Rambling thoughts on Ross King’s “Defiant Spirits”

By the time I was eleven years old, I’d lived half my life in the Shield Country north of Algonquin Park.  When I tell people I was a kid in Sudbury in the Sixties they seem to look at me with sad sympathy.  “Black Rock” their eyes seem to say.  Well, my memory of Sudbury is all running through the forest and canoeing and swimming in the summer and in winter tobogganing on the hillsides and playing hockey and British Bulldog on the rink in the big open area in the middle of Laurentian Village or on the real rink (it had boards) over between Walford Road and Lockerbie High School.  It was over by the real rink there was some sort of winter festival with a costume contest for the kids.  One year I was Snoopy.  My mother made me a wonderful mask out of Papiermâché (no doubt the spark which led to numerous outrageous Hallowe’en costumes I later made for my own offspring).  I don’t remember much about the competition or how I did, but I got to wear white thermal long underwear on the outside of my clothes — that’s a memory of the Sixties everyone should have.

One January I disassembled the last year’s calendar and taped the pictures to my bedroom wall.  I don’t know the artist, but some of the work of an Inuit artist of my generation, Ningeokuluk Teevee, shares some vocabulary with what I remember from that calendar.   In 1967, I felt like I lived in the True North.  My childhood was filled with Inuit images, snow, canoes, the Canadian Shield, Adventures in Rainbow Country on television when I wasn’t out having my own adventures in the real Rainbow Country.  Sure, by the time I was a teenager I was living in the Deep South, across the river from Detroit, and then a few years later in the warm, dusty West, in Edmonton — then in fact farther North than I’d ever been before, even when I took the Polar Bear Express to Moose Factory on the shores of James Bay.   But those years in Sudbury, on the Shield made me into a “Canadian” with an unbreakable nostalgia for the Idea of North and a severe Wacousta complex.

I don’t know when I first encountered the works of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson.  In my memory, Tom has always been floating face down in Canoe Lake surrounded by solitary windswept pines and interlaced forests against paint blob skies and the other seven or eight or nine actual members have been blended together, except for Lawren Harris, who’s throbbingly glowing smooth mountains and icebergs have always stood apart, somewhere on the West Coast, wondering where Emily Carr might be.  And looking down on Carr and Harris have been the masks and poles of the Haida, and on the Seven and Thomson have gazed Norval Morrisseau and Alex Janvier and earliest of all, Inuit soapstone carvings.  These, the artistic vocabulary of the Pacific Coast, of the Arctic, of the Woodlands, both First Nations and Thomson and the Seven are my mother tongue of design.  Later I gained the school learning of European art (I love [and am sometimes embarrassed by] the Impressionists) and on my own I lovingly came to know a bit of Maya iconography.  And Alex Janvier was always mumbling around, and Jane Ash Poitras kept shouting at me, and they spoke so well!

As a child I lived in the natural world Morriseau, Thomson and the Seven painted, and later, in the political world in which Tecumseh and Pontiac and Brock fought. Today I live in Janvier’s and Poitras’ and Dumont’s and Riel’s world.  But the child is in me still:  I am a child of the Shield.  And so, at the end of the longest preamble to a book review in history, Ross King’s Defiant Spirits speaks to me very passionately (but with appropriate Georgian restraint).

King was born almost in the same year as me.  I wonder if his childhood left a similar impression on him.  I find it suggestive that his Judgement of Paris was as comfortable to me as his Defiant Spirits was.  For me, The Judgement of Paris was an investigation of my (slightly more) adult artistic development while Defiant Spirits delves into the earliest of my childhood memories.  I was in a canoe in Algonquin Park within fifty years of Thomson’s death.  Is that a bias?   Almost certainly.  But it is a bias based on experience.  What is the rate of turnover of the water in Canoe Lake?  Did I touch water in Canoe Lake which had cradled Thomson’s lifeless body?

Of course, it doesn’t matter — Thomson’s art was my cradle.

So, what do I say to the youngsters who grew up with a different vocabulary in the air?  I don’t know.  Perhaps all I can do is point them to King’s book and to a few passages and let them make of them what they will . . .

Something that  struck me as new about King’s treatment of the history of the Group of Seven is the way World War One cast a shadow over everything about the Group.  I’m reminded of Wade Davis’ Into the Silence which similarly argues (and exquisitely painfully describes) the influence of World War One on the early British expeditions to Everest.  Before Davis, I’d never come across even a hint that the Trenches had pushed Mallory, and, I’d never even noticed the fact that some of the Group had been in the Trenches — even though I knew that some of them had been war artists.  Such was the lack of emphasis on the Great War in my childhood, although I knew a Grandfather who was I veteran of Passchendaele and taught me the joy of fresh caught perch fried in butter by the shore of a lake in the Shield.

“The Canadian landscape inspired fear, mystery, wonder and often frustration and disappointment,” King writes.  “One confronted not other people, or even oneself, so much as the forces of nature and the vastness of the universe.” (p. 17)  Guess what?  That’s childhood!  The Canadian landscape makes us face the world as children!  Yes, today the vast majority of us live in cities, but, for what do all people everywhere, everytime long?  A return to a childlike state.  And our childlike state is standing alone in the face of the landscape.  This is the Vision Quest for all of us, whether we actually follow it or not.

I was impressed that King brought up the German painter Freidrich (p. 33), another of my favourites later in life.  Friedrich certainly has something of the tone of the Group of Seven — the solitude, the human emptiness, the threatening power of nature.  But in Freidrich there is a melancholy, a fin de siècle tone which is absolutely contrary to the hope and light in so much of the Group’s work — even in the war art.  Yes, Freidrich holds some parallels, was perhaps even an influence, but his work has a Gothic decadence absent from anything the Group produced, even in the darkest days of the Great War.

King is very dispassionate about the shortcomings and failures of the Group’s doomed nationalistic ambitions:  how can this absurdly varied national landscape produce a single national style?  But he is very rightly passionate and, I think, entirely accurate,  in his final assessment of their unanticipated success.  In his last paragraph, King places A. Y. Jackson’s The Red Maple, J. E. H. MacDonald’s The Solemn Land, Harris’s Lake Superior paintings, Frederick Varley’s war scenes and portraits, and Thomson’s sketches of Algonquin Park beside the iconic photographs of the driving of the Last Spike and of Terry Fox on his Marathon in the Shield Country just before his personal hope necessarily faded while the Hope he inspired blossomed.  “Together” writes King “they have given us one of the best responses — however incomplete it must inevitably be in a country so differentiated and so vast — to that most difficult and most Canadian of questions:  ‘Where is here?'” (p. 421)

I have lived most of my life in Cree country far from Algoma.  I have spent far more time in Banff than in Algonquin Park. Last summer I looked again at the spot where Donald A. Smith drove the Last Spike.  I remember watching with gaping jaw Terry Fox’s Odyssey.  I could show you where the Blackfoot traders used to come to the North Saskatchewan River from the south, where they would ford the river, where stood Fort Edmonton, where the trading happened, now a disused bowling green.  What do the Seven’s paintings have to do with me?

I think King makes clear what I always knew in my heart:   the Seven put us back into the canoe that allowed this country to exist; The Seven showed us that Autumn is Fire and that Winter is not Dread; the Seven gave us the Idea of North long before Glenn Gould recorded it; and, most profoundly, the Seven showed us that wherever we are, from St. John’s to Moosonee to Estipah-skikikini-kots to Pangnirtung to Haida Gwaii . . .  We Are Here.

The Art Gallery of Alberta has a number of shows related to the Group of Seven’s influence on display right now and in a few weeks a major Alex Janvier exhibit will open.  As always, if you’re in or near Edmonton, my recommendation is:  Get down to the AGA!

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