It truly is an embarrassment of riches this spring in Edmonton. Yes, the economy is in the tank. Yes, the Oilers are out of the playoffs. Sure Edmonton continues to chug along in a better economic state than Calgary and the rest of the province, and the Oilers will get to make a new start in the fall at the new Rogers Place, or, as I prefer to call it, Iron Foot Place. Bright and hopeful civic joys are these, but the most stunning wealth Edmonton enjoys this spring is best enjoyed by lovers of Canadian Art and Art History. Right now, within a stretch of five downtown LRT stations, Edmontonians and visitors can immerse themselves in three magnificent exhibitions of works by and influenced by two Canadian Groups of Seven. In a single relaxed afternoon, travelling by LRT or, better, a pleasant stroll through Edmonton’s Downtown Spring, one can lose oneself in the works of fifteen of the most influential artists in Canadian history.
Maybe start at the Borealis Gallery in the Old Federal Building on the Alberta Legislature Grounds, where Alberta and the Group of Seven is showing until May 23. Alberta and the Group of Seven is actually dominated by Alberta, in my opinion. Only a few of the Group are represented, and they by small works. The show is really about the Alberta artists who were (perhaps) influenced by the Group of Seven. Personally, I find that my favourites in the show, Annora Brown and H. G. Glyde, had roots removed from the Algoma Seven, Glyde’s in the Mexican Muralists and Brown’s in the Italian Futurists. Mais n’enculons pas des mouches.
In any case, Alberta and the Group of Seven is a gorgeous and thought provoking gem which I fear is being overlooked.
After savouring “Alberta and the Group of Seven”, head over to Grandin Station and take the next northbound train a few stations to Churchill. Or, better, walk north to 100th Avenue and then east to where it curves north to become 102 Street. Here you’ll see the view captured by H. G. Glyde in one of my favourite paintings.
Turn right (east) on to Macdonald Drive and enjoy the river view until you turn north on 100 Street. Continue to the southwest corner of Churchill Square. Diagonally across the Square is the Art Gallery of Alberta (that thing with the silver ribbon).
In the AGA you’ll have your socks blown off by the other two exhibits on this little itinerary.
On the ground floor (a little past a tiny work by yours truly) we have Out of the Woods: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, an eye-opening show curated from the AGA’s own collection. Some of these works are the reason I was excited about the AGA’s rebuild, hoping there would be a room dedicated to rotating the Gallery’s collection out of its warehouse and onto display. Look at Thomson’s “Fisherman”! The ripples in the pool! And Carmichael’s “The Valley”! And Lawren Harris’ Futurist drawing and print of a Toronto Street!
The works in Out of the Woods, because the Edmonton Art Gallery (predecessor to the AGA) was a little late to the Group of Seven collecting game, are not the popular works which sold well from the beginning. These are works passed over as less approachable, more difficult, transitional, and exploratory. In short, these are works most important for an understanding of what Thomson and the Group were trying to do. On its own, Out of the Woods is a show to make springtime in Edmonton a Heaven.
But, go upstairs to the second floor. Go into the little RBC New Works Gallery and savour Britney and Richelle Bear Hat’s Little Cree Women and know that if not for the giant, heroic, woman-of-myth Daphne Odjig, whose works you will soon witness, the Bear Hat sisters would never have been allowed to show their art outside a handicraft shop. Pause for a moment and consider what might have been — what has been — lost.
Now. Take a deep breath. It’s time for 7. The most important Seven. The seven members of Professional Native Indian Artists, Incorporated. Daphne Odjig and these six men changed the world of Art, in Canada, and around the world. In a single decade the shattered the colonial and academic chains that had bound professional art for generations. Odjig and her colleagues completed the work that other Group of Seven had tentatively started. These seven people in the heart of Turtle Island tore apart the European vision, they huffed and puffed and blew away the European academic straitjacket. More than any one person, I would argue, Daphne Odjig, “Picasso’s Mother” in Norval Morrisseau’s words, more than any one group, Professional Native Indian Artists, Inc. broke the European Academic cycle of dominance. They made Art, with a capital “A”, something not just European, but something universally human.
You’re pretty lucky to be standing here, in Amiskwaciwâskahikan, before Daphne Odjig’s Mother Earth, a little way from Alex Janvier’s Cold Lake Sunset, Norval Morrisseau’s Christ,and so on. You stand surrounded by pivotal works in the history of Art.
Alberta and the Group of Seven is at the Borealis Gallery until May 23, 2016.
Out of the Woods: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven is at the Art Gallery of Alberta until April 17, 2016
Little Cree Women is at the Art Gallery of Alberta until July 3, 2016.
7: Professional Native Indian Artists, Inc. is at the Art Gallery of Alberta until July 3, 2016.