Even the most fledgling Canadian art dilettante knows about the Group of Seven and can probably even name a few names – Tom Thomson and Emily Carr, most likely. Yet the Canadian Group of Painters (CGP), which is arguably more prolific and influential, is much less well known in the popular consciousness. The Agnes Etherington Art Centre hopes to change that, and is currently hosting an exhibition that showcases this important chapter in Canada’s artistic history.
The CGP began in 1933 as an offshoot of the Group of Seven, and several members – such as Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson – were key figures in both schools. Generally, the CGP was led by progressive modernists and kept alive the “group” tradition that was such a part of Canada’s artistic identity. Twenty-eight painters are associated with the group’s most watershed period (1933-1953), and this is the chapter on which the AEAC focuses with their exhibition A Vital Force: The Canadian Group of Painters.
What largely differentiates the two schools is that while the Group of Seven focused on Canada’s natural landscape, the CGP began to integrate a social landscape as well. The period of their inception was marked by extensive changes: economic depression, world war, technological advancement, and the general ennui of the modernist period. The CGP’s artists reflected these shifts in their depiction of Canadiana, even as they initially kept with the traditions of the former coterie.
For instance, one piece that perhaps most significantly represents the chasm between the two schools is A.Y. Jackson’s “Radium Mine” (1938). Jackson, who was also a member of the Group of Seven, uses the instantly recognizable and signature techniques associated with the Algonquin School. Yet while the Group of Seven generally depicted the landscape as a sort of untouched and pristine wilderness, “Radium Mine” (pictured above) is an image of a town settled on a rocky outcropping. Even the title is telling. Mining suggests industrialization, and of course radium was scientifically important during the time. In other words, nearly all aspects of Jackson’s piece hint at a changing Canadian landscape, both socially and environmentally. In a larger sense, the CGP marked a change in the artistic landscape as well.
Of course, such a cursory analysis is only the beginning. The CGP paintings are immensely rich for discussion, and the exhibit at the AEAC will have a paneled event on May 11th for such exploration. Four expert speakers will be discussing paintings, doing dramatic readings, and fielding questions. The speakers include professors from both Queen’s and York University, as well as a curator of the centre and a historian from the Canadian Warm Museum. The dialogue will be followed by a reception with mingling and light refreshments. Admission is free. To register for the talks, please call the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at 613-533-2190.