Magnetic North An Exhibition imagining Canada in painting 1910–1940 UNTIL 29 AUGUST 2021

Lawren Harris, Mount Lefroy, 1930

Magnificent outdoor adventures, remote cabins in the woods and the magic of the Northern Lights against white glaciers are just a few of the romantic notions globally associated with “Canada”. We suddenly find ourselves longing for an idyllic life as a lone adventurer of the kind we see in films and literature.

These romantic ideas are by no means an invention of our time: In the early 20th century Canadian artists travelled from the cities out into nature. They were on the hunt for a new pictorial language to shape the cultural identity for a still burgeoning nation, which had to gain self-governance in 1867 with the confederation of four provinces. In visual terms, these paintings and sketches embody the dream of an untouched world. They depict the idyll of an awesome landscape and at the time hovered beyond the reality of modern city life and the expanding industrial utilization of nature. Not least, this landscape was home to the Indigenous population.

Lawren Harris, Lake and Mountains, 1928

Moder­nism as na­tional art: the Group of Seven

In May 1920, the artists and friends Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, Franklin Carmichael and A.J. Casson officially founded the “Group of Seven” association. They had already shared several excursions for some years – setting out to explore the countryside to the north of Ontario, which they had captured in atmospheric paintings. The Group of Seven, along with other artists from their circles such as Emily Carr, Tom Thomson and Mary E. Wrinch, shared not only a preference for landscape painting but also the goal of establishing a uniquely Canadian tradition in painting. Unlike the European avant-garde, they thus wanted to make an original contribution to Modernism, which was developing internationally. Alongside their artistic ideas, they shared the desire to express a sense of belonging to the still far from independent nation of Canada and ideally to invoke it in the observer. Art was to be a tool for dissemination, formation and consolidation.

"The thought of today cannot be expressed by the language of yesterday."

Group of Seven, 1922
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