorial space, the Scandinavians tended to deepen and clarify spatial illusion. The latter wanted not only to render truthfully the extraordinary clarity of Northern light and air, but to invest empty space with a transcendent meaning. The most memorable paintings in “The Mystic North” were those that reconcile the French Modernist and “Northern Romantic ” modes of unity by maintaining a visible tension between them—for example, Munch’s, Mondrian’s, the later Ferdinand Hodler’s, Marsden Hartley’s, and some of the works by Canadians Lawren Harris, Tom Thomson, and J.E.H. MacDonald.

With “The Mystic North,” Nasgaard has successfully “internationalized” what most non-Canadians are likely to see as the willfully provincial activity of the Group of Seven painters. He shows that in setting out to make a properly “native ” Canadian painting centered on the far-north landscape, they were really aligning themselves, fairly self-consciously, with major tendencies in European art. In locating a European ancestry for early Modern Canadian painting, Nasgaard has also recapitulated and extended the work done by Robert Rosenblum in defining a “Northern Romantic sensibility” that smooths away the apparent historical discontinuity between abstract painting and the tradition of representation. Because Nasgaard’s theme is landscape, he has stopped his show and his arguments short of incorporating abstract paintings, but the leap into complete abstraction is implicit at many points. Mondrian’s Dune IV and Dune VI, both 1909–10, are alI but abstract, as is Hodler’s Mountain Stream at Champéry, 1916. And Hodler’s Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau above a Sea of Mist, 1908, was one of the most remarkable works in the show for the collision of abstraction and representation it contains. In this work, three mountain peaks jut upward into a field of soft, mottled blues and greens of the sort we might expect to see in a painting by Mark Rothko. The “sea of mist” that fills most of the canvas removes all sense of scale, isolating the mountaintops at an indefinite distance, and etherealizing the fictive standpoint of the observer.

Hadler is the pivotal figure in Nasgaard’s version of the lineage Rosenblum outlined for abstract painting in his book Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition (New York: Harper & Row, 1975). Some of his late landscapes (he died in 1918) are almost as abstract as Mondrian’s of the same period. And in Hodler’s works it is possible to trace the transition Rosenblum observes from the Romantic figural convention of an “internal observer,” who mediates the experience the landscape painter intends to convey, to a degree of abstraction that instructs the viewer to regard a picture as a synthesis of objective and transcendent reality. In his catalogue essay, Nasgaard discusses Hodler’s early landscape, Autumn Evening, 1892, relating it directly to Caspar David Friedrich’s pictures in which a single figure is seen, back to the viewer, rapt in the perception of a vast landscape space. A sketch related to Autumn Evening shows that Hodler had originally painted such a figure in his picture of a tree-lined road running from the bottom corners of the canvas straight ahead toward a distant sunset, and later eliminated it. The finished painting contains no “ internal viewer,” for Hadler apparently decided that the persuasive effect of the picture space would be greater without it. In its near-symmetry and the obviousness of its metaphors of falling leaves and oncoming night, Hodler’s picture exemplifies Rosenblum’s argument that the Northern Romantic painters sought secular expressions of feelings and intuitions that had once taken the form of Christian imagery. However, in Nasgaard’s exhibition, the abstract character of Autumn Evening and Hodler’s later landscapes received special emphasis. Hadler appeared aligned with other artists of Northern sensibility in striving to maintain the openness of pictorial space as the fundamental metaphor for the transcendence of materialist reality. It is as if the contraction of picture space to the real limits of the canvas, which culminated in Cubism, signified to Hadler and his contemporaries the consolidation of the materialist view of experience. Yet Munch, Hodler, and Mondrian all apparently felt the esthetic logic of giving greater emphasis to paint quality and to the traces of the working process. Hodler’s resolution of this tension is perhaps the most compelling. In late landscapes such as Sunset on Lake Geneva, 1915, he makes the implied breadth of the image space carry the implication of transcendence he had once used the illusion of depth to convey.

Sunset on Lake Geneva is almost abstract enough to quaIify as a color-field painting. Sky, lake, and land are defined by nearly parallel bands of vigorously brushed, thinly applied color. The intuition of a spiritual enormity underlying the finiteness of appearances is translated here into a tension between the literal measure of the canvas, which the paint handling affirms, and the panoramic quality of the painting seen as a landscape. The viewer’s inability not to see the picture both ways takes on the emotional force of an argument. The argument, restated repeatedly, though not always subtly, in “The Mystic North,” is that the ultimate or absolute quality of material reality is not a matter of fact, but of ideology or belief.

The historical vectors defined by “The Mystic North” point to the paradoxical quality of abstract painting, though no examples of pure abstraction are included. Abstract paintings in the Cubist lineage tend to have a materialist emphasis, the autonomous abstraction functioning as a token of the tangible integrity of all physical objects. Abstract works descended from the tradition outlined in “The Mystic North,” on the other hand, have a metaphysical emphasis: in them the transmutability of medium and meaning betokens the ontological ambiguity at the heart of the empirical facts. In other words, abstraction can serve to heighten either the “thingly” quality or the phenomenal quality of a picture. And since both qualities ultimately belong to every abstract painting, whether we see one or the other as primary in a particular work may depend upon the aspects of its ancestry we attend to.

One reason so many artists sought out wilderness vistas empty of human beings was to deprive the viewer of their works of anything to identify with, anything corresponding to the viewer’s individual self. Hodler’s elimination of the “internal viewer ” of Romantic landscape painting was a step in the process of removing from pictorial space anything that might dictate the imagination’s grasp of the picture. Nasgaard quotes Marsden Hartley explaining the appeal of a barren landscape in terms of its “air of being made for no one—for nothing but itself . . . the place is forsaken and majestically lovely as if nature had at last found one spot where she can live for herself alone.” The leap into abstraction implicit in many of the landscapes in “The Mystic North” can be understood as a further effort to eliminate the “internal viewer” and its implied protocol of seeing. The most remarkable works in “The Mystic North” were those that delineate an impersonal relationship to nature while displaying the phenomenal qualities of painting. Mondrian’s, Hodler’s, and Hartley’s best landscapes achieve this delicate balance, but the most surprising example of it here was a tiny masterpiece of Canadian landscape, Lawren Harris’s Aura Lee Lake, Algonquin Park, 1916. This small panel painting is deemed a minor work in Harris’s oeuvre, but it was one of the most memorable pictures in “The Mystic North.”

The Canadian paintings have an immediate authenticity, yet the anti-Modernist bias the Group of Seven artists shared gives their work a conservative look. Harris and Tom Thomson began as the most painterly artists among them, but Thomson died in 1917, and Harris made his pictures increasingly crisp and stylized after about 1920, effacing the paint quality that gave his best early works their 20th-century air. On the whole, “The Mystic North” was a poignant record of a largely failed effort, the effort to base an art of “native” sensibility on the topography of unpopulated and unpoliticized territory.

My one quarrel with the show is over Nasgaard’s inclusion of Georgia O’Keeffe, along with Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and Augustus Vincent Tack, as an American painter representative of the Northern visionary sensibility. Presumably her, and Hartley’s and Dove’s, association with Alfred Stieglitz was part of the rationale for this choice. However, her paintings decidedly lack the feeling for place found in Hartley’s, the quality that links most of the successful paintings in the show and that made its historical argument persuasive. A better choice would have been Rockwell Kent, whose paintings of Greenland and other far-north landscapes have the look of forbidding grandeur that puts them in a direct line of descent from those of the Scandinavians. Kent was also more of an adventurer than any other American landscapist, experiencing firsthand and alone many of the Northern wastes he painted. We are left to wonder whether in this case, as in so many others, Kent’s art was slighted because of his obstinately outspoken Communist politics.

Kenneth Baker is a freelance critic who works in Providence and New York.