Canadian Painting in the Thirties

Formation of the Canadian Group of Painters

By 1930 the Group of Seven was Canada's 'National School', dominating the image of Canadian art abroad. Yet the Group's very prominence caused open criticism from its opponents. The Royal Canadian Academy sought control of the National Gallery, and petitions and press articles debated the Gallery's favouritism to the Group. Concern over the possible exclusion of the younger, more progressive artists led to the formation of the Canadian Group of Painters in February 1933. The twenty-eight members included most progressive English-speaking artists from across Canada.

The early history of the Canadian Group was still dominated by the figures of Arthur Lismer, A.Y. Jackson, and Lawren Harris.

Lismer remained a key figure in art education and. in the 1930s. worked in Toronto, South Africa, New York and Ottawa. In January 1941 he took over the educational program of the Art Association of Montreal.

Lismer's paintings showed an increasing interest in complex structure and design. They developed logically and surely from panoramic landscapes to dramatic silhouettes, from tangled growth to still-life studies of dock-litter created in the early forties.

A.Y. Jackson was the sole Group member who was able to paint full-time, traveling to different parts of Canada and returning with sketches to be painted up into canvases. The consistency of his style and imagery was both a strength and a limitation, and in response, he expanded his explorations to Alberta and Northwest Territories.  The barren lands, the ruggedness, and the solitude of the north were genuine stimulants.

Even though the Group of Seven never had a formal structure, Harris has often been seen as its leader. A keen student of theosophy, Harris saw art as "a clarifying and objectifying process" through which one could arrive at an individual experience of 'the essential order of all existence. The artist could achieve an expression of universal harmony only through concentration on the particulars of his or her own time, place and personality. On a trip to the Arctic with A.Y. Jackson in 1930 Harris was struck by the loneliness of the north, its silence, and its massive forms.

Harris' Arctic paintings progressed from a descriptive rendering to a more symbolic representation yet for the next three years he painted little. In the summer of 1934, Harris and Bess Housser (the wife of Fred Housser, secretary of the Canadian Group), obtained divorces and were married. The divorces created a conflict of loyalties among certain friends, and the Harrises moved to New Hampshire. The break from Toronto gave Harris the freedom to set off on his own path.

While the members of the Group of Seven dispersed, they guaranteed, through the Toronto Art Students' League and the Canadian Group of Painters, that a younger generation of followers would continue the Group tradition. Although this very heritage resulted in numerous mere imitators, Yvonne McKague's paintings of Cobalt are both part of the tradition and strong, individual expressions of the Canadian landscape.

Chapter 1 - Formation of the Canadian Group of Painters
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