Canada

the Dr. and Mrs. Max Stern Collection, Ernest E. Poole Collection, J. S. McLean Collection, Group of Seven, Emily Carr, Frederic A. Verner, David Milne, Goodrich Roberts

Edmonton Art Gallery, Norman MacKenzie Art Gallery

One of the advantages of the private collector is that he is able to indulge his taste without regard for equality of representation. It was therefore a pleasure (albeit a mixed one) and something of a blessing to be able to see three exhibitions of Canadian private collections within a very short period, the Dr. and Mrs. Max Stern and the Ernest E. Poole Collections at the newly opened Edmonton Art Gallery and the J. S. McLean Collection at the Norman MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina. All three collections concentrated upon Canadian art and I will limit myself to a discussion of that aspect of them here.

One of the characteristics of Canadian collections has been a tendency to cater to a sense of national identity, the search for which has become something of a national pastime. One of the major drawbacks of this approach is that it too frequently results in a rejection of the best art in favor of the most overtly “Canadian.” The most outstanding example of this has been the elevation of the Group of Seven—or at least the founding members of the group: Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. MacDonald, A. Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, F. H. Varley and Tom Thompson (who died before the group was officially established)—to the status of national heroes. What has always complicated a disinterested assessment of the group has been the fact that they appeared to have discovered an objective correlative for the national character in the rugged landscape of the Canadian Shield, studded with lakes and rock outcroppings and populated by stunted trees. The resulting image of the Canadian as a woodsman has an enormous appeal as well as a certain amount of truth, particularly in relation to the American image of the frontiersman, the self-made man. What distinguishes the Canadian from the American myth is its lack of violence and corresponding lack of a sense of conquest over nature. The Canadian as woodsman is nothing like a gun-toting sheriff; in fact, it is hard to imagine him with a gun. A fishing rod seems more to the point (a frequently reproduced photograph of Thompson shows him and Lismer in a canoe with fishing rods).

I mention this because it seems to me that the Group of Seven were very concerned about discovering symbols of a Canadian identity and found one, again and again, in the image of a weathered, twisted (or windblown) tree on a barren outcropping of rock (the Precambrian shield) overlooking a lake. While there have been countless variations upon this theme in the works of Harris, Lismer and Varley, it found its most unique expression in The West Wind, an oil sketch of which is in the J. S. McLean Collection. It contains the image of a tree twisted by the wind into a kind of natural aeolian lyre and seems to be the perfect symbol of a man, not simply shaped by the elements, but in harmony with them. As a work of art it displays the virtues of Thompson’s better sketches—simple, vigorous drawing and boldness of execution, although it lacks the superb color of Spring Ice in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada.

Thompson’s early death in 1917 dealt a strong blow to Canadian art. While these three collections contained a good deal of subsequent work by members of the group, they contained few paintings of real stature. The group, with the exception, perhaps, of Varley, was dedicated to a conception of painting as good design that derived from Art Nouveau and, possibly, from design manuals. They tended to produce small oil sketches from nature and expand some of them into full-scale good designs in their studios. As a result, the sketches are frequently far superior to the finished works. This tendency to smother pictures with design seems to have been almost an obsession with A.Y. Jackson, who seems to have identified good design with an undulant line and very good design with very many undulant lines. Some of the small Jacksons in the McLean Collection were beautifully observed and occasionally revealed an unexpected sensitivity of color, while the larger “serious” pictures contrived to be muddy and faintly grotesque.

This sense of design is also evident in the flowing, clean-contoured, flatly painted and heavily shaded mounds and projections of Lawrence Harris’s paintings. For the most part I have found these to be mannered and austere, but a large Harris in the McLean Collection, Entrance to Coldwell Harbour, Lake Superior, overcame this by a sensitivity of color that I hadn’t expected from him. Harris has a tendency to compose his paintings in blues, greys and whites which give them a stark, dramatic effect; the reddish browns and greens of this painting seemed the fruit of observation rather than style and made it far superior to the four small, more typical sketches in the show. I was surprised as well by the fact that I was initially repelled by the painting, the reverse of my usual experience with members of the group who seldom, at least today, succeed in engaging a pictorial prejudice.

If the Group of Seven were the symbolist painters of Eastern Canada, their counterpart in British Columbia was Emily Carr, the poet of the B. C. rain forest. The three Carrs in the McLean Collection revealed her at her worst, a slate which she attained—to my eye at least—with regrettable frequency. Her symbols were the Douglas Fir and the Totem Pole, executed in a mixture of greys and greens. She had a regrettable tendency to place grey, realistically rendered totem poles against a background of undulating, semi-abstract trees or (as in one picture from the McLean Collection) a semi-Cubist Indian village. The two Carr watercolors in the Stern Collection revealed a happier side of Carr and one we could do with more of (Stern was Carr’s dealer and called her the “only authentic genius” of Canadian art). The pictures did not suffer from pseudo-abstraction, and revealed a frankness and freshness of observation that was as delightful as it was unpretentious.

Ernest E. Poole was an Edmonton contractor and his collection suffers, in some respects, from his isolation, although not nearly as much as I had expected. Perhaps he gained as much as he lost from not having the kind of stake in the Canadian art world that McLean and Stern often display. Whatever the case, the Poole Collection contained the greatest surprise of the three in the form of a watercolor by Frederick A. Verner entitled Expelled from the Herd. Verner is one of those artists we usually mention with chagrin, supposedly a competent, unimaginative artist who made a name for himself by painting Indians and buffaloes during the opening of the Canadian West. What struck me about this watercolor of an aged buffalo (it was painted in 1907, when Verner was by no means a young man) was its astounding freshness of vision. It is unquestionably one of the finest evocations of a prairie landscape (and an evening one at that) that I have ever seen. Because the prairies are so featureless, they are virtually impossible to draw and almost as difficult to paint because the extreme difference in value between land and sky inhibits color. The Verner painting was one of the few successful resolutions of the problem I have seen; the pale pink and purple washes in the sky were complemented by rusty oranges and browns in the foreground. The outstanding quality of the work made me suspect that it might be wise to re-examine the watercolors of a number of our earlier artists, certainly those of Verner himself.

This suspicion was all but confirmed by the masterpiece of the J.S. McLean Collection, a large watercolor of Lake Orford by Goodrich Roberts. This painting, as well as two exceptional Roberts oils in the Stern Collection, convinced me that he is unquestionably one of the finest artists Canada has produced. This fact was driven home in the McLean Collection by his obvious superiority to David Milne.

Milne has a reputation in Canada of being something of a painters’ painter, perhaps because he studied at the Art Students League and was the only Canadian to participate in the Armory Show in 1913. Milne alternated between working in the United States and Canada until 1928, when he returned to. Canada for good. He died in 1953. I must confess that I too held a high estimation of Milne’s work in the past, based upon his wet on wet watercolors from the last ten years of his life (his work prior to 1940 struck me then, as it does now, as being precious and artificial). The late watercolors in the McLean Collection proved to be disappointing (although not altogether bad) in a very basic way. Milne’s oils and watercolors had always relied heavily upon a kind of drawing which was rather erratic and superficially childlike. While he tended to color his drawing, his color was usually systematic and local. The late watercolors seemed to represent a partial liberation from his tendency to conceive in terms of black outlines, and his blacks seemed to establish themselves on an equal footing with his color. However, I did not realize until I saw the McLean Collection with its heavy representation of Milnes, that Milne’s problem of draftsmanship had not really been solved in the late works. His drawing continued to be merely charming, concentrating upon details rather than upon a pictorial whole. Milne’s real failure, it seems to me, was one of observation. Despite his declarations (and he wrote very well and very plausibly about art) he really responded to nature with a gift of hand rather than with his eyes.

Goodrich Roberts, in comparison, is solid stuff. Lake Orford is a section of reality transformed into paint, with a perception of scale, an eye for gradations of atmosphere and, above all, a comprehension of the picture as a whole that is extremely rare. He represents, I suppose, the perfect example of the less mythical aspect of the Canadian character. His pictures, with their almost pedestrian solidity, vigorous but somehow ordinary and lacking in style, display a fidelity to experience that is human to an extraordinary degree.

Terry Fenton