Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven
by Ross King
From a young age, Canadians learn about our country’s most famous painting movement in art classes, yet the Group of Seven’s dramatic landscapes and blazing depictions of Canada’s wilderness still don’t seem to get the respect they deserve.
Ross King, the best-selling author of Brunelleschi’s Dome and, more recently, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, redresses this imbalance by situating the group of artists within a larger historical context. His compellingly detailed account begins in 1912, as the painters were just meeting, and continues through the Great War, culminating with the group’s eventual disbanding in the 1930s. King’s elegant prose is a joy to read as he introduces each figure, giving the reader a rare glimpse into the lives of young men who were united by the desire to create a distinctly Canadian painting style at a time when critics, collectors, and the public were hostile toward the aspiring modernists.
The book opens with Tom Thomson and A.Y. Jackson, who met as young designers at Grip Painting and Publishing Co., en route to paint in Algonquin Park. The paintings of another co-worker, J.E.H. Macdonald, were noticed by Lawren Harris, scion of the wealthy Massey-Harris family, whose own artistic sensibility had been influenced by Edvard Munch and the Gruppe der Elf (Group of Eleven). Together, Harris and Macdonald established the Studio Building on Toronto’s Severn Street and recruited Thomson, Jackson, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, and a few others to join them.
The book follows these artists – then known as the Algonquin Park School – as they struggle to earn a living, aided by their patron, Dr. MacCallum, and National Gallery of Canada director Eric Brown. The Group also faced detractors, including the notably crabby Saturday Night assistant editor Hector Charlesworth, the painter Carl Ahrens, and even, in later years, Prime Minister Mackenzie King.
The heady relationships among the men – from Thomson as MacDonald’s protégé to Harris as the group’s de facto leader – emerge throughout the book, and King spends considerable time recounting each artist’s adventures during the First World War. By the time the group officially formed in 1920, their style was already outdated in Europe, but readers of this book will be reminded of their tremendous achievements, which provide a timeless reflection of our country’s magnificent landscape.
Reviewed by Andrea Carson (from the September 2010 issue)