“I have just returned from Toronto. Why Canada? It was to finalise a show that is very dear to my heart.
Very few people in this country have heard of Tom Thomson. In Canada, he is legendary. Working in Toronto around 1910 as a commercial artist – nothing special, he tended to do rather slick illustrations in an arts and crafts / late Art Nouveau kind of a style – he encountered a group of like-minded artists who were interested in developing a ‘national’ landscape style. At the same time, he ‘discovered’ the wilderness regions north of Toronto. He became an expert fisherman, an expert canoeist and thorough-going woodsman. He spent as much time as possible in Algonquin Park, fishing and – increasingly – painting, on small panels the size of a cigar box lid.
All I know is that, sometime around the mid-teens of the century, Thomson’s talent blazed into something utterly remarkable. Then, in 1917, after really only three years producing these extraordinary works, he died, aged 39, in mysterious circumstances – he set off in his canoe across Canoe Lake, never to be seen again alive.
He has since become Canada’s answer to JFK and Marilyn Monroe conspiracy theories all rolled into one – was it an accident, or was he murdered? Did he jump, or was he pushed? He was tall, good-looking, 39 years old – natural legend material – but mainly, he was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, for the shortest possible time.
He left behind two legacies, effectively – firstly, his astonishing work, some of the most electrifying pieces of pure landscape painting I’ve ever seen; but he also left his stunned and grieving artist friends. When the First World War ended and those who had served in Europe returned to Canada, they organised a memorial exhibition, and, a few weeks later, formed Canada’s most famous artistic venture – the Group of Seven (J E H MacDonald; Lawren Harris; Arthur Lismer; Frank Johnson; Franklin Carmichael; AY Jackson; Fred Varley).
The recently opened Thomson Wing of the Art Gallery of Ontario (named not for Tom but for its benefactor, Ken Thomson, the late Lord Thomson of Fleet) devotes several magnificent rooms to them, including one given over entirely to Tom’s work, all collected by Ken Thomson. This wing is by local boy Frank Gehry, and is worth the visit to Toronto on its own.
Anyway, my not-so-secret mission since about 1987, when I first encountered the Group of Seven in book form at the Royal Academy library where I then worked, has been to mount a great show, and I’m nearly there. It is opening in October 2011 and runs until January 2012.
Also in Toronto: an amazing Liebeskind extension of the Royal Ontario Museum, of the ‘a huge crystalline asteroid has just landed on our museum’ school of architecture. And – a special tip: go to the curious little Textile Museum. Some nice exhibits, but – most importantly – a fabulous shop. I bought a simply gorgeous tie, and what I am describing as an indigo, tie-dyed, neckerchief kind of thing. The label tells me it is a Japanese mid-century nappy. I prefer neckerchief.”
Ian is giving a talk about The Group of Seven on Wednesday 10th February at 10.30am as part of the InSight lecture series ‘Group Dynamics’.