Book Review: “Magnetic North: Imagining Canada in Painting 1910-40”

Book Review: “Magnetic North: Imagining Canada in Painting 1910-40”

The landscape is loaded.

Thus has it always been, but 21st century scholarship is putting a particular point on a fact that’s been steadily gaining sorely-needed attention over the past half-century: the iconic landscape paintings created in the Americas by European settlers and their descendants contributed to a myth of the New World as unsettled virgin country, a Garden of Eden waiting to be occupied by peoples who in fact were displacing long-established Native communities.

In the United States, that meant the Hudson River School; in Canada, a group of seven painters who branded themselves, aptly, as the Group of Seven became the canonical creators of works that helped define the nation’s view of itself and its landscape. As Georgiana Uhlyarik notes in the final chapter of Magnetic North: Imagining Canada in Painting 1910-40, the image of a single tree clinging to the unyielding granite of the Canadian Shield “has become emblematic of the rugged yet steadfast Canadian settler identity.”

The Group of Seven weren’t just shaping a national identity, they were branding themselves with sophisticated — yet sincere — savvy, the new book’s contributors note. They converted a boxcar to a cozy communal lodging for their trips to paint en particularly plein air. As befit their backgrounds in commercial art, they designed a group logo to advertise their collective shows; deploying a boldly modern graphic language to craft outwardly unassuming but absolutely engrossing canvases, they created a body of work that became widely reproduced, familiar to most Canadians from classroom prints and family wall calendars.

While the Group of Seven provide the hook that will probably get most readers to pick up Magnetic North — the embossed cover features a detail of an iceberg painting by the fascinating Lawren Harris — the book isn’t just another coffee table volume to throw onto the tall pile of Group biographies. Created in conjunction with an exhibition making two German stops this year, Magnetic North concisely yet insightfully treats various themes from the Group’s work in several chapters that are wrapped around a core that explores visual depictions of the Native cultures so conspicuously absent from the painters’ work.

The contributors to the book, edited by Uhlyarik and Martina Weinhart, interrogate that absence, but they also note the presence in the painters’ work of a particular kind of human activity: the extractive industries of logging and mining. The Group of Seven and their contemporaries — particularly Tom Thomson, who died too soon to be a formal member of the Group but who was nonetheless, in a sense, its soul — captured the dark majesty of the activity that was, ironically, devastating the very landscapes they were immortalizing.

The works depicted in Magnetic North, and the films documenting Native life that the volume helpfully elevates, constitute a chronicle of a contested time in North American life. In expanding our understanding of the complex dynamics behind landscapes that once appeared, to many Canadians (and culture vultures around the world), as simple pleasures, Magnetic North performs a valuable service and well-deserves a place on your shelf of art books.

Jay Gabler