Why Landscape: Thoughts on Landscape Painting in Canada
“We are not fit to lead an army on the march unless we are familiar with the face of the country…”
— Sun Tzu
“No one showed your paintings unless you painted orange leaves.” This is a quote from an artist whose work I deeply respect: John Gould. He was speaking about 1960’s Toronto and its conservative tastes and practices, especially in terms of the widespread exhibition of landscape painting. Today, in early 2014, this, in many ways, has not changed: landscape paintings seem as intrinsic to the identity of Canada as they have ever been, and this will likely continue to be the case. The length and concentration of this relationship, and how particular it is to Canada, seem important enough to me to warrant a deeper investigation. Perhaps the best place to start would be Roberts Gallery in Toronto. In many ways Roberts Gallery is the most Canadian of galleries, being the oldest in the country (est. 1842), and exclusively Canadian in the artists it represents for the last 60 of those years. It is also the gallery where Gould exhibited happily and successfully for over 40 years (and where I have been employed for almost a decade).
It is somewhat ironic that this is the gallery with which Gould would have such a lengthy relationship, because Roberts is often seen as the quintessential “orange leaves” gallery. Amongst other things, you will always find on their walls works by the Group of Seven, their contemporaries, and the artists who continue to paint in that tradition. A.J. Casson, who became a longstanding member of the Group of Seven following the early departure of Frank (Franz) Johnston, is perhaps the artist most synonymous with Roberts Gallery. He exhibited there exclusively for the last 35 years of his career, with openings so successful that the CBC would cover them. He designed the crest that the gallery uses to this day, and a cabinet from his studio sits in the gallery’s lower exhibition space. He was, in many ways, like Roberts Gallery itself: steady, conservative, and never untrue to himself.
A.J. Casson was a designer and illustrator, and a documenter of rural Ontario towns, but he was, first and foremost, a landscape painter. By the mid-point of his career, in an attempt to find a more individual style, and for not wanting to paint “poor Jacksons”, he began to push back against the influence of the Group of Seven. He would eventually express a cleaner, more design oriented form of modernism, as opposed to the more visceral impressionism of his early contemporaries. His roots, however, like the roots of all Canadian landscape painting, lie in those earlier influences. It is in that approach — that rugged Arts and Crafts expressionism — that one finds the foundations of this aesthetic that has been so focused on. First finding its voice in J.E.H. MacDonald’s small panels of the early 1910s, and then its apogee in the 3 year burst of Tom Thomson, (and coming, coincidentally, as Canada began to define itself as separate from England because of its role in World War I battles like Vimy Ridge and Ypres), this style appears not only central, but, one could argue, the only exclusively Canadian expression in art. This may seem like a large statement, but when looked at objectively, all other movements and styles of art in Canada seem either done in relation to another country’s movements, or within a North American or internationalist aesthetic or conceptual movement that could have thrived just as well without a Canadian contribution. Even the way many of these paintings were made — small oil paintings on wooden panel, produced in a sketch-box, painted en plein air before and within a remote landscape, can also be seen not just as a continuation of British landscape painting, but as the only exclusively Canadian method of painting.
In Canadian art in general, individuals like Kurelek, Blackwood and Maud Lewis stand out, as do collectives like General Idea, Royal Art Lodge or BGL, but while their content is often very Canadian, their style and method are not. Or at least they are not to the same extent. Artists continue to paint in this “Group Style” to this day, and their work hangs in galleries across the country at the same time and sometimes in the same exhibitions as the Group itself. Why is this? Why, after 100 years, does this continue to be the case? Why do these paintings dominate the historical art market in Canada, and why do these “orange leaves” continue to be popular not only with older audiences, but younger ones as well? Is it because it is recognizable? Yes, but the connection seems deeper and more powerful than that. Is it because it has been commodified? Yes, but what began that successful commodification?
Some of the most useful answers I have found to these questions relate to a talk by Dennis Dutton. This particular talk is an argument for a Darwinian theory of beauty. It speaks primarily about prehistoric stone axes, but digresses for a moment to speak about a “universal landscape”: a landscape composition that was discovered to be, regardless of where a person was from, pleasing. Its effect was related to, the study believed, our common African savannah evolution. Its composition is this: clear sky, open grassland, a water source with a path towards it, the presence of animals or birds, and a diversity of vegetation, especially of trees with low enough branches that one could easily use them to evade a predator. This landscape is easily pictured; it is a painting by Poussin, Le Lorrain, Corot, Constable. It is not, however, an image that is typically Canadian.
Imagine works by the Group of Seven, particularly one of the most famous ones: their waters are often inhospitable and not to be traversed; their rocks are hard and punishing; their trees are ragged and wind-whipped; and there are never, except in very rare instances, any animals (A notable exception are Herbert Sidney Palmer’s paintings with sheep, but, interestingly, they very rarely have a shepherd). The execution of these paintings is often very rugged and expressive, as well, amplifying their robust and imposing character. When viewing images like these, especially the panels that were created immediately before what was being painted, where does this leave the viewer? They are left with a depiction of nature as a vast and threatening space that is at best indifferent and at worst violently opposed to their existence. It is exactly this that I believe lies at the heart of the Canadian identity, and what was first touched on by the aesthetic of the Group of Seven: that Canadians are a people so consciously and unconsciously affected by the threat of the land that it becomes their most persistent trait and the main motivator of most of their choices and actions. It is, too, as a matter of contrast, what perhaps best differentiates a Canadian from an American.
Canadians are polite, practical minded collectivists who often fear standing out because doing so may mean being overtaken by a hostile environment (even the habit of “eh?” implies the speaker’s concern with being together with the listener), whereas for Americans, since their biggest threat, historically and contemporarily, has not been the land, but other people, a nation of individualists has formed. This may be why artist collectives are so intrinsic to Canadian art (and could the Group of Seven not be said to be the first?). This menace from the environment also appears to be at the center of the darkness, discontent and sense of powerlessness that accompanies many things Canadian. It is expressed in song when “Un Canadien Errant” asks, “If you see my country, / My unhappy country…” and in literature when someone says to Leo Percepied (which loosely translated from French means “pierced foot”), protagonist of “The Subterraneans” by Jack Kerouac (whose parents were French-Canadian and whose birth name was Jean-Louis Kérouac), “The trouble with you, Percepied… You’ve got rotten bags in the bottom of your store… You Canucks are really all alike and I don’t even believe you’ll admit it when you die.” This, I believe, is the “why” of landscape. It is not only important, but doubly so, because if our shared identity is both troubling and difficult to share, it is exactly why its principal expression must be engaged with.
Landscape paintings, these “orange leaves”, can be disliked, but they must not be dismissed. The traditions of their style, method and approach are fundamental to the Canadian consciousness, and central not only to the way that this consciousness relates to others, but most importantly, the way this consciousness relates to itself. To be authentic and vital, both as a Canadian and an individual within Canada, it must be grappled with because, if like Ross King said, Tom Thomson’s The West Wind is a “Canadian Laocoön”, then the landscape itself is the Laocoön of the Canadian psyche. This acknowledgment has been and will continue to be essential, because not only Canadians, but people of every country are, ultimately, like the grapes for wine — we become where we are grown.