June 1997

Group of Seven home is a picture perfect town

by Gil Zohar

Kleinburg, like its quaint sister southern Ontario arts towns Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, is a single-wonder place. But what an attraction it is - The McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

Of all Ontario's beauty spots, none more dramatically combines the grandeur of nature and creativity of man than this outstanding Canadiana collection nestled on 100 scenic acres of rolling hills rising above the East Humber Valley. The rustic gallery, comprising 30 rooms constructed of hand-hewn timbers and native stone, provides an impressive setting for some 2,000 works by Canada's most famous 20th century artists. Visitors enjoy the art of the celebrated Group of Seven landscapists and their contemporaries, a fine collection of Native Indian and Inuit art, and an ever-changing array of temporary exhibits.

From May 31 to August 24 the gallery is displaying Emmanuel Hahn and Elizabeth Wyn Wood: Dialogue with Modernism, an exhibition of extraordinary sculptures by this Canadian couple. The McMichael is the first gallery to feature this touring exhibition from the National Gallery in Ottawa.

A world away but a distance of only a few hundred metres, one can stroll along Islington Avenue, Kleinburg's main street. Here between the usual assortment of tourist kitsch, antiques, collectibles, early Canadian architecture and beautiful pine and maple furnishings provide a flavour of early Ontario's lifestyle and values.

Historic sites like the Nashville Presbyterian Church, dating from 1902, root Kleinburg in a past bigger than McMichael. And venues like the Doctor's House Restaurant and Wedding Chapel (also on Nashville Road), lend Kleinburg a sophistication one doesn't associate with Toronto's distant suburbs.

Kleinburg's appeal as a national treasure is based exclusively on the McMichael gallery, a museum that is a metaphor for Canada. In 1951 when the collection's founders Robert and Signe McMichael built their country retreat, they situated it prominently on a hill top, looking over farmers fields and first growth pine, hemlock, cedar and maple. They called their L-shaped four-room bungalow Tapawingo - an Algonquin Indian word meaning "place of joy." They began collecting Groups of Seven paintings, whose value then was a fraction of what they currently fetch. In 1965 the couple turned over their log and stone home, 14 acres and 194 paintings and drawings to the Province of Ontario with the understanding that the collection would be greatly broadened and the facility expanded.

The McMichael home has been extensively remodelled into a two-floor, 13-gallery complex spreading over 25,000 sq. ft. Pioneers cleared the Humber River valley floodplain in the 19th century for farming or grazing, leaving the original forest on the slopes. The McMichaels began the reafforestation of the plains, and today the gallery is surrounded by meadows, naturally occurring forests, and the now-mature pine trees which were saplings when the couple planted them.

The 1.5 km McMichael Trail leads into the valley - now protected as conservation land. Here one can spot wild turkey, fox and beaver. Hikers, naturalists, walkers and mountain bikers use the trail all year long.

The gallery now holds almost 6,000 pieces of art in its permanent collection and acts as custodian of over 100,000 Inuit works from Cape Dorset. But the main attraction remains the Group of Seven - J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frank Johnston, Frederick Varley, Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson - the first Canadian painters to embrace a lyrical, spiritual vision of the Canadian landscape distinct from the formalism of pre-Impressionist European painting.

Most of these artists worked at a Toronto commercial design firm, Grip Ltd., at some point in their careers. It was through this employment that several of them met and discovered their common artistic interests. After work, the artists socialized together at the Arts and Letters Club on Elm Street in downtown Toronto, discussing new directions for Canadian art.

In 1913, they invited A. Y. Jackson to move from Montreal and join them. In the same year Dr. James MacCallum, a good friend, and fellow artist Lawren S. Harris provided money to build the Studio Building for Canadian Art. Several of the artists would live and work in the three-storey Rosedale loft.

The aspiring artists initially took their inspiration from the rugged Canadian Shield landscapes of rock, pine and water found in Algonquin Park and Georgian Bay. Like the French Impressionists of the turn of the century, they sought a liberating interpretation of the landscape rather than a literal rendering of what they saw. And like their French peers, they suffered public ridicule and artistic scorn.

In 1914, with World War One on the horizon, Thompson left the commercial design firm Rous and Mann to paint and work as a guide in Algonquin Park. Thompson encouraged Lismer, Jackson and Varley to make several sketching trips to the wilderness park, where they discovered the distinct light of the northern landscape and the intense, bright colours of fall. Dr. MacCallum's cottage on Georgian Bay also became a favourite sketching location for the artists.

But the war in Europe interrupted their evolving artistic dreams. Harris, Jackson and Varley all served in the Canadian army. Harris served at home, while Jackson and Varley served overseas, ultimately becoming official war artists. Johnston, who also served at home, was likewise appointed and documented the activities of the Royal Air Force in Canada during the last year of the war. Lismer had moved to Halifax to teach, where he recorded the wartime activities of the navy.

A further setback was the drowning of Tom Thompson in Algonquin Park's Canoe Lake in 1917. The mysterious death of the expert woodsman has never been solved. One explanation was that he was murdered by the jealous cuckolded husband of a woman with whom he was having a love affair.

Back in Toronto after the war, the artists made several sketching trips to the vast Algoma region of northern Ontario. It was there that Harris, MacDonald and Jackson in particular found inspiration for some of their greatest paintings. Algoma was still a wilderness where travelling was difficult. On their earlier excursions the artists moved around by canoe. Harris had the idea of renting a boxcar from the Algoma Central Railway and had it shunted on to sidings near choice sketching locations and this became their new method of transportation, not to mention temporary home.

It was after the 1919 Algoma trip that the artists decided to organize an exhibition and to call themselves the Group of Seven. For several years the seven founding artists had shared "a like vision concerning art in Canada. They [were] all imbued with the idea that an art must grow and flower in the land before the country [would] be a real home for its people."

The 1920 exhibition marked an important moment in Canadian art. It represented a growing movement in Canadian nationalism, a belief that Canadian art must be truly inspired by Canada itself. Initial response to the exhibition was very mixed. Though the Group was encouraged by the press reviews, several major art critics chose to ignore the show. Further exhibitions during the 1920s drew increasing acceptance for the Group's work, establishing the artists as the "national school".

By the mid-1920s, Group members had begun to travel throughout Canada. Jackson visited Quebec on a regular basis; Harris and MacDonald travelled to Nova Scotia. Harris, Jackson, Carmichael and Casson journeyed to the North Shore of Lake Superior, an area that made a deep impression on the artists, especially Harris, who returned annually for many years. During the next decade, MacDonald, Jackson, Varley, Lismer and Harris made many trips to western Canada. In 1927, Jackson, accompanied by Frederick Banting, was the first Group member to visit the Arctic. Jackson later repeated the Arctic trip with Harris, and Varley visited the area in 1938.

Varley, MacDonald, Carmichael, Lismer and Johnston were all art teachers. Varley accepted a teaching position at the Vancouver School of Art in 1926. MacDonald held various teaching and administrative positions at the Ontario College of Art. Carmichael left his employment as a commercial designer to accept a position as Head of the Graphic Design Department at the Ontario College of Art. Lismer taught in various art schools and became well known as an art educator. In 1936, he was invited to spend a year in South Africa setting up school programs.

Thus the Group of Seven had become an institution wielding national influence. Members met formally only once or twice a year to plan group exhibitions. After Frank Johnston resigned from the Group, A.J. Casson was invited to join and in 1926, became its youngest member. Later members of the Group included Edwin Holgate of Montreal and Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald of Winnipeg.

After the final exhibition in December 1931, and MacDonald's death the following year, the Group disbanded to make way for the formation of a more broadly based group of artists called the Canadian Group of Painters. Harris, Casson, Lismer, Jackson and Carmichael were all founding members. The Canadian Group of Painters drew its members from across Canada and like its predecessor, the Group of Seven, was concerned with many different forms of art, including figure, landscape and abstract painting.

Today the McMichael Gallery's collection has become an icon of Canadian identity. Befitting its shrine-like status, five of the seven founders and one of the three later members are buried on the McMichael grounds. Recognized as being among the first artists to embrace a distinctive Canadian art movement, the Group of Seven had been driven by a great sense of purpose and nationalism. The artists sought to capture the spirit of Canada in their paintings and, in this way, tried to express a Canadian identity. No other group of artists has made such a deep and lasting impression on the people of Central Canada.

But art isn't static. Dissatisfied with the direction the curators were taking the collection, Robert McMichael filed a lawsuit against the province in February 1996, claiming that the Crown Corporation was abrogated the 1965 agreement which established the museum. The couple maintains that most of the 3,000 works that have been acquired since Robert McMichael resigned as director in 1981 do not belong in the permanent collection whose mandate was to focus on the Group of Seven

Last November Justice Peter Grossi of the Ontario Court General Division ruled in favour of the gallery's founders by upholding the section of the 1965 agreement concerning the collecting mandate of the gallery. In siding with the couple, the judge ordered the gallery to restrict itself to works by the Group of Seven and artists of their period and genre, outlining a standard for "Canadian art" as "landscapes": "in particular the colours, the relationship to nature, to energy and to uncontrollable forces to reflect the expansiveness of their wide horizons." Minister of Citizenship, Culture and Recreation Marilyn Mushinski filed an appeal stating that the judgment created a situation where effective management of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection was impossible. According to her statement, "the court's decision has made the operation of the gallery difficult because it raises a number of complex issues that we believe must be clarified: the board is unclear as to how it can meet its legal responsibility to acquire new works; and corporate sponsors and donors are expressing concerns about the future of the gallery."

In February a date for an expedited appeal was set to begin September 29. The Group of Seven were controversial in their time, and the public debate about Canadian identity and art continues.

To express your opinion vote with your feet, taking Highway 400 north from Toronto to the Major Mackenzie Drive exit, west to Islington Avenue, and north 1 km to Kleinburg.