Nihls Ohlsen / Visual Culture

‘This is What We Want to do With Canada’

Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven developed an artistic language that captured the unique qualities of the Canadian landscape. Here, Nils Ohlsen explores their links with Scandinavian art of the 19th century.

This is What We Want to do With Canada

You instinctively feel, on studying these canvases, an exhilarating sense of direct communication with nature and natural forces. You note the naïve zest of healthy, unfatigued sensibilities for fresh, tonic colour contrasts, and you feel the thrill of eternal aspiration in this fondness for great, open spaces and the magic radiance of the arctic aurora. [1]

This quotation describes perfectly the landscape painting of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, but in fact it comes from the catalogue of the ‘Exhibition of Contemporary Scandinavian Art’ mounted by the American Scandinavian Society in New York. No fewer than three kings acted as patrons of this show when it opened on 10 December 1912 in the American Art Galleries: their majesties Gustav V of Sweden, Christian X of Denmark and Haakon VII of Norway. As a representative of the art world, the curator responsible for the exhibition could certainly hold his own in this illustrious company: Christian Brinton was an internationally respected American critic and exhibition organiser whose interests went far beyond the familiar Western schools. Moreover, the museum directors and art historians who acted as his co-curators were people who set the tone in the visual arts in the three participating Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. [2]

By the standards of the day the accompanying catalogue was a lavish affair, with over 170 pages, biographies of all the artists and a large number of reproductions of paintings. It featured 165 works by forty-five of the most prominent Scandinavian artists practising at the turn of the twentieth century. Over the following months the exhibition toured to Buffalo (Albright Art Gallery), Toledo (Museum of Arts), Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago) and Boston (Museum of Fine Arts).

The timing and the ambitious nature of the exhibition were no accident. There existed a long-standing enthusiasm for the North, but in December 1911 the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had discovered the South Pole and this triggered a renewed surge of interest. Humanists and romantics had already been fascinated by the Nordic myths and sagas, [3] but in the fin de siècle period a fully fledged craze developed for the romance of the North, prompted not least by the discovery of Scandinavia as a travel destination and stoked by the most prominent of all Nordlandfahrer (Nordic travellers), the German emperor Wilhelm II. The North figured in the imagination as a paradisical place of refuge for Central Europeans wearied and disillusioned by the modern world. [4] Once deemed the mystical home of savage and primitive peoples, shrouded in gloom, it now shone out as a model country, pointing the way forwards. Norway and Finland, sparsely populated countries that had fought long for their independence and were young in historical terms, provided particularly welcome blank canvases on which to project modern ideas about society. [5] The visual arts and the work of the writers Henrik Ibsen, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and August Strindberg, whose plays and novels enjoyed great international success, contributed immensely to this image.

The official goal of the exhibition was ‘to show American Scandinavians, in the most favourable and acceptable manner, the production of the leading Swedish, Danish and Norwegian painters’. [6] Today it is known to have far exceeded this aim. For two Canadians visiting the exhibition in Buffalo, it proved a crucial experience with far-reaching consequences. Neither J.E.H. MacDonald nor his fellow artist Lawren Harris, twelve years his junior, had ever been to a Scandinavian country or engaged with Scandinavian art. In Buffalo they encountered works of art that did much more than awaken their interest and excite their praise.

This is What We Want to do With Canada

1. Jens Ferdinand Willumsen, Jotunheim, 1892–93, Oil on canvas, wood, painted zinc and enamel on copper, 150 x 270 cm, The J.F. Willumsen Museum, Frederikssund, Denmark.

For the two Canadians seeking to plumb ‘the character, the power and clarity and rugged elemental beauty of our own land’ [7] Scandinavian art will have come less as a surprise than as an encouragement. MacDonald and Harris immediately sensed a deep spiritual affinity when faced with the Scandinavian works. ‘Harris was deeply impressed by the sympathies it awoke in him. In subject, in treatment, there was a pronounced affinity with his own aspirations and with the aim of his colleagues’. [8] ‘Here were a large number of paintings which gave body to our rather nebulous ideas’, Harris recalled in 1949. [9] ‘Here was an art, bold, vigorous and uncompromising, embodying direct experience of the great North’. [10] In a similar vein to Harris, MacDonald later wrote of the exhibition:

We were full of associated ideas. Not that we had ever been to Scandinavia, but we had feelings of height and breadth and depth and colour and sunshine and solemnity and new wonder about our own country, and we were pretty pleased to find a correspondence with these feelings of ours, not only in the general attitude of the Scandinavian artists, but also in the natural aspects of their countries. Except in minor points, the pictures might all have been Canadian and we felt, ‘This is what we want to do with Canada’ … These artists seemed to be a lot of men not trying to express themselves so much as trying to express something that took hold of themselves. The painters began with nature rather than art. [11]

Clearly, the two Canadians could not contain their enthusiasm. Sudden revelation and déjà vu must have coincided. A huge door swung open, offering them a view of how they might realise their own aims. What had previously been a vague quest, now acquired a firm footing and a precise direction.

This is What We Want to do With Canada

2. Gustav Fjæstad, Vintermånsken (Winter Moonlight), 1895, oil on canvas, 100 x 134 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

In 1913, Harris and MacDonald were not alone in seeking to formulate a nationally-centred art. Their artist friends Tom Thomson, Franklin Carmichael, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley had likewise been engaged since 1910 in a search for a modern and truly Canadian landscape art, going on painting expeditions – often together – in the wilds of Ontario and in the province’s Muskoka district and Georgian Bay. Even if only two members of what was still an unnamed association of artists saw the Scandinavian exhibition in Buffalo, a spark was ignited there that led to one of Canada’s finest artistic achievements in the twentieth century: the art of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.

Comparison of the Scandinavian paintings exhibited in Buffalo with subsequent works by the Canadians quickly reveals the ‘correspondence’ alluded to by MacDonald. Notes written by MacDonald in his copy of the catalogue confirm that the landscapes left the deepest impression. [12] Special mention should be made in this connection of the Swedes Gustav Fjaestad (fig. 2), Prince Eugen (fig. 4) and Otto Hesselbom, the Norwegians Harald Sohlberg (fig. 3), Thorlof Holmboe, Arne Kavli and Edvard Munch, and the Dane J.F. Willumsen (fig. 1). [13] No Finns took part in the exhibition – Finland does not belong to Scandinavia – but one Finnish artist must be cited since the Canadians’ landscapes resemble his just as closely as those of the Scandinavians named above. This is Akseli Gallen-Kallela, whose work was exhibited in the States in 1915–16 and in 1923–24. [14]

This is What We Want to do With Canada

3. Harald Sohlberg, Vinternatt i fjellene (Winter Night in the Mountains), 1901, oil on canvas, 70 x 92 cm, Private collection.

Many of the Scandinavian works showed panoramic views of natural landscapes with unspoilt forests, lakes, fjords and mountains, devoid of human life. They were essentially naturalistic and ‘correct’ in terms of perspective, yet they also evinced varying degrees and styles of abstraction. While Sohlberg cultivated realistic detail to an almost surreal extent, Munch dissolved his landscapes in painterly atmosphere. Willumsen tended to accommodate his subjects to a mosaic-like overall structure with strong colour contrasts, whereas Fjaestad’s close-up views of forests reveal a pervasive composition of filigree ornament. Finally, Jonas Helmer Osslund and Hesselbom simplified detail in order to construct their panoramic views from larger organic forms. All these painters led the viewer from a narrow platform area in the foreground, via a relatively undifferentiated middle ground to a mountain or other striking feature in the distance, creating ‘unfathomable and magnificent emotional landscape spaces’ [15] that generated an effect of sublime monumentality. It was the ‘simplicity of subject matter and presentation’ that made a lasting impression on MacDonald. [16] Brinton evoked the same kind of response when he wrote in the catalogue: ‘There is one fact which stands clearly forth after a comprehensive survey of Scandinavian painting and it is that … the primal, elementary basis of this art has remained unchanged. It continues, as always, full of tender lyricism and heroic intensity’. [17]

Scandinavian painting of the two decades after 1890 is now generally referred to as Stimmungsmalerei (mood painting), in which the painted landscape represents the landscape of the soul. Such idealised images, conceived and constructed around a certain mood, typically feature transitions from day to night for example, or from autumn to winter or sunlight to stormy weather. Nature appears as the locus of an emotional experience, inviting empathetic immersion in a mood more than physical exploration in the mind’s eye. Reflections, for instance, can function as echoes of psychological states, distant mountain ranges as focuses of longing. These thematic, compositional and atmospheric aspects of Scandinavian landscape painting recur in the work of Thomson and the Group of Seven.

This is What We Want to do With Canada

4. Prins Eugen Den ljusa natten, Tyresö (The Bright Night, Tyresö), 1899, oil on canvas, 40 x 100 cm, Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde, Stockholm.

Yet there are also differences. In explaining these, it should be noted that Canada’s entry into the First World War in August 1914 had a severely disruptive effect on these pioneering Canadian artists. Thomson died tragically in Canada in 1917, and not until 1919 did the others start functioning again as a group. An appreciable gap in time therefore separated their art from that of the Scandinavians, and this is naturally reflected in the style of their painting, particularly in its greater degree of abstraction. This is especially noticeable in the handling. The Canadians substituted a summary treatment of form, rendered by means of impasto patches, monochrome areas and stripes (see fig. 5), for the Scandinavians’ realistic or more traditionally painterly approach. In addition, the Canadian paintings evince a slightly different approach to nature. While the Scandinavians occasionally included signs of human settlement and cultivation of the landscape, the Canadians restricted human presence in their pictures to tents, canoes and small huts. In both cases, nature is the leading player in a spectacle as magnificent as it is unapproachable, but the Canadian paintings are more dramatic and richer in contrasts. Whereas the Scandinavians bathe their landscapes in a soft, diffused light, the Canadians favour harsh light that casts bold shadows. They replace the Scandinavians’ propensity towards peace and harmony with a penchant for powerful chromatic contrasts in images featuring violent flooding, forest fires, brewing storms and monumental cloud formations. Their compositions therefore tend to be conceived more openly than the essentially closed structures of the Scandinavians’. If the latter can be said to evoke yearning for things past, then the Canadians’ paintings conjure up forces of nature that herald change.

In an essay on Scandinavian and American landscape painting in the second half of the nineteenth century Barbara Novak speaks of ‘A Shared “Look”… tempered to a large extent by its distance from the European painterly mainstream, and also by the existence of a strong parallel indigenous folk tradition’. [18] This mixture proved highly potent in the development not only of the art of the Canadians, but also in that of other North American artists, such as Marsden Hartley (1877– 1943), Arthur Dove (1880–1946) and August Vincent Tack (1870–1949). [19]

This is What We Want to do With Canada

5. J.E.H. MacDonald, Sketch for Beaver Dam (detail), 1919, oil on board, 21.2 x 26.7 cm, Collection of the Faculty Club, University of Toronto.

Despite the differences between them, Scandinavian and Canadian landscape paintings encapsulate a common view of nature as magnificent, sublime and infinite. Profoundly moved by the grandeur and vastness of their native lands, the artists transformed their impressions into symphonic spatial panoramas that instinctively arouse sublime, even religious, feelings in the viewer. Lawren Harris and Fjaestad engaged intensively with theosophy. [20] Yet it is not only in their work that the splendour and immensity of nature conveys awareness or intimations of the divine in general and a quest for a shared essence of religious truth in particular. Comparing Scandinavian and American landscape art in the mid nineteenth century, Barbara Novak points out that the similarities between them resulted from a process involving complex cultural factors and notes that the ‘idea of self in relation to nature and God or nature as God is… closely allied to this’. [21] Torsten Gunnarsson writes: ‘Both the Americans and the Scandinavians had access to the ideas of Schelling and the German idealist philosophers, to Rousseau’s natural primitivism, to all the international currents that found God in nature’, [22] adding: ‘The Conception of Nature as a spiritual entity and a symbol of God’s existence became just as widely current [in North America] as in European Romanticism. In America, though, this view of nature conflicted more overtly than in Europe’. [23] This religious element, which sometimes makes the panoramic landscapes seem like modern devotional images, is implicit in the works of both the Scandinavians and the Canadians.

Topographical similarities between Scandinavia and Canada, with their huge areas of unspoiled terrain, formed the basis of this artistic affinity. In related, compelling ways the painters addressed issues of national identity and pantheism against a background of rapid development and cultivation of hitherto untamed natural surroundings previously perceived as threatening.

The art historical foundations of this parallel development lay in a shared Romantic tradition. For example, both groups of artists had frequent recourse to the motif of a foreground tree standing before a wide expanse of landscape, a motif more strongly rooted in the tradition of Scandinavian painting than in any other. Johan Christian Dahl, the founder of independent Norwegian painting in the period after 1814 and a close friend of Caspar David Friedrich in Dresden, used it on several occasions. Heroic and monumental, a single birch tree appears in each case above a deep abyss, defying the forces of nature in front of a wide-ranging mountain landscape. In Dahl’s work, as in Thomson’s well-known painting The Jack Pine, the motif has been interpreted as symbolising a nation’s fight for independence. No less revealing is a comparison between Dahl’s Winter at Sognefjord of 1827 (fig. 6) and Harris’s North Shore, Lake Superior (top image of this article), painted in 1926. Across a gap of almost one hundred years both works convey the sense of the twin characteristics of everlastingness and transitoriness in natural surroundings as forbidding as they are fascinating.

This is What We Want to do With Canada

6. Johann Christian Dahl, Vinter ved Sognefjorden (Winter at Sognefjord), 1827, oil on canvas, 61.5 x 75.5 cm, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo.

Early nineteenth-century Romantic pictorial concepts and symbolism reached North America at mid-century in the work of the Hudson River School. In his ‘Essay on American scenery’ of 1835, the school’s founder, Thomas Cole, wrote: ‘Go not abroad in search of material for the exercise of your pencil, while the virgin charms of our native lands have claims on your deepest affections… Untrammelled as he is, and free from academic and other restraints by virtue of his position, why should not the [American] landscape painter, in accordance with the spirit of self-government, boldly originate a hight [sic] and independent style, based on his native resources?’ [24] Coles’s wish certainly reached fulfilment in the painting of Thomson and the Group of Seven, even if these artists did make a close study of European, especially Scandinavian, art.

At the Scandinavian Society’s exhibition it was probably the art of the Norwegians, a people who had won their battle for independence as recently as 1905, that encouraged the Canadians most emphatically to ‘boldly originate a high and independent style’. Jens Thiis, writing about the Norwegian contribution in the catalogue, stated: ‘With this newborn faith in actuality, this pantheistic enthusiasm for nature and truth, the men of the eighties wrote, spoke and painted.’ [25] And in his introduction Christian Brinton left no doubt as to the fact that he was pinning his hopes on the Norwegians as the source of an independent American art: ‘Full of undeveloped power and passionate defiance, more fundamentally talented than the Swedes, and endowed with an aggressive force often disconcerting to the pacific Danes, the Norwegians were able, within the span of a few brief, tempestuous years, to place themselves abreast of their more advantageously situated neighbours’. [26] He introduced these remarks by noting: ‘Norway enjoys the distinction of having evolved, during the dim, legendary days of her intrepid Vikings and sea rovers, a thoroughly original and independent national style… Although boasting what should logically have proved a magnificently fruitful legacy, contemporary Norwegian painting owes little or nothing to the past’. [27]

The history of Scandinavian art in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is marked by influence from countries outside Scandinavia – with the notable exception of the impact made by the early nineteenth-century Golden Age of Danish art. Scandinavians were drawn to the academies in Dresden, Karlsruhe, Düsseldorf, Munich and, from the 1880s, Paris – and it was there that they acquired their most important experience. Towards the end of the century there was a general move to return home, and only then did Scandinavian artists establish an independent brand of neo-Romantic art. Their role was reversed in relation to Canada: Scandinavians, not least Norwegians, provided the essential impetus behind the foundation of one of Canada’s most important groups of artists in the first half of the twentieth century. ■

Painting CanadaThis essay is taken from Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.

Nils Ohlsen is Director of Old Masters and Modern Art at the National Museum of Norway. He has curated exhibitions and published books on historic and contemporary art, including Garten Eden, The Garden in Art Since 1900 (2007) and Realism, The Adventure of Reality (2010).

[1] Christian Brinton, ‘Introductory note’, in American Scandinavian Society: Exhibition of Contemporary Scandinavian Art, exh. cat., American Art Galleries, New York, 1912, p. 26.

[2] Karl Madsen was director of the Royal Gallery in Copenhagen; the Swede Carl G. Laurin was a writer, art historian and teacher whose home formed a major focus of artistic life in Stockholm; and Jens Thiis was director of the National Gallery in Christiania
(now Oslo).

[3] Julia Zernack, ‘Nordenschwärmerei und Germanenbegeisterung im Kaiserreich’, in Wahlverwandtschaft: Skandinavien und Deutschland 1800 bis 1914, Berlin, 1997, p. 71.

[4] Zernack, ‘Nordenschwärmerei und Germanenbegeisterung im Kaiserreich’, p. 71.

[5] Norway and Finland did not achieve independence until the early twentieth century, whereas Denmark and Sweden had already been major European powers in the seventeenth.

[6] Brinton, ‘Introductory note’, in American Scandinavian Society, p. 8.

[7] Anne Newlands, Canadian Art from its Beginnings to 2000, Toronto, 2000, p. 136.

[8] Charles C. Hill, The Group of Seven: Art for a Nation, exh. cat., National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1995, p. 48.

[9] Hans Brummer, ‘Ett skandinavisk perspektiv’, in Terre sauvage: Kanadensisk landskapsmåleri og Group of Seven, exh. cat., National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1999, p. 16.

[10] Newlands, Canadian Art from its Beginnings to 2000, p. 136.

[11] J.E.H. MacDonald, quoted in Hill, The Group of Seven, p. 48.

[12] Brummer, ‘Ett skandinavisk perspektiv’, in Terre sauvage, p. 16.

[13] Not every work illustrated here by way of comparison was included in the exhibition of 1912-13, but they all correspond in style and subject matter to items shown there.

[14] Work by Gallen-Kallela was shown in 1915–16 at the Panama–Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco, in 1916 at the Palace of Arts in San Francisco and in 1923–24 at a solo exhibition in the Art Institute of Chicago.

[15] Brummer, ‘Ett skandinavisk perspektiv’, in Terre sauvage, p. 16.

[16] Hill, The Group of Seven, p. 48.

[17] Brinton, ‘Introductory Note’, in American Scandinavian Society, p. 25.

[18] Barbara Novak, ‘Scandinavia and America: A Shared “Look”’, in En ny värld: Amerianskt landskapsmåleri 1830–1900, Gothenburg, 1987, p. 117.

[19] Philip Conisbee, ‘From afar’, in A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting 1840–1910, exh. cat., Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, 2006, pp. 207–8.

[20] Brummer, ‘Ett skandinavisk perspektiv’, in Terre sauvage, p. 17.

[21] Novak, ‘Scandinavia and America: A Shared “Look”’, p. 116.

[22] Torsten Gunnarsson, ‘The New World and the Old: The relationship between American and European landscape painting in the 19th century’, in En ny värld, p. 119.

[23] Gunnarsson, ‘The New World and the Old’, p. 119.

[24] Thomas Cole, Essay on American Scenery (1835) in Philip Conisbee, ‘From afar’, p. 207.

[25] Jens Thiis, ‘The art of Norway’, in American Scandinavian Society, p. 45.

[26] Brinton, ‘Introductory note’, in American Scandinavian Society, p. 16.

[27] Ibid., pp. 14–15.


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