Thursday, 29 December 2011

Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven

Verdict: Go see it
Where: Dulwich Picture Gallery, Dulwich
When: 19 October 2011 – 8 January 2012

What is it? An exhibition of a Canadian art movement in the early twentieth century, inspired by Impressionism and the Canadian wilderness.

My opinion: When you're told that an art movement is inspired by Impressionism it does make you wary, as you know it will always struggle to compete with the original movement and has its work cut out to appear as anything more than derivative.

The first two rooms focus on Tom Thomson, who founded this movement. It's clear that he drew inspiration from the pointillism of Seurat and the broad brush strokes of Cezanne. His works, though impressive, can never measure up to the French Impressionists but he does break new ground when capturing the wintry scenes of Canada.

The exhibit then moves on to his successors and they surpass their 'master' by creating a more realistic style that is more unique to the movement itself. J.E.H MacDonald's 'Falls, Montreal river' and Frank Johnston's 'Algoma Arabesque' showing a gripping sweeping landscape and a vivid forest respectively.

A small section of the exhibit is dedicated to English artists that tried to take up the mantle of the Canadian painters but this was the most disappointing room as it didn't seem to bring anything new to the movement.

When the movement truly broke free from their Impressionist beginnings, they started to carve out their own niche that grabs the eye and takes the viewer beyond the 'I've seen this before' position. The focus on the clouds, constituting two thirds of the painting and almost popping out of the canvas in Johnston's 'Fire Ranger' is novel, and Arthur Lisner's 'Evening Silhouette's use of bold lines is so striking that it's almost tribal.

The final part of the exhibit is dedicated to Lawren Harris who really took the movement in a completely different direction, so much so that he's almost separate to the movement itself. The striking lines and bold forms in 'Iceberg, Davis Strait' and 'Mt. Lefroy' are closer to the abstract work of Picasso than the landscapes and sunsets of Monet.

The evolution of style throughout the exhibit is a joy to behold and I challenge anyone to walk away from this and not see at least one painting that grabs them. The mixture of styles makes you think you've seen a set of related exhibits and not just an exhibit of one movement, definitely worth taking some time out to see it.

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