For the first time in Germany, principal works from Canada’s major collections are on view at the SCHIRN. At the same time, the exhibition examines and crit­i­cally reviews Canadian modernist painting.

Ancient forests in remote regions, majestic views of the Arctic, the magic of the Northern Lights: Canadian modernist painting projects a mythical, imaginary Canada. Driven to experiment creatively in the early twentieth century, a group of artists artists left the cities and forayed deep into nature to create a new pictorial vocabulary. The Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, in its exhibition Magnetic North: Imagining Canada in Painting 1910–1940, is presenting Canadian modernist painting from a current perspective.

Featuring about ninety paintings and drawings, as well as video works and documentary material, the comprehensive presentation examines the works of the artists linked to the Group of Seven from Toronto that continue to be very popular in Canada. On view for the first time in Germany are the most important works from the major Canadian collections. At the same time, the exhibition subjects Canadian modernist painting to a critical revision. In the period from about 1910 to 1930, the Group of Seven painted landscapes that, to this day, are believed by many to capture the quintessence of Canada.

The Group of Seven stylized the land as “terra nullius”

The country, which became more or less independent only in 1867, is built on a long colonial history. Before the first settlers from Europe arrived, it had already been the territory of Indigenous peoples for millennia. In paintings of sublime mountains and unspoiled nature, the Group of Seven created the romantic vision of a preindustrial refuge and stylized the land as “terra nullius”, a supposedly uninhabited wilderness. Their works portray a breathtaking landscape beyond the reality of the Indigenous population, modern city life, and the expanding industrial exploitation of nature. Thus, the paintings of the Group of Seven are both product and evidence of cultural hegemony and the exclusion of the First Nations. In the exhibition, filmic works by the Algonquin-French artist Caroline Monnet and the Anishinaabe filmmaker Lisa Jackson, among others, open up a counter-narrative that incorporates Indigenous criticism and raises issues relating to the formation of a national identity, as well as to consciously living with the land.

Lawren S. Harris, Mt. Lefroy, 1930 © Family of Lawren S. Harris

The artists of Canadian modernism were united in their goal to capture the beauty, grandeur, and picturesque quality of the country in order to strengthen the young nation in its formation of a coherent identity. Underlying their work was a desire to declare their artistic independence from Europe and establish their own national school of landscape painting. They strove for authenticity and painterly experiments in order to develop a new, specifically Canadian visual vocabulary. The philosophers and writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau also had a significant influence; the latter, in his book “Walden,” articulated his ideas of a life led in nature far from the hustle and bustle of the industrial age.

In May 1920, artists such as Lawren Harris, Franklin Carmichael, F. H. Varley, and J. E. H. MacDonald formed the Group of Seven in Toronto. They traveled to the Algoma region in Northern Ontario and, later on, along the north shore of Lake Superior, and even as far as the Arctic. By train or canoe they reached remote places, painted in the open air, lived in tents or a converted freight car. The painter Tom Thomson, who also worked as a fire ranger and guide in Algonquin Park northeast of Toronto and encouraged his artist friends to paint in nature, is considered the pioneer of this new, Canadian type of artist and the unconventional style of landscape painting. Among other works, the Schirn is showing a selection of his virtuoso oil sketches. The vast forests of Ontario, with their characteristic play of light and shade and the colors of the seasons, offered a variety of inspiration. The artists depicted the diversity of trees in the depths of the dense forest in simplified forms and powerful colors. The artist Emily Carr, who came into contact with the group in 1927, also created numerous woodland pictures, which are characterized by a deep spirituality and bond with nature.  

A.Y. Jackson, Terre Sauvage, 1913, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Foto: NGC
Franklin Carmichael, Autumn Hillside, 1920 © Art Gallery of Ontario L69.16

Another central subject explored by these artists is the single tree growing out of a rock. The romantic notion of the solitary tree has its roots in a well-established European tradition, and in Canada during the 1910s and 1920s it became a symbol of the young nation in the process of finding its own cultural identity. Thomson’s stylized representation of a pine that leans robustly and steadfastly in the wind without breaking has been reproduced many times.

The lonely tree is one of the central motifs

The Group of Seven wanted to reach the largest possible audience with their pictures and organized joint exhibitions in Canada, as well as in the United States, Great Britain, and France, to achieve this. Characteristic of the artist group’s aesthetics are a bold and striking style and an immediate effect. Other than that, their works are linked not so much by common goals, ideals, themes, and motifs as by a uniform style. Even though they sought to set themselves apart from European modernism, echoes of Post-Impressionism, Art Nouveau, Expressionism, and Romanticism abound in their works. Central to any conception of Canadian identity is the idea of ​​the North that was developed by analogy with that of the “Wild West” in the United States. Historically, it is based on a fascination with remote regions of the country; in terms of subject, it is dominated mainly by the wilderness and the Arctic.

Tom Thomson. The West Wind, Winter 1916-1917, Photo © Art Gallery of Ontario, 784

Lawren Harris, who as a leading member of the Group of Seven had a decisive influence on Canadian landscape painting, repeatedly underscored the power of the North and its inspiration for Canadian artists in his writings. Informed by a mystical connection to nature, his paintings are characterized by a radical style of painting with reduced forms and two-dimensional application of paint. Other artists of the group found inspiration for artistic experimentation in the Northern Lights. In the mindscape of the Group of Seven, the North was considered alongside the wilderness as a space of possibilities and artistic experience.

It was only under the influence of industrialization that the wilderness, previously an ominous and dangerous place in the Western mind, was stylized into a place of longing and retreat. The idea of the wilderness as an antithesis to civilization is also reflected in the deserted and atmospheric landscapes of the Group of Seven. The aesthetically ordered “landscape” that can be sublime, picturesque, or romantic is, at its core, a European concept. The same holds true for the idea of owning or having control over land. Opposed to this are Indigenous worldviews of an inseparable connection to the land, and relatedness with it and with all non-human beings.

Tom Thomson, Claremont, Ontario, 1877 - Canoe Lake, Ontario, 1917, Northern Lights, About 1916-1917, Foto MMFA, Jean-François Brière
Lawren S. Harris. Lake and Mountains, 1928 © Family of Lawren S. Harris, Foto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 48/8

Since the 1960s, the paintings of the Group of Seven have been viewed increasingly critically. In the context of decolonization, the First Nations reject the portrayal of Canada as an untouched land and the appropriation of their culture by non-Indigenous artists. The history of Indigenous peoples in the lands now known as Canada has long been told mainly from a colonial perspective, but this is increasingly changing. The exhibition traces how the shift in the narrative perspective has developed. Based on the example of the harbor settlement of Ba’as in British Columbia, also called Blunden Harbour, the shift in the depiction and representation of the First Nations is illustrated at the Schirn through various filmic works from 1914 to 2013.

The paintings of the Group of Seven are viewed increasingly critically

Ba’as was home to a Kwakwaka’wakw community that was forcibly relocated in 1964. In her early work, Emily Carr had been the only artist linked to the Group of Seven to focus on Indigenous art and culture. The Schirn is showing her painting “Blunden Harbour” (ca. 1930), a famous, stylized depiction of the community’s wooden totem figures. The 1914 silent film “In the Land of the Head Hunters” (later titled “In the Land of the War Canoes”) was also shot there. It is viewed critically now, as it subordinated the culture of the Kwakwaka’wakw to a stereotyping script. Still, the project by the white photographer and filmmaker Edward S. Curtis, with advice provided by the native ethnologist George Hunt, is considered to be the first film to be cast exclusively with Indigenous actors.

Emily Carr, Blunden Harbour, ca. 1930, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Foto: NGC

Moreover, the cultural customs and ritual practices of this Indigenous community, prohibited by the restrictive laws of the Indian Act at the time the film was made, were performed as part of the fictional plot and thus recorded. The 1951 documentary film “Blunden Harbour” by the anthropologist and filmmaker Robert Gardner depicts the everyday life of the Kwakwaka’wakw. A current perspective is provided by “How a People Live”, a 2013 film by the Anishinaabe filmmaker Lisa Jackson, which was commissioned by the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw First Nations. Based on interviews and historical footage, Jackson documents the history and consequences of the community’s traumatic resettlement. The Schirn is also showing “Mobilize”, a 2015 film collage by the Algonquin-French artist Caroline Monnet that uses archival material from the National Film Board and raises questions of identity and Indigenous representation.

Caroline Monnet raises questions of Indigenous representation

The exploitation of Canada’s nature as an economic resource also rarely found its way into the works of the Group of Seven, since they were mainly focused on depicting the beauty of nature. As early as the 1920s and 1930s, large parts of Canada were being used for forestry, and the production of paper and cellulose was booming, as shown by a promotional film commissioned by the Canadian government in 1935. In this context, the Schirn displays sketches by Tom Thomson along with paintings by Arthur Lismer and Mary Wrinch depicting sawmills, trunks of felled trees, and rafts.

Tom Henderson, Hereditary Chief, 'Nakwaxda'xw First Nation, aus dem Film "How A People Live", Lisa Jackson (Dir.) © Gwa'sala and 'Nakwaxda'xw First Nations 2013
Caroline Monnet, Mobilize, 2015, Filmstill, National film board of Canada, © Caroline Monnet

Emily Carr also took up the subject of reforestation in an eponymous 1936 painting. In addition, the mining industry in the early twentieth century initiated the transformation of Canada from an agricultural to an industrial nation. The extraction of natural resources went hand in hand with greed for profit, conflict, and environmental destruction and led to the further displacement and relocation of Indigenous communities from their traditional land. Some artists, like Yvonne McKague Housser, Franklin Carmichael, and Lawren Harris, traveled to the mining towns in Northern Ontario and painted there. But like their depictions of nature, mountains, and forests, the industrialized landscapes of the Group of Seven are mostly deserted.

Yvonne McKague Housser, Silver Mine, Cobalt, 1930, Collection of Museum London. F.B. Housser Memorial Collection, 1945

Dreaming about things to come

With the online program for the exhibition

This way