Plain Landscape

A new Canadian art book has just been published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art, edited by John O’Brian and Peter White. It’s a fine book with new essays, as well as reprints of important commentary, essays and reviews published earlier. It struck me as something of a quietly brave book, quite Canadian actually, in the approach to its topic, having about it a certain doggedness. The impetus for the book was an exhibition mounted by the National Gallery of Canada in 1995 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Group of Seven’s first exhibition. Called “The Group of Seven, Art for a Nation,” by title alone it made some sweeping assumptions that prompted questions from a Canadian audience accustomed, at the end of the 20th century, to issues raised by a postmodern reading of art.

One example only, of many cited by Lynda Jessup in her 1996 review of the exhibition. She pointed out that the introductory panel stated “The Group’s goals were nationalist and their prime audience was English Canadian.” Nowhere in the exhibition, she said, were the implications of this addressed. Now, in 2007, an entire book is doing just that. I found evidence of what I called the book’s quiet courage in the fact of its issue more than a decade after the event. Here was a topic worth sticking to, dealing with, and the issues provoked by the exhibition and its singular view are still present, although perhaps in altered and modified forms, in Canadian power structures and distribution, and in governing institutions. The exhibition was mounted by the largest art gallery in the nation and travelled to other major institutions: the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts–a pan Canadian tour. That’s a formidable line of endorsation to question. To counter what was presented as a national perspective, i.e., how Canada was seen as a nation through the agency of the Group of Seven–a single unifying view, the editors of Beyond Wilderness have selected a panoply of artists and a multiplicity of voices.

Thinking about landscape sent me, not for the first time, to Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory which opens with a quote from Thoreau. Here are the first lines: “It is vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such.” Schama too, says, in thinking about the foreign landscape pictures of his own childhood imaginings, “If a child’s vision of nature can already be loaded with complicating memories, myths and meanings, how much more elaborately wrought is the frame through which our adult eyes survey the landscape … Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind.” He quotes RenĂ© Magritte who, in explaining his 1933 painting La Condition humaine, where one painting has been superimposed over the view it is depicting said, “What lies beyond the windowpane of our apprehension needs a design before we can properly discern its form …. And it is culture, convention and cognition that makes that design; that invests a retinal impression with the quality we experience as beauty.”

Painting in the style of the Post Impressionists, the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson were championed as representing, in a unique and fitting manner, the true Canadian landscape, a ready and potent symbol of what Canada was. How more effectively to identify a country than by the way it looks. Here, in the first half of the 20th century, as John O’Brian and Peter White write in their book’s introduction, was a wilderness painting movement which would produce the national art. The Group of Seven with their supporters–private patrons and the National Gallery of Canada, “Wished to develop an independent aesthetic–homegrown, northern and free of foreign influence.” They wrote, “National identity was inseparable from the geography and climate of Canada’s boreal landmass. For them, Canadianess was defined by way of northerness and wilderness.”

A wild, windy, rugged, northern, craggy, rocky, cloud-tossed, bold, turbulent, pristine and uninhabited country. For whom, since the country appeared unpopulated, was this representation made? And since we are acknowledging that landscape is made, that the reading of it is constructed, that it’s not an uninflected wild, whose noble but churlish landscape was that? It belonged to central Canada which was white, male, Protestant and what is readily referred to as establishment–an independent country embracing progress and making its way, through the use of its abundant resources, in the 20th century industrial world while holding itself, as an image, northern, apart and distinct.

This was the “brand” to be espoused by Canadians from the inside, and by others, elsewhere. A 1919 exhibition of the work of J.E.H. Macdonald, Lauren Harris, Frank H. Johnston and William Cruikshank was accompanied by a wall plaque which read, “The great purpose of landscape art is to make us at home in our country.” In the nation as depicted by the Group and in the exhibition and the discussion which attended it, (“The Group of Seven, Art for a Nation”), absent but not reported missing were First Nations people, women, Quebecers, racially visible immigrants, and the masses of Canadians who lived in cities.

In the book of notes and essays by John Berger called And our faces my heart, brief as photos, which is as well thumbed in my library as some religious text ought to be but isn’t, Berger is speaking about his favourite painter, Caravaggio. It was Berger’s sense that the people he saw on the streets of Livorno after the War would have found themselves reflected in Caravaggio’s canvases. In this poor city Berger said he learned about the ingenuity of the dispossessed and about himself as well. “It was there too that I discovered that I wanted as little as possible to do in this world with those who wield power. This has turned out to be a lifelong aversion,” he wrote.

I live on the prairies. It’s not a landscape to which the Group of Seven and their patrons were drawn in seeking a visual representation of a nation. This is not a landscape to inspire an iconic narrative of a country. It’s certainly not inhabited by visual evidence of power nor is it a wilderness over which no one has cast an eye or vested with habitation. It’s not wild and empty and therefore is not fair game for the taking.

I exit the city on level ground. I drive, for the most part, on an arrow-straight road heading north to a district called the Interlake, not for its stereotypically picturesque lake qualities but because it sits plain and resolute between two large shallow lakes. Eons ago glaciers slid over the ground raking and scouring it. They left behind, as they melted, endless flat fields covered in a thin layer of stubborn, unyielding soil, peppered throughout by small boulders and rocks that rise to the surface, heaved each spring by the annual thaw. What had been the bed of the vast Lake Aggasiz is the Interlake, the lakes which remained: Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg. To write their names on a page is to hear seagulls, to see open wooden boats, lifted prows banging the waves, heading out to bring in nets filled with sweet bony fish and to count my great good luck in finding at the water’s pebbled edges occasional pieces of chipped, worked stone, fragments of arrowheads, drills and spearpoints which dated, go back to 4000 BC; to anticipate a thermometer of temperature changes registered at ankle height as the waters were tested with familiarity in every season but winter, daily as I was able, just to see how it was.

No one painted this landscape for reasons of national cohesion, this landscape so plain of flashy detail that every new fence is noted and which stand of poplars were knocked down to plant some canola, and which fields yielded hay twice in a season, and where the palette–except for a brief flaring in the summer, is shades of brown, russet, grey and ochre.

This is a landscape that might resist habitation because it’s not a comodious place in which to live–not fertile, lush or temperate. At the same time it doesn’t claim for itself rugged, pristine status. With its horizontal plane it is the ideal candidate for the ideal reading of the perfect landscape painting, albeit not giving over readily to standard measures of beauty.

The American artist Robert Smithson described his projects which were often located in the landscape where he worked with the natural materials of the site, as a dialectic between the site, which referred to the geographic location, and the non-site, which meant images, maps and other representations. The site and the non-site were never perfectly matched and the work of art resided, then, in the dialectical relationship between what he identified as the two realms. He said, “Between the actual site … and the non-site exists a space of metaphoric significance.” If we’re acknowledging that landscapes, as we see them in art always represent mediated spaces then we also recognize those spaces are metaphoric. Smithson insisted further, on the “primacy of the rectangle” as essential to the dialectical nature of an artwork. A contributor to the book Beyond Wilderness, Johanne Sloan, points out that Michael Snow too, wrote about the “edifying dialogue between the rectangle and all its specifically human content.” Landscape art, Johanne Sloan reminds us, because of its horizontal framing (and the actual horizon line), is deeply rooted in conventions of Western art-making.

Extending the rectangle and the horizontal picture frame to the medium of film, I think of the observations of noted Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin on the use of cinemascope in making a film which is set on the prairies. “When you think of it,” he said, referring to Noam Gonick’s film Hey, Happy!, “what could be better suited to it than the prairie? Cinemascope was invented for filming snakes, funerals and Winnipeg.”

After returning home from a trip east, I always drive north. My eyes drink the horizontal flat prairie space with a real thirst and I’m happy to recognize that here, far from the seats of power, status and privilege, is the ideal landscape.