Wilderness stars in UK show of revered Canadian art

LONDON (Reuters) - The work of Canada’s most famous artists, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, whose paintings depict the rugged wilderness of the northern landscape, are on show in a major exhibition in Britain for the first time since the 1920s.

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Windswept trees, turbulent lakes, snowy vistas and colorful northern skies painted with brilliant oils in broad strokes dominate the post-impressionist works in “Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven” which opened on Wednesday at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery and is on show until January.

Thomson’s dramatic natural portraits, alongside the displayed work of fellow artists who formed the Group of Seven, have celebrated for Canadians the beauty of their country from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific Ocean and as far north as the Arctic Circle for almost a hundred years.

“Prior to Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, everyone was painting stylistically like the English,” said Nancy Lang, co-producer of a new Canadian television documentary titled “West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson.”

“This was a group that went out and established a unique Canadian style - they captured something that still exists in the North.”

Thomson, born in Canada in 1877, died under mysterious circumstances at Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park, in the province of Ontario in 1917. Speculation over whether the experienced outdoorsman died accidentally, was murdered or committed suicide continues in Canada.

The style of two of Thomson’s most popular paintings on show in the exhibition, “The West Wind” and “The Jack Pine,” dominates the early aesthetic of the painters who formed the Group of Seven in 1920, three years after Thomson’s death.

The seven men, English-born Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley and J.E.H. MacDonald alongside Canadian-born A.Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, Franklin Carmichael and Frank Johnston set out to explore and interpret Canada’s wilderness on canvas.

“It’s a bit hokey to say Thomson was the North Star, but he really was the one who took them north in the first place and showed them the way,” Lang said. “They always paid tribute and homage to him and then formed a group.”

The London exhibition demonstrates how their work became more abstract over time as their interactions with nature took on spiritual overtones.

Works by Thomson and the Group of Seven are also highly prized on the Canadian art market.

In 2009, a small oil sketch titled “Old Stump, Lake Superior” by Harris was sold for C$3.5 million ($3.45 million), the top price ever paid for a Group of Seven painting, according to Linda Rodeck, managing director of Sotheby’s Canada.

The highest price paid for a Thomson painting was C$2.75 million ($2.71 million) for “Early Spring, Canoe Lake” in 2009, and it is not uncommon for good Thomson oil sketches to fetch over C$1 million ($987,000), Rodeck said.

After London, the 122 paintings on loan from Canada’s National Gallery of Art, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, the Hart House Permanent Art Collection and private lenders, will also travel to Oslo, Norway, and Groningen in the Netherlands.

Writing by Julie Mollins, editing by Paul Casciato