Posts Tagged ‘Lawren Harris’

 

Millions Spent at Canada’s Spring Auctions

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

Canada’s spring art auctions turned in some interesting results last week. Here are some highlights.

At Heffel’s auction on May 28 in Vancouver, there were seven record-breaking sales, including new artist records for Lise Gervais, Ken Danby, David Blackwood, Mary Pratt and Joyce Wieland.

Heffel’s sold eight Emily Carr lots—including rare early illustrations obtained from the family of Mr. and Mrs. William H. Clarke, Emily Carr’s publishers—for a total of $1.5 million.

Also in Vancouver, Pleine saison by Montreal’s Jean Paul Riopelle sold for $1.298 million, twice its high estimate. Lawren Harris’s Lake Superior Sketch LXI nearly doubled its estimate at $973,500. (It was originally estimated at $500,000 to $700,000.)

And Heffel helped keep garage-sale-browsers’ hopes alive by selling Edwin Holgate’s oil-on-board piece Grand Manan for $12,000—far from the consignors’ recent garage-sale purchase price of 2 dollars. (They found it at a sale close to Holgate’s former home.)

More Lawren Harrises surfaced at the Waddington’s auction on May 26 in Toronto.

One of these Harrises—Lake Superior Painting—is a typically streamlined natural landscape by the artist, of the type that have brought big sales in the past. This one sold for $2.48 million, leading Waddington’s overall sales for the evening.

The other of the Harrises—Street Scene—is a less characteristic work by the artist focusing on an urban environment. It sold for $1.15 million, roughly double its presale estimate.

Three other works that more than doubled their high estimates at the Waddington’s auction were Emily Carr’s Forest Clearing, which realized a price of $472,000 and was estimated at $150,000 to $200,000; Guido Molinari’s Mutation Serielle with Black Band, which realized a price of $200,600 and was estimated at $70,000 to $90,000; and Bertram Brooker’s Creation, which realized $28,320 and was estimated at $8,000 to $10,000.

Waddington’s also doubled the pre-existing auction record for Painters Eleven member Oscar Cahén, whose Object obtained a price of $118,000.

Contemporary art was also on the slate at Waddington’s, with works sold by Kim Dorland, David Blackwood and Dorothy Knowles.

The Painters Eleven trend also proved fruitful for Consignor Canadian Fine Art, which ran an online auction from May 21 to May 29.

Two works by Painters Eleven member Jack Bush led Consignor’s auction results. The first, Summer Lake, fetched $310,500, doubling the pre-sale estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. The second, Pink on Red (Thrust), sold for $299,000, surpassing its estimate of $175,000 to $225,000.

The upshot was that these two Bush works became the two most expensive Canadian works of art to sell in an online auction in Canada.

All three works in the Consignor auction by Saskatchewan painter William Perehudoff also attracted bidding, resulting in a new auction record for the artist’s work as his AC-78-33 went for $46,000.

Gris et bleu (1972) by Yves Gaucher achieved $48,300, selling just shy of the artist’s auction record.

Other works sold in the Consignor auction included pieces by Betty Goodwin, Gordon Rayner, and Ray Mead.

Blue-Chip Art Interest Increases at Art Toronto

Friday, October 25th, 2013

Reflecting a pattern at art fairs worldwide—like the growth of Frieze Masters—it seems interest in blue-chip art is increasing at Art Toronto.

Last night, Loch Gallery (Booth 428) reported that it sold more than $3 million in art at Art Toronto’s Opening Night Preview.

Much of the sale value was attributed to Canadian blue-chip works—that is, works by artists that are steadily or reliably increasing in value at auction—such as Tom Thomson’s Winter Sunset, Algonquin Park, Lawren Harris’s Northern Sketch XVII, and Paul Peel’s The Young Botanist.

Though Loch Gallery did not disclose exact sale prices, it did confirm that the Peel sale amount surpasses the 2010 auction record of $413,000 that was set with his work Orchestra Chairs at Joyner Waddington’s.

“Our biggest problem is finding the art; it isn’t selling the art,” gallerist Alan Loch says of the historical blue-chip situation surrounding Thomson, Harris, Emily Carr and select other artists. “We have some wonderful collectors, and there is not enough art to go around at a high level.”

This situation is exacerbated, Loch notes, as an increasing number of Canadian blue-chip collectors set up their own private museums or make plans to endow the works to public institutions.

As a result, Art Toronto becomes a chance not just to sell blue-chip work, but to meet possible future sellers—people who have been collecting similar works and might be ready one day pursue a private sale.

“If you don’t bring works of significance, you don’t get to meet the new clients,” Loch says. “Last year, we had a lot of Kurelek paintings, and I met so many people that owned Kureleks through that that it would have almost been worth it for me to bring paintings that weren’t for sale just to meet the people who owned them and who one day might allow us to sell them for them.”

Last year—its first doing a quarter-section of historical works at its booth—Loch did just under $2 million in sales, breaking its own 2011 record of $1 million.

Up until that point last year, Loch says, “we had always sort of felt that the art fair was for the living artists.” Now, the majority of the booth does continue to be living artists like Ivan Eyre, with a quarter firmly devoted to historical.

“If the historic continues to work, then we’ll continue to do it at the art fair,” Loch says. “But the issue always is you have to plan almost a year in advance and purposely sit on paintings in order to do that,” rather than selling them earlier in a private sale.

Other galleries are also carrying Canadian blue-chip work at the fair; Mayberry Fine Art (Booth 207) was displaying Eskimo Children Playing in Cape Dorset (1968) by William Kurelek. Bearing a red dot, it had a sale price of $350,000 listed.

Galerie BAC (Booth 300), Galerie Claude Lafitte (Booth 205) and Mayberry Fine Art have also brought works by Jean-Paul Lemieux, whose work famously set a record for contemporary Canadian art at a Heffel auction in 2011 with the $2 million sale of Nineteen Ten Remembered. (The record for contemporary Canadian art was later broken in May 2012 at Christie’s in New York with the $3.6 million of Jeff Wall’s Dead Soldiers Speak, but the Nineteen Ten Remembered sale remains a high point in the industry.)

Odon Wagner Contemporary (Booth 522) was also displaying prints by Pablo Picasso.

This article is part of Canadian Art’s daily Art Toronto 2013 coverage. For updates, visit canadianart.ca/arttoronto. To report sales information for future articles, please email lsandals@canadianart.ca.

Canada’s Auction Houses Hit Highs and Lows During Fall Auction Week

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

As Canada’s fall auctions wrapped up on Tuesday, there were both positive and negative signs in the marketplace.

Strong sales of many works were enjoyed, but a number of notable offerings went completely unsold.

Reporting on the Joyner Waddington’s auction Monday evening, the Canadian Press noted that a 1957 abstract painting by Paul-Emile Borduas sold for about four times its presale estimate. The work, Chatterie, ended up going for $660,800 including buyer’s premium—just $3,000 short of a Borduas record, CP stated.

But CP’s article also noted that no buyers Monday were forthcoming for two paintings by Group of Seven member Franklin Carmichael, estimated at $125,00 to $175,000.

At the Sotheby’s auction on Tuesday, CBC reported, Lawren Harris’s Arctic Sketch XXII doubled its $400,000 to $600,000 estimate, with the bids stopping at $865,000.

But CBC also noted that Harris’s Street in Barrie, Ont., estimated to sell for $900,000 to $1.2 million on Tuesday, didn’t find a buyer. Same for a painting by Tom Thomson estimated at $750,000 to $1 million.

Similarly, while the Heffel auction on Thursday had Harris’s Hurdy Gurdy go for $1.1 million, it also left Jean-Paul Lemieux’s Femme en noir, estimated at $125,000 to $175,000, and his Madeleine, estimated at $125,000 to $175,000, unsold.

But there was at least one hot item across all auctions for the week, the Globe and Mail reported: works by William Kurelek. As the Globe has noted, all 15 Kureleks across the three auctions sold, “most for amounts well above their presale estimates.”

David Heffel on Auction Ethics, the Artist’s Resale Right, Boosting Art Markets Online & More

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

Over the past 10 years, the Canadian auction market has changed and grown considerably, and Vancouver-based auction house Heffel has been a big part of those changes. Since the inception of its auction business in 1995, Heffel claims to have run the top 10 grossing auctions of Canadian art of all time. In 2002, it expanded into Toronto and in 2005, it opened a gallery in Montreal. Now, with its auctions of Canadian post-war and contemporary art and of fine Canadian art kicking off our national fall auction season tomorrow, president David Heffel—who runs the company with his brother, vice-president Robert Heffel—talks to Leah Sandals about auction ethics, the Artist’s Resale Right, boosting business online and more.

Leah Sandals: How have you managed to maintain a leading auction position as a homegrown Canadian operation competing against international market leaders like Sotheby’s?

David Heffel: We have a lot of significant assets that have built a great foundation for us. That started with the history that my father built when he founded Heffel Gallery. But more importantly today, having three galleries—in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal—strategically located in strong retail areas is part of that.

As well, we have over 25 team members who have reached significant stages of maturity; we’ve been conscious, particularly over the last 10 years, to really invest in our team. They’ve done a great job, with people here in our Toronto office and our Montreal office playing quite a significant role in our business. So it’s not just Robert and I that our competitors have to compete with—it’s a whole team of 25 people.

LS: In the art scene and otherwise, there can often be tensions in Canada between east and west. How do you deal with that factor in your business?

DH:  You know, there are uniquenesses to the collector bases in each of the three cities where we have our previews. It’s rewarding for us in all three because we make contact with the majority of those collectors every six months. To a certain extent, a lot of those visitors have become friends. There are slightly different demographics in terms of their collections, what they collect and which artists they get most excited about.

LS: What do you see those differences being in terms of collecting in different cities?

DH: Emily Carr, E.J. Hughes, Jack Shadbolt and Gordon Smith have a pretty significant following in Vancouver, but do have national interest.

Here in Toronto, the Painters Eleven, Tom Thomson, and the Group of Seven are a focus. They have national followings as well, but the epicentre of their public representation, by way of the Art Gallery of Ontario and McMichael and the National Gallery, really resides in Ontario.

And in Quebec, there’s definitely an emphasis on the Quebec painters: Jean Paul Lemieux, Riopelle, Borduas and the Automatistes. But once again, those artists still have national followings—there’s great Riopelles and Lemieuxs in Vancouver just as there’s great E.J. Hugheses and Emily Carrs in Montreal.

LS: How difficult was it to decide to expand into Toronto ten years ago, given that your company has such a strong history and base in Vancouver?

DH: You know, all of our expansions and corporate developments and strategies seem pretty obvious to us at the time that they happen. And the timing also seemed to coincide with good financial growth of our firm and the maturity of Robert and I.

The expansion and use of technology and the Internet was a massive tool that we really took advantage of early on as well, and to much greater extremes than our competitors did and still do so today.

We were the first to put our catalogue online in Canada; we were the first to conduct online auctions in Canada. We also do something Sotheby’s has attempted but hasn’t been able to do much yet in Canada—broadcast sales live on the Internet.

We also get a lot of positive feedback on the virtual tours of our previews; we do these panoramic tours which you can find on our website of the Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal previews. Often if people, for whatever reason, can’t make it to the preview, they really enjoy those virtual previews because it gives them a sense of perspective and framing that they don’t get with the catalogue.

LS: I want to ask you more about online auctions in a little bit. But just one more question about your historic base: How did Heffel begin?

DH: Well, my dad was in the steel business. He was a co-founder of Great West Steel, and was also a collector starting in the late 60s and 70s. So Robert and I were very fortunate to grow up with some fantastic paintings—paintings by Emily Carr and Lawren Harris and other members of the Group of Seven.

My dad retired quite early out of Great West Steel while still in his 40s. He dabbled in ranching, but then turned his hobby, which was collecting paintings, into his vocation. In 1978, he founded the art gallery in Vancouver. He died young, at 52, in 1987. And that’s when Robert and I took over the gallery business. We didn’t branch into the auction business until 1995.

LS: So how old were you when you took over the gallery?

DH: 24.

LS: And your brother?

DH: 22.

LS: That’s quite young. There must have been some big learning curves, to say the least.

DH: There were tremendous learning curves. But there was also sort of a fearless, youthful enthusiasm that allowed us to be, I think, quite creative in what we tried to do—without worrying too much about not succeeding. And I think it has been very beneficial for us in the long run.

LS: Thanks for speaking to that. I want to ask you next about Artist Resale Right in Canada and the difficulties it’s faced in being adopted here. CARFAC has continued to campaign to have the Artist Resale Right added to the Canadian Copyright Act, but it has not been successful yet. If it was adopted, it would certainly benefit some of the artists in your auction, like Takao Tanabe, Christopher Pratt and Gordon Smith, giving them 5 per cent of their auction sales. Why do you think it has been such a struggle for an Artist Resale Right to be adopted in Canada, when it has been adopted in some 60 other countries?

DH: Well it’s a pretty fragile market here for a lot of contemporary artists who haven’t sold significantly in the secondary market. We’re participating in the analysis of the Artist Resale Right and at this point we’re still gathering our thoughts.

I think there have been some difficulties in other markets when an Artist Resale Right has been put into place; it can be perceived more as a tax than as a benefit. I’m all for supporting artists, through whatever means and matters possible. I just don’t know if the structure of what’s been proposed is mature enough to be the right approach. It’s complicated.

Also, I think if it is implemented, it would be unfortunate if it’s just targeted on auction houses as opposed to other, more private-dealing aspects of the art world. In some regions, I believe it has been implemented through that manner, which I think is a little bit unfair.

LS: You’ve got a number of Kureleks in your auction this year; what impact did the big recent Kurelek survey that toured public galleries in Winnipeg, Hamilton and Victoria have on this?

DH: Historically, touring retrospectives and the publications that go with them have always been a great impetus to market stimulation.

We saw that when Emily Carr had her retrospective, as well as prior to that when she was paired with Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe in an exhibition that toured throughout Canada, the US and Mexico.

The exposure and the marketing associated with those public exhibitions definitely has residual benefits to the marketplace. And I think that’s been a contributing factor to some great paintings by Kurelek coming to market.

LS: There was also Emily Carr at Documenta this year, which I’m not sure would affect her market that much?

DH: No… but we mentioned it! It’s like building a building; each little brick adds something. The fact that Carr was not only featured in Documenta, but is now also slated for a major show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2014 following the success that they had with Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, is part of that.

LS: And how did the Dulwich show affect the Group of Seven at auction?

DH: You know, I think it can only be positive. It’s hard to come up with really specific marketing analysis. But we found paintings by the members of the Group of Seven in the UK that ultimately came to be offered through our firm as a result of that exhibition.

So [museum shows] don’t just stimulate collector interest from an acquisition standpoint; they also help people rediscover the importance of a family heirloom that often puts them on a road to considering selling that item.

LS: Speaking of the Group of Seven, one of the lots at your auction this week is A.Y. Jackson’s Radium Mine—one of those works that has a kind of crazy story attached to it in that it is a painting of the Northwest Territories mine where the uranium was produced for the world’s first atomic bomb. What is most effective in selling art—the story attached to it, or the actual piece?

DH: Well, how a painting gets onto a private collector’s living room wall is an interesting voyage.

But I think it starts with the early discovery. Often when a collector walks into one of our previews, we’ll look at their face when they’re coming in. Facial expressions can tell a  lot; I think there is an instant sort of love affair that certain people have, or a connection with a painting.

And then, beyond that the initial discovery, the road map will be enhanced by added provenance on the work, or, you know, historical significance, if there’s a narrative or a geographical location behind a work.

Prior ownership, exhibition history, how well the work is documented in various publications—that doesn’t necessarily trigger the passion or the desire to acquire that object, but it can have an impact on the price that’s paid for a work or the value that’s assigned to it.

Lawren Harris’s Hurdy Gurdy, which we have for this week’s auctions, is an interesting example. That painting has so much going for it—ever since our staff’s first exposure to the work, everybody has just loved it.

But part of the story behind it is that Lawren Harris gave it to his only daughter, Peggy Knox. The painting has been in existence for almost 100 years, and it became Peggy Knox’s most prized possession.

At one time, she told me a story of how her dad came to borrow it back for an exhibition. There was a history of him borrowing paintings from her and then not returning them, so she said, “No dad, you’re not taking this, you gave this to me.” She told me it was her most dearest painting and she would never part with it. So no matter what financial attribution you made towards that work in the 70s or the 80s, it was unattainable by a collector.

This week, it’s being sold by Peggy’s two children, grandchildren of Lawren Harris, and it’s the first time ever that anyone privately could dream about hanging that painting on their wall.

LS: So that’s a powerful story.

DH: It’s a fact.

LS: Yes, it’s a factual story as well, which is good! Speaking of such matters, I notice the word “transparent” is in your mission statement and marketing materials. Yet Canadian authors like economist Don Thompson and sociologist/critic Sarah Thornton have noted—and expressed a great deal of concern about—the degree of theatricality and obfuscation in the art-auction business. This can take the form of things like chandelier bids, where the auctioneer raises false bids to create the appearance of greater demand. When and why are such practices appropriate?

DH: That’s a good question.

When we say “transparency,” what is transparent is the wealth of information that can be seen both by the buyer and the seller of the painting. Ultimately, the most important aspect of that is the vendor of the work knows exactly what that painting is being acquired for by the new buyer, and vice versa. As well, the fees involved—the buyer’s premium and so forth—are transparent. There is also follow-up documentation and publication of prices realized and so forth to act as an ongoing record of those transactions.

In addition to that, we don’t practice chandelier bids. I mean, there’s a pretty fine etiquette when we are on the podium. Often we’ll say, “Bid is with us.” Where the bid is should always be well understood by our bidders in the audience—if it’s in the audience or if it’s against us. In our terms and conditions of business, we make statements that we’ll bid up to the reserve on behalf of the consignor or up to one increment below the reserve.

One thing that is not disclosed is what those reserve prices are. And that’s a confidentiality issue that we maintain with our consignors, in addition to not disclosing their names.

We do try to make it as transparent and as clearly understood as possible, and we’re more than happy to answer whatever questions collectors have. We’ve spent a lot of time on our terms and conditions of business, as well as our published code of ethics, to really outline in as much detail as possible the methods by which we operate our business, which are pretty consistent with Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

LS: What makes the decision to put something in an online auction rather than a live auction?

DH: Often that decision is made by the consignor.

There can be different aspects of that decision-making process. Value is one of them when it comes to Canadian works.

But we also develop specialty sales. Sometimes we do one-artist auctions or international sales such as pop-art graphics. So the curatorial building of that auction can often dictate the difference between a work going into the live or the online auction.

Sometimes people are in a bit of a hurry; we do monthly web sales, as opposed to our live auctions, which are restricted to Canadian art, for the most part, in May or November. Though we have done live international sales—we had an Irish sale at one point, and we have also done jewellery and photography.

So we don’t have specific parameters of what we will or will not do online and elsewhere. We are always in a state of transition so we’ve also, in addition to live and online auctions, begun doing selling exhibitions, which are a bit of a merger of private sale business and auction preview. For them, guest curators come in and build private-sale exhibitions that would be previewed as an auction would and use the marketing associated with an auction, but the works would be sold privately in the gallery. We constantly want to be innovative in our business; with selling exhibition we’re not the inventors, as we’re following suit after Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury’s abroad, but we’re bringing the concept to Canada.

LS: You and your team were rightfully proud about your Lemieux sale last November that set a new record for a contemporary work of Canadian art sold at auction. So I was wondering how you felt when the Jeff Wall sale at New York’s Christie’s auction in May broke that quite handily.

DH: We’re happy to see Jeff Wall’s success. You know, we need more of it in Canada.  When you hear about the billion dollars of contemporary art that was sold in New York during the auctions last week, with a very small component of it being Canadian, it’s clear we’ve got a long way to go.

LS: So when will it be time for that to happen in Canada? When will big-name contemporary Canadian artists actually have their works sold at auction in Canada?

DH: Well, we’re working on it! You know, when Edward Munch’s The Scream sold for $119 million in May, I went onto the web and compared the GDP and population of Norway to that of Canada. We’re much bigger and stronger, and our Canadian record is less than 5 per cent of that—so there’s a lot of room for improvement. The growth of the international historical market is huge. And the photo-based conceptualists like Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace and Rodney Graham—it’s fantastic to see their success abroad. Hopefully ten years from now, we’ll be moving up on that ladder. It’s hard not to get impatient!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This article was corrected on November 22, 2012. The original copy incorrectly stated that the recent William Kurelek survey travelled to Halifax rather than Hamilton.

Emily Carr and the Theatre of Transcendence: High Spirits

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

After listening to the more-than-usually-dispiriting news of late—severed limbs in Ottawa and Vancouver, dead whales in White Rock, disappearing bird species in the Amazon—the reports of Emily Carr’s posthumous presence at dOCUMENTA (13) sound a consoling note. So does a recent recontextualizing of that most iconic of West Coast artists in a modest but engaging show at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Titled “Emily Carr and the Theatre of Transcendence,” the exhibition is one of a number of shows the gallery has done that reassert Carr’s ongoing relevance by presenting her work “in dialogue” with that of other modern, and newer postmodern, artists. The conversation undertaken here examines how Carr, her contemporaries and present-day practitioners have all expressed an aspiration towards transcendence, towards a state or experience beyond the ordinary.

Students of Carr quickly become aware that she was a deeply yet idiosyncratically spiritual person, steeped in a very personal Christianity and opposed to what she saw as the false pieties and oppressive constraints of organized religion. For her, God resided not in “stuffy” churches but in the soaring cathedral of the British Columbia rainforest, in the sepulchral shade of its densest recesses and in the spectral light of its clearings. She found God, too, on the porticos of log-strewn beaches and beneath the radiant canopy of the sky, and her art became a form of communion. It symbolized and in a sense consolidated the state of mystical connection she experienced while immersed in the natural world.


The 12 Carr oil paintings and sketches on view are unexpected and, initially, perhaps disappointing. Her best known and most bravura canvases, such as Totem and Forest, Vanquished, Tree Trunk and Big Raven, are on loan, in Kassel and elsewhere. And the paintings most often associated with Carr’s experience of transcendence and with her later, ecstatic expression, such as Above the Gravel Pit and Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky, are not here, either. Perhaps, however, this is a good thing, as we are directed to consider less familiar works that nonetheless dwell in a similar realm or describe a similar belief. We can also appreciate, once again, how Carr achieves her expressive ends.

In some of the forest paintings on view, foliage is depicted as a surging, swelling, oceanic flow of mass, line and colour. These works express Carr’s unabashed embrace of animism, her attempts to visually capture what she described as the “great breathing among the trees.” (Another nice quote in one of the show’s didactic panels has Carr writing about God “comprehending all substance, filling all space.”) Even images of ragged tree stumps and logged-over mountainsides declare Carr’s deep faith in nature’s bounty and its capacity to recover from mankind’s industrial-scale destruction. They also assert a persistent anthropomorphism. In Old and New Forest, short, young evergreens are characterized as lively and exuberant, filled with a childlike, dancing energy, while old-growth trees stand protectively behind them, tall, sombre and reserved.


Natural forms in the oil painting Mountain Forest, begun in 1935, and in an untitled oil sketch on paper, begun in 1938, are not merely humanized—they are exalted. Here, Carr repeats the formal composition and crucifixion symbolism evident in Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky: three tall, skinny trees, one prominent and two receding into the distance, stand in a clearing among stumps that in one instance resemble gravestones, in another, mourners. The spare foliage at the tops of these forsaken trees—forsaken by loggers, Carr instructs us, but not by God—is outlined against the swirling blues or stormy greys of the sky. Again, Carr is expressing her sorrow at humankind’s desecration of the forest while affirming her belief in its ability to regenerate. This drama is clearly couched in Christian terms of sacrifice and rebirth, and in the mystic’s use of radiating lines and concentric curls and circles of energy.

Several works, past and present, share the “theatre” of Carr’s transcendence. Works by living artists include two large colour photographs by Karin Bubaš, five text drawings in charcoal by Steven Shearer, a double-sided projection by Kevin Schmidt, two masks by Beau Dick, a small multiple by Rodney Graham, a mixed-media diptych by Mina Totino, a video by Euan Macdonald and a mechanical sculpture by Richard E. Prince. Other works include a single-channel video work by Kate Craig, documentation of a performance by Theodore Wan, a suite of charcoal drawings by Jack Shadbolt, a mandala by Jack Wise and two abstract paintings by Lawren Harris.


Harris, Carr’s friend and mentor, who used his later art to articulate his beliefs in theosophy, greatly stimulated her thinking about art and the divine. In my opinion, Harris’ aspirations are most successfully realized in his highly stylized late landscapes of the Rocky Mountains and the Arctic, and are least persuasive in the pure abstractions that followed, such as the two shown here, dated around 1939 and 1954. Their inclusion in this show, however, is interesting because of Harris’ important encouragement of Carr, especially in his advice to her to relinquish the subject of Northwest Coast aboriginal art and to find her own expression, her own voice, in the natural world. And the natural world is, ultimately, where she found her sense of spiritual connection, even if she ultimately rejected theosophy—and abstraction—as a means of getting there.

Wise’s intricate and beautiful Mid-Moon Mandala, executed in 1972 in gouache, ink and metallic paint, reflects his travels in northern India, his studies with Tibetan Buddhist monks in exile, and his understanding of the meditative and transcendental possibilities inherent in the creation of mandalas. Craig’s 1986 single-channel video Ma, shot in India and Nepal as well as in Vancouver, also bridges East and West in search of the transcendent moment. Repetitive images of tattered prayer flags in Sikkim, spinning prayer wheels near Kathmandu, and a quarry in Tamil Nadu are juxtaposed with shots of migratory birds on the Fraser River delta near Vancouver and visual and sound clips of a Scream Machine roller coaster, again in Vancouver. Whether capturing a practice of chanting, prayer and meditation or a fear-inducing state of shrieking physical extremity, Craig leads us to consider the universal human impulse to transcend everyday experience, to achieve, however briefly, some condition of altered awareness.


Both Prince and Macdonald pose the small moments and quotidian mechanics of our little lives against the vast celestial operations of the universe. Macdonald’s unprepossessing video Eclipse employs a soccer ball slowly traversing the surface of a puddle, casting a shadow, and eventually covering—eclipsing—a reflection of the sun, our life-giving star. This slow, pseudo-celestial unfolding is backed by ambient sound that includes the muffled roar of a distant plane, not incidentally flying across the unseen “arch of heaven.”

It is a purposefully banal re-enactment of a cosmic event, but it speaks to our need for metaphor, for human-scale symbols that help us if not fully understand, then at least describe the vast and incomprehensible. Similarly, although much more elegantly, Prince’s mechanical, wall-mounted sculpture, The Transit of Venus (whose public exhibition nicely coincided with that rare and actual celestial event on June 5), moves a small circle slowly and silently back and forth along a metal track within a huge orb symbolized by a thin, refined curve of metal. That these three minimal forms are immaculately executed in silvery aluminum enhances the work’s presence. It also helps to articulate humankind’s attempts to translate cosmic vastness and omneity into poem-sized representation.

Not so very different, really, from what Carr was trying to accomplish with her paints and brushes, within the pulsing drama of tree and sky.

Spring Auctions: Going Once, Going Twice…

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

The auction record for contemporary Canadian art was broken earlier this month in New York with Christie’s $3.6 million sale of a Jeff Wall photograph. Now, Canada’s top houses are heading into their spring sales hoping to break more records.

The Heffel auctions are first up, taking place on May 17 at the Vancouver Convention Centre, with the Canadian postwar and contemporary art sale starting at 4 p.m. and the fine Canadian art sale starting at 7 p.m.

“We had a milestone last May where the postwar section surpassed the fine Canadian art sales total for the first time,” says president David Heffel over the phone from Vancouver. “That’s an indicator of the growing interest in postwar and contemporary Canadian work, both in volume of consignments that our firm is accepting and the dollar value that is being received. Many of those consignments are setting new records for the artists.”

Between both of its sales, Heffel is auctioning 185 lots expected to bring $9 million to $12 million total.

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Jean-Paul Lemieux’s L’Emigré will be featured in Sotheby’s spring auction with an estimate of $180,000 to $220,000 / image courtesy Sotheby’s

Jean-Paul Lemieux's <em>L'Emigré</em> will be featured in Sotheby's spring auction with an estimate of $180,000 to $220,000 / image courtesy Sotheby's

Jean-Paul Lemieux’s L’Emigré will be featured in Sotheby’s spring auction with an estimate of $180,000 to $220,000 / image courtesy Sotheby’s
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One of Greg Curnoe’s Mariposa T.T. serigraphs from the late 1970s will be auctioned by Joyner Waddington’s with an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000 / image courtesy Joyner Waddington’s

One of Greg Curnoe's <em>Mariposa T.T.</em> serigraphs from the late 1970s will be auctioned by Joyner Waddington's with an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000 / image courtesy Joyner Waddington's

One of Greg Curnoe’s Mariposa T.T. serigraphs from the late 1970s will be auctioned by Joyner Waddington’s with an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000 / image courtesy Joyner Waddington’s
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Emily Carr’s Eagle Totem will be auctioned by Heffel with an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000 / image courtesy Heffel Fine Art Auction House

Emily Carr's <em>Eagle Totem</em> will be auctioned by Heffel with an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000 / image courtesy Heffel Fine Art Auction House

Emily Carr’s Eagle Totem will be auctioned by Heffel with an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000 / image courtesy Heffel Fine Art Auction House
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Robert Clow Todd’s circa 1840 painting Sledges and Figures Skating on the Frozen Lake in Front of Montmorency Falls will be auctioned by Sotheby’s with an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000 / image courtesy Sotheby’s

Robert Clow Todd's circa 1840 painting <em>Sledges and Figures Skating on the Frozen Lake in Front of Montmorency Falls</em> will be auctioned by Sotheby's with an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000 / image courtesy Sotheby's

Robert Clow Todd’s circa 1840 painting Sledges and Figures Skating on the Frozen Lake in Front of Montmorency Falls will be auctioned by Sotheby’s with an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000 / image courtesy Sotheby’s
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William Kurelek’s After Church During Indian Summer (The Kavanagh Homestead, Bancroft) will be auctioned by Joyner Waddington’s with an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000 / image courtesy Joyner Waddington’s

William Kurelek's <em>After Church During Indian Summer (The Kavanagh Homestead, Bancroft)</em> will be auctioned by Joyner Waddington's with an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000 / image courtesy Joyner Waddington's

William Kurelek’s After Church During Indian Summer (The Kavanagh Homestead, Bancroft) will be auctioned by Joyner Waddington’s with an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000 / image courtesy Joyner Waddington’s
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A.Y. Jackson’s 1938 painting Morning, Great Bear Lake will be auctioned by Heffel with an estimate of $300,000 to $350,000 / image courtesy Heffel Fine Art Auction House

A.Y. Jackson's 1938 painting <em>Morning, Great Bear Lake</em> will be auctioned by Heffel with an estimate of $300,000 to $350,000 / image courtesy Heffel Fine Art Auction House

A.Y. Jackson’s 1938 painting Morning, Great Bear Lake will be auctioned by Heffel with an estimate of $300,000 to $350,000 / image courtesy Heffel Fine Art Auction House
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Fritz Brandtner’s Interior will be auctioned at Sotheby’s with an estimate of $15,000 to $25,000 / image courtesy Sotheby’s

Fritz Brandtner's <em>Interior</em> will be auctioned at Sotheby's with an estimate of $15,000 to $25,000 / image courtesy Sotheby's

Fritz Brandtner’s Interior will be auctioned at Sotheby’s with an estimate of $15,000 to $25,000 / image courtesy Sotheby’s
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Franklin Carmichael’s 1929 watercolour Lone Lake will be auctioned by Joyner Waddington’s with an estimate of $300,000 to $350,000 / image courtesy Joyner Waddington’s

Franklin Carmichael's 1929 watercolour <em>Lone Lake</em> will be auctioned by Joyner Waddington's with an estimate of $300,000 to $350,000 / image courtesy Joyner Waddington's

Franklin Carmichael’s 1929 watercolour Lone Lake will be auctioned by Joyner Waddington’s with an estimate of $300,000 to $350,000 / image courtesy Joyner Waddington’s
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Lawren Harris’ Lake Superior sketch will be auctioned by Heffel with an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000 / image courtesy Heffel Fine Art Auction House

Lawren Harris' Lake Superior sketch will be auctioned by Heffel with an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000 / image courtesy Heffel Fine Art Auction House

Lawren Harris’ Lake Superior sketch will be auctioned by Heffel with an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000 / image courtesy Heffel Fine Art Auction House
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Marc-Aurèle Fortin’s Scène de Val Jalbert will be auctioned by Sotheby’s with an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000 / image courtesy Sotheby’s

Marc-Aurèle Fortin's <em>Scène de Val Jalbert</em> will be auctioned by Sotheby's with an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000 / image courtesy Sotheby's

Marc-Aurèle Fortin’s Scène de Val Jalbert will be auctioned by Sotheby’s with an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000 / image courtesy Sotheby’s
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George Theodore Berthon’s mid-19th century painting Portrait of Lieutenant-Colonel George Taylor Denison I will be auctioned by Joyner Waddington’s with an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000 / image courtesy Joyner Waddington’s

George Theodore Berthon's mid-19th century painting <em>Portrait of Lieutenant-Colonel George Taylor Denison I</em> will be auctioned by Joyner Waddington's with an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000 / image courtesy Joyner Waddington's

George Theodore Berthon’s mid-19th century painting Portrait of Lieutenant-Colonel George Taylor Denison I will be auctioned by Joyner Waddington’s with an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000 / image courtesy Joyner Waddington’s
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Paul-Émile Borduas’ 1956 painting Jeunesse will be auctioned by Heffel with an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000 / image courtesy Heffel Fine Art Auction House

Paul-Émile Borduas' 1956 painting <em>Jeunesse</em> will be auctioned by Heffel with an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000 / image courtesy Heffel Fine Art Auction House

Paul-Émile Borduas’ 1956 painting Jeunesse will be auctioned by Heffel with an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000 / image courtesy Heffel Fine Art Auction House
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Jack Bush’s 1971 painting Glide will be auctioned by Sotheby’s with an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000 / image courtesy Sotheby’s

Jack Bush's 1971 painting <em>Glide</em> will be auctioned by Sotheby's with an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000 / image courtesy Sotheby's

Jack Bush’s 1971 painting Glide will be auctioned by Sotheby’s with an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000 / image courtesy Sotheby’s
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David Blackwood’s painting Ephraim Kelloway’s Red Door will be auctioned by Joyner Waddington’s with an estimate of $25,000 to $30,000 / image courtesy Joyner Waddington’s

David Blackwood's painting <em>Ephraim Kelloway's Red Door</em> will be auctioned by Joyner Waddington's with an estimate of $25,000 to $30,000 / image courtesy Joyner Waddington's

David Blackwood’s painting Ephraim Kelloway’s Red Door will be auctioned by Joyner Waddington’s with an estimate of $25,000 to $30,000 / image courtesy Joyner Waddington’s

Highlights of the Heffel lots include Emily Carr’s Eagle Totem, estimated at $600,000 to $800,000; Jean-Paul Lemieux’s La plage américaine, estimated at $500,000 to $700,000; and a Lawren Harris sketch of Lake Superior estimated at $400,000 to $600,000. (Heffel has sold 8 of the 10 top-priced works by Carr, holds the auction record for Lemieux’s work and obtained the Harris sketch from a UK consignor who only realized its value recently after viewing the popular Group of Seven survey at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.)

On the living-artist front, BC painter Gordon Smith has nine works in the Heffel auction, including 1960’s White Painting #2, estimated at $60,000 to $80,000; Newfoundlander Christopher Pratt’s 1973 painting Landing is offered, estimated at $60,000 to $80,000; and there are also a couple of sketches by Nova Scotia’s Alex Colville estimated at $15,000 to $20,000 each.

Next up for Canadian collectors is Sotheby’s auction of important Canadian art, which takes place May 24 at 7 p.m. at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. (A Montreal preview takes place at Arsenal on May 17, while Toronto previews happen at the ROM on May 22, 23 and 24.)

Highlights of Sotheby’s 140 lots include classic Canadiana as well as some less conventional picks.

Robert Clow Todd’s circa-1840 painting Sledges and Figures Skating on the Frozen Lake in Front of Montmorency Falls, for instance, focuses on a well-known natural wonder: the ice cone that develops at the Quebec City attraction when the river below the falls freezes. With the Art Gallery of Ontario holding one of Todd’s other paintings on this subject, Sotheby’s has estimated this lot at $150,000 to $200,000.

Familiar names on the Canadian auction scene continue to crop up at Sotheby’s, with Paul-Émile Borduas’ 1955 palette-knife painting Froissement Multicolore (one of his last New York–based canvases) estimated at $350,000 to $500,000; Lawren Harris’ Mountain Sketch XCI (Mountain on the Athabasca River) estimated at $400,000 to $600,000; Jean-Paul Lemieux’s poignant 1965 portrait L’Emigré estimated at $180,000 to $220,000; and Marc-Aurèle Fortin’s homage to French-Canadian life Scène de Val Jalbert estimated at $80,000 to $120,000.

Less conventional as an offering is Interior, a Cubist-influenced painting by Fritz Brandtner. This German-born artist moved to Canada in 1928 as the Nazi party tightened its grip on German culture, but his style, Sotheby’s suggests, was “perhaps too avant-garde” for Canada at the time. The painting, which suggests the influences of Léger and Picasso, is estimated at $15,000 to $25,000.

Wrapping up Canada’s spring auction season is Joyner Waddington’s sale of important Canadian art, which takes place May 25 at 10 a.m. at the company’s King Street East showroom in Toronto. (Previews take place May 22, 23 and 24 at the same site.)

Highlights of Joyner Waddington’s 201 lots include Group of Seven artist Franklin Carmichael’s Lone Lake, one of the earliest of the painter’s larger-scale studio watercolours. Lone Lake, located in northern Ontario, was renamed Carmichael Lake in the late 1970s, and the painting, recently exhibited at the McMichael, is estimated at $300,000 to $350,000. (Joyner has achieved the top three prices for Franklin Carmichael at auction, with his Frood Lake selling for a top price of $915,000 at Joyner’s Fall 2002 auction.)

William Kurelek, another perennial auction-season favourite, is represented by five works at Joyner Waddington’s, ranging from the painting After Church During Indian Summer (The Kavanagh Homestead, Bancroft), which is estimated at $60,000 to $80,000, to Someone with Me, an illustration for the original cover of William Kurelek’s autobiography, which is estimated at $15,000 to $20,000.

Canada’s urban history also gets an unexpected spotlight with two George Theodore Berthon portraits depicting members of the Denison family. The Denisons were a prominent Toronto family from the founding of York in the 1790s through to after the First World War, and the portraits of Lieutenant-Colonel George Taylor Denison I and Lieutenant-Colonel George Taylor Denison II, painted in the mid-19th century, are estimated by Joyner Waddington’s at $30,000 to $40,000 each.

David Blackwood, currently the focus of a touring survey organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario, has five works going under the gavel on King Street East: four prints and one of the largest original paintings by Blackwood ever offered at auction, Ephraim Kelloway’s Red Door, which estimated at $25,000 to $30,000.

Also of interest on the contemporary front are four Greg Curnoe works up for sale through Joyner Waddington’s, including one of his late 1970s Mariposa T.T. serigraphs on Plexiglas, which bears an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000.

Painting Canada: Artistry in the UK

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

By the time the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London closed its exhibition “Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven,” the show had drawn some 41,000 visitors, the second-largest exhibition turnout for that venerable old dowager of the British museum world. Some of these gallery-goers were undoubtedly Canadian expatriates; some, British relatives of the emigrated; others, no doubt simply lovers of the colonies (as we will always be understood by Britons), enraptured by these depictions of Canada’s rough-hewn places. Leading this enthusiasm was Ian Dejardin, the Dulwich’s Scottish-born director, who came across a book on the Group of Seven in the library of London’s Royal Academy of Arts back in the 1980s and—finding the paintings extraordinary—began his investigations.

We are so glad he did. Cherry-picking the best from the collections of Canada’s leading museums and private collections for this exhibition, he delivered a crème de la crème exhibition that seemed to put every artist’s best foot forward, revealing new truths about artists we thought we knew, at a moment when our understanding of the group is regrouping. Ross King’s 2010 book Defiant Spirits debunked the popularly held Canadian view of these artists as pioneer woodsmen-savants, revealing instead their ties to the painterly traditions of Britain, France and Holland. This well-timed exhibition thus allowed us the opportunity to reconsider their accomplishments in light of this argument, demonstrating how their passionate love of the land was married to a painterly sophistication honed in dialogue with inherited artistic traditions.

Clearly, Dejardin places Tom Thomson at the peak. Though Thomson was never a member of the group proper (the collective was formed soon after his early death), he can be considered its muse and inspiration. Dejardin showed us why. Like Thoreau’s Walden writings, or Ansel Adams’ photographic depictions of Yosemite, Thomson’s paintings provide a vivid account of the artist’s experience of profound solitude and his extraordinary attunement to the natural world. Gathered in London, they documented a soulful retreat from the modern world of mechanization, war and commerce.


A wall of Thomson sketches near the entrance to the exhibition electrified, with each panel bearing the palpable trace of a moment of insight experienced in deep privacy. Moonlight and Birches (1915) gives us a view from the dark woods out onto the illuminated shore of a lake, with glinting flecks of light winking from the bare branches. Approaching Snowstorm, from the same year, describes a mustard-tinged landscape over which towers a knitted brow of cloud, rendered in upswept brushstrokes. An intimidating vastness emanates from the painting’s tiny surface (just 21 by 26 centimetres). Path Behind Mowat Lodge (1917) investigates the effect of shadow on snow, with Thomson building shadows up from deep cobalt blues and teals, set against creamy pink snow-smears. With his sometimes groping touch, struggling to make good on his vision, Thomson repeatedly sacrificed grace for truth—the hallmark of the great artist—bringing us a record of sensations and moods that remain startlingly present nearly a hundred years later. Looking, we catch the welcome smell of spring thaw, the provisional sanctuary of a tent pitched beside a lake, the mystery of the northern lights seen overhead, when the universe seems to tune into its own ecstatic force, indifferent to human presence and observation. Canada had never been painted like this.


Thomson’s larger paintings made in the studio, however, carry a weaker charge, and herein lay the exhibition’s second revelation. With the initial passion of inspiration cooled, Thomson’s painterly effects—like those of his artistic comrades—congeal into something less vivid on the larger scale. Thomson’s sketch for The West Wind from 1916, for example, with its sky built from impulsive horizontal strokes of blue, white and grey, translates into more conventional feathery generalities in the finished painting. Likewise for his sketch for The Jack Pine, borrowed from the RiverBrink Art Museum in Queenston, Ontario, which was here reunited with the National Gallery’s larger iconic painting of the same name—a jewel-toned, art nouveau–influenced masterpiece. Here again, what the larger painting gains in composure and elegance, it loses in visceral thrills. In the sketch, we witness Thomson struggling to see through the act of painting. In the finished painting, that moment of encounter is far behind, and a decorative ease takes hold.

Dejardin’s installation enabled us to entertain a number of such comparisons. J.E.H. MacDonald’s sketch for The Beaver Dam (1919) is a fury of diagonal strokes denoting felled timber, while the larger canvas draws us more to the calm of the stilled water, with its tracery of fallen leaves. (One might expect one of British art’s pre-Raphaelite maidens to float tragically into view here, so langorous is the mood.) Arthur Lismer’s Evening Silhouette—a rough-touch study of rock, tree and evening cloud at sunset—hardens into stodgy masses in the 1928 canvas that it informs.


The striking exception to this rule is Frederick Varley, always to my eye the most sensuously painterly of the group. His painting Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay (1921) feels even more emotionally vivid than the scruffy, bracing sketch that precedes it, with the paint moving in lush undulations over the surface, capturing the rolling rhythms of waves and sky and rock. While his West Coast Sunset sketch of 1926 is a vivid record of a kind of ecstatic experience of light and energy, belying his transcendentalist tendencies, so too is his magisterial Cloud, Red Mountain, a full-scale work from 1927 and 1928 that seems to call down the spirit in the sky. There is a world of feeling here—vision consummated in painterly touch—that, for example, Lawren Harris never achieves in his full-scale works, which seem stiff, dry, almost fascistic in comparison.


The show, then, accomplished two ends: to introduce the Group of Seven and Thomson to a wider European audience, and to challenge our sense of what has become, to many Canadians, overly familiar. As is so often the case, the view from outside can achieve a clarity that brings new truths to light, whether by calculation or not. The painterly genius of Thomson, the accomplishment of the sketches by all the group’s artists, the relative strengths and weaknesses of these artists when seen together at full force—these are all important findings. Dejardin’s exhibition offered this, plus the undeniable pleasure of witnessing some of our country’s finest artists shown to best advantage on European soil. This was a moment.


Fall Auction Preview: Postwar Wonders

Thursday, November 24th, 2011

This week, Canadian auction houses Heffel, Joyner Waddington’s and Sotheby’s hold their major fall Canadian-art events in Toronto. Besides a number of intriguing stories that have surfaced around certain works—some were found in a Massachusetts barn, others in a Montreal bank vault—it’s worth noting that many of the pieces going under the gavel are from the postwar era, a possible signal of increasing interest in post–Group of Seven artworks in the Canadian market.

On November 24 at the Park Hyatt Hotel, Heffel is offering an iconic work by Jean-Paul Lemieux. After selling his 1964 work Les Moniales for more than a million dollars last May, Heffel auctioneers are handling Nineteen Ten Remembered, a disarmingly understated 1962 self-portrait of the artist as a child with his parents. The estimate pricing for this piece is only available upon request, generating speculation regarding its potential selling price. Furthermore, a 1952 abstract painting by Jean Paul Riopelle, Grande Fête, has a pre-auction estimate of $900,000 to $1.2 million.

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Emily Carr’s 1908 watercolour War Canoe, Alert Bay is estimated at $200,000 to $300,000 for Heffel’s November 24 Toronto auction / image courtesy Heffel Fine Art Auction House

Emily Carr’s 1908 watercolour <em>War Canoe, Alert Bay</em> is estimated at $200,000 to $300,000 for Heffel’s November 24 Toronto auction / image courtesy Heffel Fine Art Auction House

Emily Carr’s 1908 watercolour War Canoe, Alert Bay is estimated at $200,000 to $300,000 for Heffel’s November 24 Toronto auction / image courtesy Heffel Fine Art Auction House
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Jean-Paul Riopelle’s Grande Fête from 1952 bears an estimate of $900,000 to $1.2 million for Heffel’s Toronto auction on November 24 / image courtesy Heffel Fine Art Auction House

Jean-Paul Riopelle’s <em>Grande Fête</em> from 1952 bears an estimate of $900,000 to $1.2 million for Heffel’s Toronto auction on November 24 / image courtesy Heffel Fine Art Auction House

Jean-Paul Riopelle’s Grande Fête from 1952 bears an estimate of $900,000 to $1.2 million for Heffel’s Toronto auction on November 24 / image courtesy Heffel Fine Art Auction House
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Lawren Harris’ 1911 painting The Return from Town is due to be a highlight of Joyner’s auction on November 25 in Toronto

Lawren Harris’ 1911 painting <em>The Return from Town</em> is due to be a highlight of Joyner’s auction on November 25 in Toronto

Lawren Harris’ 1911 painting The Return from Town is due to be a highlight of Joyner’s auction on November 25 in Toronto
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Handel’s Messiah at Massey Hall, a 1973 painting by William Kurelek, is estimated at $60,000 to $80,000 for Joyner’s November 25 Toronto auction

<em>Handel’s Messiah at Massey Hall</em>, a 1973 painting by William Kurelek, is estimated at $60,000 to $80,000 for Joyner’s November 25 Toronto auction

Handel’s Messiah at Massey Hall, a 1973 painting by William Kurelek, is estimated at $60,000 to $80,000 for Joyner’s November 25 Toronto auction
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Guido Molinari’s Untitled (October 1962) is estimated at $70,000 to $90,000 in Joyner’s November 25 Toronto auction

Guido Molinari’s <em>Untitled (October 1962)</em> is estimated at $70,000 to $90,000 in Joyner’s November 25 Toronto auction

Guido Molinari’s Untitled (October 1962) is estimated at $70,000 to $90,000 in Joyner’s November 25 Toronto auction
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Jean McEwen’s 1962 work Arc-en-Ciel Noir is estimated at $50,000 to $70,000 in Joyner’s November 25 Toronto auction

Jean McEwen’s 1962 work <em>Arc-en-Ciel Noir</em> is estimated at $50,000 to $70,000 in Joyner’s November 25 Toronto auction

Jean McEwen’s 1962 work Arc-en-Ciel Noir is estimated at $50,000 to $70,000 in Joyner’s November 25 Toronto auction
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Jean-Paul Lemieux’s 1972 painting Country Club is due to be among the highlights of Sotheby’s November 28 auction in Toronto

Jean-Paul Lemieux’s 1972 painting <em>Country Club</em> is due to be among the highlights of Sotheby’s November 28 auction in Toronto

Jean-Paul Lemieux’s 1972 painting Country Club is due to be among the highlights of Sotheby’s November 28 auction in Toronto
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Alex Colville’s Cattle Show from 1955 is estimated at $250,000 to $350,000 in Sotheby’s November 28 Toronto auction

Alex Colville’s <em>Cattle Show</em> from 1955 is estimated at $250,000 to $350,000 in Sotheby’s November 28 Toronto auction

Alex Colville’s Cattle Show from 1955 is estimated at $250,000 to $350,000 in Sotheby’s November 28 Toronto auction
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J.W. Morrice’s Evening Stroll, Venice is estimated at $250,000 to $350,000 in Sotheby’s November 28 Toronto auction

J.W. Morrice’s <em>Evening Stroll, Venice</em> is estimated at $250,000 to $350,000 in Sotheby’s November 28 Toronto auction

J.W. Morrice’s Evening Stroll, Venice is estimated at $250,000 to $350,000 in Sotheby’s November 28 Toronto auction

Also among the lots up for grabs at the Park Hyatt is a 1908 watercolour by Emily Carr, entitled War Canoe, Alert Bay and estimated at $200,000 to $300,000, and a pair of works by Albert Robinson, a founding member of the Canadian Group of Painters in 1933, which were recently rediscovered in a Massachusetts barn. Several of the highlight works in the auction come from the François Dupré Collection, which focuses on Canadian impressionism and came to light of late after being stored for 24 years in a Montreal bank vault.

On November 25, Joyner Waddington’s presents some rare works by the Group of Seven and other well-known Canadian painters. The morning auction will take place at the house’s new facility at 275 King Street East and it proffers 206 lots of Canadian art. Of particular note is a 1911 work by Lawren Harris, The Return from Town, which is a painterly depiction of merry lumberjacks returning to their camp through a snowscape; the work is estimated at $500,000 to $700,000. William Kurelek’s Handel’s Messiah at Massey Hall, a 1973 painting of the Mendelssohn Choir singing in the landmark music venue, is estimated to fetch between $60,000 and $80,000, and a black-and-white work by Guido Molinari, Untitled (October 1962), is being auctioned for $70,000 to $90,000. Further items of interest include a collage of geometric abstraction by Harold Town (Three As One), estimated at $30,000 to $40,000, an abstract composition by Jock Macdonald (Lilt of Songs) going for $50,000 to $70,000 and Jean McEwen’s Arc-en-Ciel Noir, a complex, layered work that is estimated at the same price.

The season comes to a close at the Sotheby’s auction being held on November 28 at the Royal Ontario Museum, which will parade a roster of postwar Canadian artists. Jean-Paul Lemieux is found once again at the top of the “must-watch” list with a 1972 painting entitled Country Club. Deemed “heavenly” by Sotheby’s president David Silcox, it bears an auction estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. Also of note is a work by Alex Colville (Cattle Show) and a work by J.W. Morrice (Evening Stroll, Venice), both of which are estimated at $250,000 to $350,000. Other lots in this auction include works by Paul-Émile Borduas, David Milne, Norval Morrisseau, Jack Bush, Brian Jungen, Kazuo Nakamura and Edward Burtynsky.

Interestingly, the fate of postwar artists at the auctions has also been highlighted in a different way this week by a timely press release from CARFAC, a major national nonprofit organization of Canada’s professional visual artists. The release notes that the Artist’s Resale Right has not yet been implemented into the Canadian Copyright Act. The right, which has already been adopted in 59 other countries, would entitle artists to receive 5% from subsequent public sales of their work through auction houses and commercial galleries. Given that last year’s major Canadian fall auctions totalled sales of more than $18.7 million, the Artist’s Resale Right, if enacted, could theoretically direct upwards of $1 million annually to living Canadian artists.

Factoring in the potential for record prices, for increased interest in postwar art, and for tension around the Artist’s Resale Right, our fall auctions are shaping up to be a dramatic, not-to-be-missed season.

Fall Auction Preview: Moving Targets

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

The auction season is in full swing this fall with houses worldwide reporting record figures, confirming a growing belief among sellers, dealers and auctioneers that the art market has sailed out of the doldrums at last. Following on the heels of a record-breaking week in New York—where three major houses collectively fetched almost $750 million—Toronto will kick off the domestic season with high hopes as Joyner Waddington’s, Sotheby’s, Heffel and Bonhams offer a diverse selection of important Canadian artworks valued at an estimated total of $22 million.

Responding to steady interest in contemporary art, there is a strong showcasing in the upcoming sales of works by newer Canadian artists as well as perennial favourites from the Painters Eleven and the Automatistes.

Particularly noteworthy are two striking abstract paintings by Quebec artists Claude Tousignant and Guido Molinari up for grabs at Sotheby’s next week. Visually dynamic and monumental in scale, both works, Absurdo and Mutations Athematique Vert-Ocre, are a relative steal at $20,000 to $30,000 and $70,000 to $90,000 respectively. At those estimates, the auction could easily set new records for both artists (Tousignant’s auction record currently sits at $49,725, and Molinari’s at $54,000).

 

The Painters Eleven continue to dominate contemporary art sales with all major houses offering a roster of high-quality works by its members. Joyner Waddington’s leads the pack with Jack Bush’s signature lick painting from 1975 entitled Attacca, estimated at $50,000 to $70,000, along with six smaller scale works by Harold Town. Meanwhile, earlier work by Bush (Moonflight from 1961 at $40,000 to $60,000) and Kazuo Nakamura’s 1956 oil on masonite Rushing Wind (estimated at $6,000 to $8,000) will go under the gavel at Sotheby’s.

Following its successful debut of works from the Theodosia Dawes Bond Thornton estate in the spring, Heffel, the Vancouver-based auction house, will this fall offer 18 works from the estate’s holdings. These include Low Clouds in the Mountains, a Lawren Harris oil on board conservatively estimated at $200,000 to $300,000, and Mountain Sketch XXXVIII, another Harris oil on board at $250,000 to $350,000. Other highlights from the evening sale include two more Harris works from the estate of Mary Breckenridge—Mountain, Baffin Island North, Arctic Sketch XII, an extremely rare 12-by-15 inch oil sketch for North Shore, Baffin Island II, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, and Lake Superior Sketch from 1922 to 1923. These are estimated at $700,000 to $900,000 and $300,000 to $500,000 respectively.

 

In addition to Heffel’s fine collection of masterworks, highlights from its afternoon postwar and contemporary sale include Jean-Paul Riopelle’s Sans titre from 1955, once owned by the Dallas Museum of Fine Art, at an estimate of $800,000 to $1.2 million, and Jean-Paul Lemieux’s L’Apôtre (the Apostle), a classic figure subject conservatively estimated at $200,000 to $300,000. Also expected to garner significant attention are Kent Monkman’s idiosyncratic composition Charged Particles in Motion from 2007 and Alex Colville’s Man on Verandah from 1953. The former holds an estimate of $50,000 to $60,000, and the latter one of $400,000 to $600,000.

Last but certainly not least on the major circuit, Bonhams is highlighting its auction with Walter Phillips’ The Hoh-Hok Houseposts at Karlukwees, a watercolour on paper from the late 1920s estimated at $18,000 to $20,000. (Also featured are some other Phillips watercolours, like The Corner Store, estimated at $6,000 to $8,000.) Caladium Leaves, an oil on board by Beaver Hall painter Nora Frances Elisabeth Collyer, is estimated at $20,000 to $30,000. And again on the contemporary front, a 1997 drawing by Mary Pratt is estimated to go at $20,000 to $30,000.

Art fans will also likely want to keep an eye open for smaller auctions taking place across the country in the coming weeks, including the Walker’s auction December 1 in Ottawa.

Key Fall Auction Dates:
Joyner Waddington’s: Monday, November 22
Sotheby’s: Tuesday, November 23
Heffel: Thursday, November 25
Bonhams: Monday, November 29

 

Ross King on the Group of Seven: White Feathers and Tangled Gardens

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

The 44th exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists opened at the Public Reference Library in Toronto on March 11, 1916. This annual event, held in a library for lack of another exhibition space, usually came and went without troubling the waters of public opinion or critical consensus. The hysterical reactions roused in London by the controversial 1910 exhibition “Manet and the Post-Impressionists,” or in New York by the notorious 1913 Armory Show, were virtually unheard of in Canada. There had been no real succès de scandale, no critical rumpus, in the history of Canadian art. Canadian painters inspired apathy rather than outrage. The shocking antics of the European avant-garde seemed a world away from the murmuring galleries of the Public Reference Library. But in the spring of 1916 the great bogeyman of Post-Impressionism came to town, led by a group of landscapists known in the press as the Algonquin Park School.

For their 1916 show, the members of the Ontario Society of Artists—an organization founded in 1872 to promote the visual arts in the province— put on display 137 paintings and a dozen works of sculpture. This muster was impressive considering that, with Canada 18 months into its war effort, a number of the younger artists were in uniform. The exhibition catalogue even listed the address of one of the exhibitors, a 33-year-old Montrealer named A. Y. Jackson, as Bramshott Camp, in England. (In fact, by March, 1916, Jackson had landed with his battalion in France.) One of Jackson’s friends and fellow painters, the 30-year-old Lawren Harris, was enrolled in the Canadian Officers Training Corps. He had managed to submit two paintings to the exhibition even though he was only weeks away from receiving a commission in the Royal Grenadiers. Both were snowscapes— a rare genre in English Canada. Canada’s cold climate had been a sore point at least since Voltaire mocked the country as “a few acres of snow,” and one critic cautioned that to paint a Canadian landscape under snow was “unpatriotic, untactful, and unwise.” But Snow I and Snow II unapologetically showed fir boughs weighed down by fresh snow that Harris depicted with luminous strokes of azure, mauve, salmon pink and cornflower blue.

Even more arresting displays of colour were to be seen elsewhere in the Public Reference Library. As in previous years, one of the most prolific exhibitors, with five paintings, was J. E. H. MacDonald, the OSA’s new vice-president. A friend of both Jackson and Harris, the 42-year-old MacDonald was a gentle and retiring soul, a “secular monk” (in the words of another friend) who possessed the “simple mysticism” of St. Francis of Assisi. He had enjoyed moderate success since quitting his job as a graphic designer five years earlier, selling landscapes to both the National Gallery and the Government of Ontario. But the outbreak of war saw MacDonald, like many other painters, fall on hard times. He had recently moved his family to a farmhouse in Thornhill and—despite a frail constitution and a lack of agricultural know-how—begun growing vegetable crops for cash. He also took in lodgers to help pay the bills: his friend Arthur Lismer, another would-be painter, and Lismer’s wife and daughter. “The hard times are hitting Jimmie pretty badly,” observed Frank Carmichael, another of MacDonald’s artist friends. Carmichael was coping with his own financial asperities by decorating hearses.

MacDonald’s Thornhill garden was the subject of one of his five works. Painted for reasons of economy on beaverboard—a material usually employed for insulating houses—The Tangled Garden depicted sunflowers drooping in arabesques over a bright blaze of asters. With its spumes of colour, it was one of the most chromatically adventurous paintings ever put on show in a Canadian exhibition. Equally dazzling was another of his entries, Rock and Maple. Based on sketches done in the Haliburton Highlands, it featured loose brushwork and, if anything, an even more audacious use of colour.

The 1916 OSA exhibition featured four works by another of MacDonald’s friends. Tom Thomson was virtually unknown to Toronto’s picture-viewing public. That he exhibited his first picture only three years earlier, at the age of 35, indicated both a lack of confidence and a desire for perfection. An acquaintance later claimed Thomson suffered from a “disbelief in himself” that led to “fits of unreasonable despondency.” Drawings failing to meet with his approval he smeared with cigar ash, and Lawren Harris once watched him flick matches at a freshly painted picture “in a kind of whimsical scorn.” One sketching trip ended with him hurling his paintbox into the bush. In Algonquin Provincial Park—his favoured region for painting landscapes—he once made a bonfire of his oil paintings.

Thomson’s first exhibited painting, Northern Lake, was a restrained effort, thinly painted in murky tones. Since then, he had gained both confidence and artistic power. While sharing a studio in the same Rosedale building as MacDonald, Harris and Jackson, all of whom were celebrated by a Toronto Daily Star critic for their “fearless brushing” and “strange, crude colour,” he began experimenting with more florid pigments and, in his plein-air sketches, a savage style of brushwork. Jackson, who had spent several years studying in France, told him about trends in modern art such as the techniques of the Neo-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat and his use of what Jackson called “clean cut dots” of colour. From Arthur Lismer, with whom Thomson camped and painted in Algonquin Provincial Park in 1914, he learned to tip his panel 90 degrees and paint the scene before him in a portrait rather than a landscape format. Distant panoramas were abandoned in favour of close-ups of enclosed spaces, as though he was becoming ever more intimate with the landscape, observing it minutely and painting it in more forceful detail.

Thomson’s 1916 offerings included a study in clashing colours called In the Northland, whose chill blue lake contrasted with birch leaves painted a loud, school-bus yellow. He used the same colour contrasts in Spring Ice, while Autumn’s Garland pitted sweeping curves of foliage—a confection of persimmon, crimson, gamboge and burnt orange—against a vertical banding of tree trunks painted aquamarine blue.

Visitors to Canadian art galleries did not expect to be assailed by such bright, prismatic colour. In Canada as elsewhere, traditionalists regarded colour as less important than design, drawing, perspective and subject matter. As a connoisseur once admonished John Constable: “A good picture, like a good fiddle, should be brown.” Colour was meretricious and decadent, addressed to the baser senses, not the intellect. The French Impressionists had introduced brighter colours into their canvases, thanks in part to advances in chemistry that resulted in new pigments such as coal-tar mauve and alizarin red. But as recently as 1905 a group of painters led by Henri Matisse and Maurice de Vlaminck caused outrage when their brilliantly hued works appeared in Paris. They quickly became ridiculed as les fauves (the wild beasts).

Would Torontonians, nourished on fiddle-brown landscapes, be ready for works like The Tangled Garden or Autumn’s Garland? As with the work of the Fauves and other Post-Impressionists, their vivid tones and swirling lines almost seemed guaranteed to cause alarm and offence.

Toronto had six newspapers in 1916, along with magazines such as Saturday Night and Canadian Courier. Most included write-ups of OSA exhibitions, albeit sometimes using political correspondents as art critics. Canadian art criticism was usually respectful and constructive, with little of the vitriol or doltish scoffing that appeared in so many European reviews. Even so, a few years earlier, after fairly harmless mockery of A. Y. Jackson’s experimental style appeared in the Toronto Daily Star, MacDonald published an article in the paper urging critics to respond to his work and that of his friends with “a little receptivity of mind” and to “support our distinctly Native art.” By and large the critics had done so, but the reviews of the 1916 exhibition would not be so obliging.

With more than 80,000 readers, the Toronto Daily Star was by some margin the city’s largest-circulation newspaper. A few months earlier, its regular reviewer, Margaret L. Fairbairn, wrote favourably of the “virile” style of the artists in the Algonquin Park School. But sent to cover the 1916 exhibition, she took a less congenial view, expressing reservations about “their use of strong, even violent, color.” The Tangled Garden seemed to her, at first glance, nothing more than a “purposeless medley of crude colors,” while another of MacDonald’s works was “a whirl of chaotic shapes.” She believed Thomson, too, was in danger of overreaching himself with his “fearless use of violent color which can scarcely be called pleasing.”

This review, which appeared on opening day, lit the blue touch paper. A week later the assistant managing editor of Saturday Night, Hector Charlesworth, published a review headlined “Pictures That Can be Heard.” Previously Charlesworth (whose expertise was music, not painting) had praised the “pigmentary enthusiasm” of the painters, but he, like Fairbairn, disliked what he called the “experimental pictures” on show in 1916. Naming MacDonald as the “chief offender,” Charlesworth dubbed his paintings “Hungarian Goulash” and “Drunkard’s Stomach.”

Fairbairn and Charlesworth by no means represented the nadir of opinion. An even more mean-spirited attack came from a friend of Charlesworth, the painter Carl Ahrens. In an interview with the Toronto Daily Star, Ahrens deplored the “blustering spirit of post-Impressionism” on show at the OSA in 1916. The exhibition featured, he lamented, “samples of that rough, splashy, meaningless, blatant, plastering and massing of unpleasant colours which seems to be a necessary evil in all Canadian art exhibitions these days…Nobody visiting the exhibition is likely to miss having his or her sense of colour, composition, proportion and good taste affronted by some of these canvases.”

A native of Winfield, Ontario, the 53-year-old Ahrens specialized in soft-focus, consommé-coloured landscapes that elucidated his antipathy to Post-Impressionism but belied a turbulent personality and adventurous past. The grandson of a German nobleman, he had followed up youthful escapades in Lesser Slave Lake and the Dakota Territory—where he once met Calamity Jane in a saloon—with stints as a button-dyer in Waterloo and a dentist in Nebraska. In 1887 he downed his dentist’s drill and a few years later moved to New York City to study painting under the American Impressionist William Merritt Chase. He had found a generous patron in the Toronto barrister Malcolm Mercer, but in 1916, with Mercer in uniform overseas, Ahrens found himself in delicate financial straits.

Though Ahrens possessed a certain wanderlust and a love of the outdoors, MacDonald and his friends found his works too tepid for their tastes. His bilious comments in the Daily Star may have been revenge for a 1911 review by Lawren Harris that disdained Ahrens’s works as “docile and inoffensive.” Ahrens himself proved anything but docile and inoffensive, ending his interview on a note of astonishing malice. He claimed the paintings showed not only “an absolute lack of the knowledge of drawing, colour, and design” but also “a hermaphroditic condition of mind.”

“Hermaphrodite” had long been a euphemism for homosexual. The obvious implication was that the use of bright and “unpleasant” colours was an indication of effeminacy. This was not the first time aspersions were cast on the masculinity or sexuality of modernist painters: in 1910, reviewers of “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” dismissed the French artists as “unmanly” and “girlish.” But for the members of the Algonquin Park School, who were usually celebrated for their virility, and who crowded their canvases with brawny boulders and priapic pines, such a challenge must have been unexpected. Indeed, within a few weeks of Ahrens’s comments, Saturday Night published an article jocularly recounting how the typical Canadian artist was a “husky beggar” who pulled on a pair of Strathcona boots and set off into the woods with a rifle, a paddle and enough baked beans for three months. But Ahrens, with his reference to hermaphrodites, conjured for readers of the Daily Star visions of long-haired Wildean aesthetes in velvet suits and silk cravats.

Tom Thomson’s exploits with paddles and axes in northern Ontario may have proclaimed a backwoods masculinity, but he had failed to fulfill society’s most important criteria for manhood, succinctly described in 1919 by Franz Kafka (who also failed to fulfill them) as “Marrying, founding a family, accepting all the children that come.” Thomson had also failed another important test of manhood: he had not enlisted in the Canadian armed forces.

In his attack on the Algonquin Park painters, Carl Ahrens did not scruple to raise the issue of enlistment, accusing them of being cowardly as well as epicene: “I feel that these young persons who are indulging in these pastimes would gain a much higher standing before men,” he claimed, “if they gave their now mis-spent efforts to the destruction of the Hun.”

The suggestion that the painters should be shouldering rifles in the trenches of Europe was a timely one. Three hundred thousand Canadians were in uniform by 1916, but the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, was promising to raise the country’s manpower commitment to half a million. Tactics had turned desperate as recruitment stalled in the face of endless battles and long casualty lists. Recruitment drives were held at Massey Hall, and more than 100,000 people gathered in Riverdale Park one night in August, 1915, to watch fireworks and hear marching bands drum up enthusiasm for the fight. The festivities on that evening were punctuated by an event becoming ever more common. The Toronto Daily Star reported how “two gay young ladies” had made their way through the crowd, “each carrying a small sofa cushion, the ends of which they had opened. And to the astonished and outraged young men standing around the girls were joyously doling out the white chicken feathers that stuffed their cushions.”

These gay young ladies were members of the Order of the White Feather, first instituted in Britain in the early weeks of the war when Admiral Charles Penrose Fitzgerald deputized 30 women in Folkestone to place white feathers—symbols of cowardice—in the lapels and hatbands of men not in uniform. The Toronto Daily Star began reporting this British treatment of “slackers” (as it called them) before the end of September, 1914, and life soon proved difficult for young men in Canada as well. A popular song by Muriel Bruce called “Kitchener’s Question” blared from recruiting stations: “Why aren’t you in Khaki?/This means you!/Any old excuse won’t do…” Even children got into the act, using yellow chalk to draw stripes down the backs of unsuspecting men.

By the spring of 1916, the rhetoric had grown heated. A speaker at a mass rally in Toronto described as “degraded,” “cruel” and “selfish” the voluntary system that saw some men “do their duty” in Europe while others stayed at home. The journalist and art critic Helen Ball—who panned the Algonquin Park painters in a Toronto Daily News review—wrote that a husband lying in a rough grave in France was easier to bear than “a shirker by your side.” Hoping to get more young Canadian men into khaki, Emmeline Pankhurst, the British suffragette turned arch-imperialist, embarked on a cross-country tour. “How will you like to think,” she asked a Vancouver audience, “that the man you love has allowed other men to do his duty for him while he sheltered himself behind the sacrifice of other men?”

Ahrens’s own white feather to the painters, delivered in the columns of the Toronto Daily Star, must have been particularly wounding to Thomson. As a tall, physically fit, unmarried man with no dependents, he must already have attracted the attention of the women in the Order of the White Feather. A friend and former roommate, the painter F. H. Varley, claimed Thomson was deeply troubled by the fact that “everyone was worrying him about joining up.” What, then, was his excuse for not donning khaki?

Thomson was certainly opposed to the idea of war, reading works by the English pacifist Norman Angell and complaining to MacDonald that “it is rotten that in this so-called civilized age that such things can exist.” A ranger in Algonquin Park named Ed Godin claimed that he and Thomson discussed the war many times, and that Thomson did “not think that Canada should be involved.” He was adamant that Thomson never would have offered himself for service. However, another park ranger insisted that Thomson did try to enlist. Mark Robinson stated that Thomson presented himself at a recruiting station in Kearney but “was turned down and he felt very keenly about it.” He then apparently tried again in Toronto, with the same result, and finally “went to some outside point in the country” (possibly Owen Sound, his hometown) only to be rejected for a third time. One of his sisters in Saskatchewan likewise believed he made at least one unsuccessful attempt.

It is possible that Thomson, putting his pacifist views aside, volunteered for service only to fail the physical examination. Apparently fit and able men were sometimes declined for no discernible reason. At most recruiting offices, the failure rate for medical reasons was as high as 70 per cent. Potential recruits could be turned away because of bad teeth, poor eyesight, a lack of height or a chest of inadequate circumference. A Victoria Cross winner, G. B. McKean of the Royal Montreal Regiment, was rejected for service three times before he was able to enlist in January, 1915. However, some of the physical requirements were relaxed in the summer of 1915, making eligible for service those previously turned down because of bad teeth or short stature. At such a time, an able-bodied outdoorsman, even one nearing his 40th birthday, would not have been spurned without good reason. Rejection by the military authorities seems unlikely given how Thomson impressed almost everyone with his physical prowess. A doctor whom he met in 1915 was astounded at how he could hoist a heavily laden canoe to his shoulder “without help, and seemingly without effort.”

Whatever the case, for a man of physical strength and personal courage to have his bravery and masculinity challenged—whether by Carl Ahrens or the young women in the Order of the White Feather—must have been distressing and infuriating in the extreme. Thomson left Toronto within days of Ahrens’s comments, setting off for a long sojourn in Algonquin Provincial Park, his place of sanctuary and renewal.

Thomson first visited Algonquin Provincial Park in the summer of 1912, returning each summer thereafter to sketch, fish and occasionally work as a fishing guide or fire ranger. In 1916 he would spend his longest period yet in the park, seven months altogether, returning to Toronto only when the snow flew. This protracted spell in the northlands—the longest he is known to have spent away from “civilization”—suggests he was deliberately avoiding Toronto, with its recruiting sergeants, newspaper headlines and other unpleasant reminders of war.

In the late spring of 1916, Thomson was joined by Lawren Harris, who was soon to be sent to Camp Borden, a vast training base in Simcoe County. With Harris came Dr. James M. MacCallum, an ophthalmologist and University of Toronto professor who was one of the few private buyers for paintings by the Algonquin Park School. The walls of his waiting room in the Medical Arts Building at St. George and Bloor were decorated with Thomson’s delicious agonies of colour.

The men canoed and portaged through Aura Lee Lake, Laurel Lake and Cauchon Lake. One afternoon, Harris and Thomson were painting beside one of the lakes when a thunderstorm forced them to seek refuge in an abandoned lumber shack. Thomson, however, was often recklessly defiant of the elements, as if testing himself against the mythical vagabonds of the Canadian wilderness such as voyageurs and coureurs de bois. Undaunted by the fierce conditions, he grabbed his sketching materials and rushed into the gale. He was squatting behind a stump and painting a trio of thrashing pines when the wind uprooted one of the trees. Harris at first thought Thomson had been killed by the falling pine, but “he soon sprang up, waved his hand to him and went on painting.”

Later in the year, back in his Rosedale studio, Thomson would turn this small sketch into one of his most famous paintings, The West Wind, in which the potent energies of nature are distilled into the whiplashing curves of the Jack pines. The painting is a scene of struggle, of an elemental tug-of-war between the dynamic and destructive forces that nearly killed him. If Canadians believed that what made them unique was their engagement with this hostile and unforgiving land that dictated the terms of human existence, then Thomson’s painting is an elegant image of this life-and-death encounter, a Canadian Laocoön set in the harsh, lonely wilderness.

The painting probably also registers another conflict, since Thomson’s own heroism is inscribed within it. His exploits on the lakes in the spring of 1916 mirrored—for witnesses like Harris and MacCallum—those of the Canadian soldiers fighting in Europe. The hazardous conditions, the primitive cover, the brave and desperate scramble into position, the near miss with the falling tree…these events, as recounted by Harris and MacCallum, read like one of the citations for “conspicuous bravery” being awarded to Canadian soldiers for their heroics on the Western Front. If Thomson was abused in Toronto as a shirker and a hermaphrodite, Algonquin Provincial Park was the place where he could attest his true courage and masculinity.

 

This text has been excerpted from Ross King’s book Modern Spirits: The European Adventures of the Group of Seven.

 
 

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