Travel Photographer / Writer
chasing the essence
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A Quintessential Canadian Gallery
This is my fourth article about Tom Thomson, with another piece yet to come, each meant to pique your interest in touring, nature and the arts.
I salute Tom as a gifted painter whose ability to capture the untamed Canadian Shield landscape was an inspiration to others, most notably the Group of Seven with a body of work that respects our natural heritage.
Tucked into the village of Kleinburg north of Toronto, the McMichael Gallery of Canadian art proudly displays a major collection of the artists’ works in a luxurious woodland setting. It began in 1952 with a vision by Robert and Signe McMichael to gather landscape paintings by Thomson and the Group of Seven. And this universe continues to expand.
July of this year marked the centenary of Tom’s tragic and mysterious 1917 death on Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park, in the realm he loved more than anywhere — especially compared to gritty Toronto during that era of industrial development.
Two current exhibitions celebrate the man, one a feminist point of view from artist Joyce Wieland, the other a celebration of Tom and the Group of Seven by 7 talented luthiers (string instrument makers).
Sarah Stanners, Director, Curatorial & Collections, gave us a tour.
An oversize easel sitting outside Tom's studio shack which was moved in 1962 from its original Rosedale Valley site in Toronto. The easel is one of several placed in spots around Ontario where the painters worked. Although in metro Toronto, this one featured Algoma, a district I'd just come back from!
"Welcome to the Canadian art collection! Just last year we celebrated our 50th anniversary."
With a degree in Art History, Sarah is a rare case of being employed in the same field as her Ph.D.. "I’ve always concentrated on Canadian art because I have a lot of faith in it and love for it."
"The Thomson-Wieland exhibit is an unusual kind of anachronistic pairing. Wieland was born in 1938, well after Tom died, but she had a great love and affection for him, (as many Canadians do) proud to point to him as a great Canadian artist."
What better way to show the Canadian landscape than this wall of 55 panels by Tom Thomson? The McMichael boasts 91 of his canvases, with 81 in this exhibition. "We brought out all the gems."
Ragged Pine 1916
Snow Shadows 1916
Tea Lake Dam 1917
"These (panels) are oil, capturing in real time what Tom saw in the landscape. Later, he would go to his studio shack...and work up to a larger canvas from what he thought was compelling. In the spring of 1917 he decided to paint (something new) every day, but had to stop because of the black flies."
Fellow painter A.Y. Jackson also complained about the mosquitoes getting into his paint. When heat and flies were too much, Thomson shifted to fishing, his other great love.
One of Tom's palettes. Tom (R) gone fishing with Arthur Lismer, who was later a member of the Group of Seven.
Joyce Wieland compiled a book with some of Tom's (mainly fishing) photos.
"Part of this exhibition wants to play with the idea that there are many different versions of the Tom Thomson story. As you go through the show you’ll see many ways that Joyce Wieland is fetishizing Tom and Canada, basically mirroring what we do when admiring his work and related artifacts."
"In her 1956 film The Far Shore, she created a love story of Tom’s final year. This fictional approach is an allegory of Canada’s love for the painter and the landscape" (and not incidentally a plea at the time for amicable French-English relations.)
The exterior of Tom's shack is popular as a wedding photography backdrop. The interior undergoes changes all the time, but retains some original furniture, simple as it was.
You'll find the Guitar Project upstairs in the main building. Plan to spend 40 minutes watching the documentary video as part of this love of one group of artists for another. And the music's great!
The group project guitar commemorating Tom is a masterpiece, even when purposely unfinished, to reflect Tom's life. Ask one of the docents to shine a flashlight inside.
" Joyce looked to Tom in a creative manner. She points out that one of the reasons we all love Tom is because he is a blank canvas for us. We can scribe what we think, wish, want, love about Tom because he didn’t leave behind diaries and very few letters. And everybody loves a good story."