Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven

Paperback | July 25, 2011

byRoss King

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A Globe 100 Book of the Year for 2010 and shortlisted for the 2011 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.

A Governor General's Award-winning author recounts the turbulent years during which a group of young Canadian painters went from obscurity to international renown.

Beginning in 1912, Defiant Spirits traces the artistic development of Tom Thomson and the future members of the Group of Seven, Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley, over a dozen years in Canadian history. Working in an eclectic and sometimes controversial blend of modernist styles, they produced what an English critic celebrated in the 1920s as the "most vital group of paintings" of the 20th century. Inspired by Cezanne, Van Gogh and other modernist artists, they tried to interpret the Ontario landscape in light of the strategies of the international avant-garde. Based after 1914 in the purpose-built Studio Building for Canadian Art, the young artists embarked on what Lawren Harris called "an all-engrossing adventure": travelling north into the anadian Shield and forging a style of painting appropriate to what they regarded as the unique features of Canada's northern landscape.

Sumptuously illustrated, rigorously researched and drawn from archival documents and letters, Defiant Spirits constitutes a "group biography," reconstructing the men's aspirations, frustrations and achievements. It details not only the lives of Tom Thomson and the members of the Group of Seven but also the political and social history of Canada during a time when art exhibitions were venues for debates about Canadian national identity and cultural worth.

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A Globe 100 Book of the Year for 2010 and shortlisted for the 2011 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. A Governor General's Award-winning author recounts the turbulent years during which a group of young Canadian painters went from obscurity to international renown. Beginning in 1912, Defiant Spirits traces the artistic de...

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[Back cover] $36.95 [barcode: isbn 978-1-55365-362-2] "In Defiant Spirits, Ross King tells the story of the Group of Seven as it has never been told before. He does for the Group what in his much-acclaimed books he does for Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, and Meissonier: sets out an articulate context, digs out a ton of new informat...

Ross King, born in Estevan, Saskatchewan, is the Canadian author of three books on Italian history and art: Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power and Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, which won the 2001 Book Sense Book of the Year Award for Adult Nonfiction. His stud...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:504 pages, 9 × 6 × 1.35 inPublished:July 25, 2011Publisher:Douglas And McIntyre (2013) Ltd.Language:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1553658825

ISBN - 13:9781553658825


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From Book II, Chapter 8, "The Dweller on the Threshold" The four men, accompanied by Harris's dog Prince, departed from Union Station early in September on an overnight cpr train to Sault Ste. Marie. At the Soo a specially equipped boxcar awaited them, a mobile studio conveniently fitted, as by Harris, with bunks, windows and lamps, cupboards, a stove, a sink and a water tank. The men also had use of a canoe and a jigger, a three-wheeled vehicle with which they could propel themselves along the tracks until, as MacDonald wrote, "some attractive composition of spruce tops or rock and maple" called for sketching. Their boxcar was hitched to a northbound acr train and then uncoupled 180 kilometres later on a siding near Canyon, where the steel was laid as recently as the winter of 1911-12. After several days of sketching near the Agawa River they were collected by a southbound train and shunted onto sidings 30 kilometres later at Hubert. A second southbound train then took them 25 kilometres to their final stop at Batchawana. The painters were mesmerized by the sight of winding rivers, thundering waterfalls and vertiginous granite canyons covered in radiant autumn colour. Harris found in the scenery "a richness and clarity of colour" that made everything in southern Ontario seem "grey and subdued." 41 MacDonald was even more smitten. "It is a land after Dante's heart," he wrote to Joan on September 11, describing how Algoma had "all the attributes of an imagined Paradise," with the sky and "that smooth shimmering infinity of waters" resembling "a glimpse of God himself." To describe his helpless feelings of wonder he used a metaphor from (and here we get some of his erudition) the Revelation of St. Paul, one of the Apocrypha that describes how the apostle was swept into the third heaven to witness a series of visions: "It reminds one of Paul," he told Joan, "being caught up and hearing unutterable things." Even accounting for hyperbole, this response was remarkable. MacDonald's quasi-religious experience in Algoma duplicated the awe with which so many poets, painters and mystics had gazed on the rugged beauties of the natural world. The question of St. Hilary of Poitiers-"Who can look on nature and not see God?"-had resounded down the centuries. For many years the answer was, very few. The vast scale of natural wonders such as Mont Blanc or Niagara Falls was enough to create in sensitive beholders a kind of religious fervour. The Irish poet Thomas Moore, after visiting Niagara in 1804, wrote to his mother in language MacDonald would echo a century later: "I felt as if approaching the very residence of the Deity; the tears started into my eyes; and I remained, for moments after we had lost sight of the scene, in that delicious absorption which pious enthusiasm alone can produce . . . Oh! bring the atheist here, and he cannot return an atheist." The century that separated Moore and MacDonald had brought science intrusively into the equation. Suddenly it was possible to look on nature and not see God or feel pious enthusiasm. Early in his life, John Ruskin believed nature to be "animated by the sense of Divine presence" but ended his days complaining (in a classic statement of the Victorian "crisis of faith") that in every biblical verse he could hear the clink of geologists' hammers. If conventional religion crumbled under these hammer blows, a kind of Romantic pantheism, a belief in the divinity lurking in nature, continued undiminished. Even Van Gogh believed he could draw near to "Something on High" through "long years of intercourse with nature in the country." An American disciple of Walt Whitman named John Burroughs succinctly summed up this attitude: "Amid the decay of creeds, love of nature has high religious value." For such people, he claimed, nature "is their church, and the rocks and hills are their altars." Whitman himself was responsible for much of this "spilt religion" (as the philosopher T.E. Hulme derisively called it). Revered by many painters, including both Gauguin and Van Gogh, Whitman was also one of MacDonald's (as well as one of Lismer's) favourite writers: MacDonald called him the "liberator of the soul" and the "patron saint of the modern artist." He must have felt on arriving in Algoma that he had been transported into "these skies and stars, these mountain peaks . . . / These huge precipitous cliffs, this amplitude, these valleys" celebrated by Whitman in his account of the "virgin land" of the American continent (which generously included what he called "Kanada"). MacDonald was not certain at first what to make of his Algoma rapture. "I have not assimilated this experience yet," he wrote to Joan. "It is something to be quiet about and think over." But he was not at a loss over what to do with his palette and brush, making a number of remarkable sketches. One, Leaves in the Brook, he would several months later turn into a larger painting of the same name. Rather than mystic amplitude, these sketches present exultant hubbubs of colour akin to Rock and Maple of 1916, this time done in crimson, purples and orange. Depicting leaf-strewn boulders in the middle of a stream, they are, like Rock and Maple, wonderfully scintillating images of moving water. Another compelling sketch of rushing water, done near the falls of the Montreal River, he would turn into The Wild River. MacDonald's ecstatic response to the Algoma landscape eclipsed for a time his personal worries about health and finances. But as the party prepared to return to Toronto at the beginning of October, the worries revived. He wrote to his wife about an unnamed problem, probably financial: "I am concerned about the problem. It seems as though such things had no existence here, but I suppose they must be faced some day. I hope to get back in good condition to help in their resolution, and in the meantime will do what I can in having the right attitude towards them. I hope you will not be too worried about such things." The war provided MacDonald with some employment, however grim. Back in Toronto, he found himself busy illuminating honour rolls and-in a poignant reprise of his work on Tom Thomson's cairn- designing memorial tablets for companies who had lost employees overseas.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements ix Book I 1 A Wild Deserted Spot 3 2 This Wealthy Promised Land 12 3 Ein Toronto Realist 26 4 Eerie Wildernesses 41 5 Life on the Mississagi 51 6 Wild Men of the North 66 7 The Infanticist School 78 8 The Happy Isles 94 9 Rites of Paysage 110 10 The Young School 133 Book II 1 Men with Good Red Blood in Their Veins 153 Comparative and CompetitiveTitles Comparative titles: 1. Ray Ellenwood and Roald Nasgaard. The Automatiste Revolution. October 2009, Douglas & McIntyre, ISBN 978-1-55365-356-1, Hardcover, $60.00 2. Dennis Reid. Tom Thomson. June 2002, Douglas & McIntyre, Hardcover, ISBN 978-1-55054-898-3, $65.00 3. Doris Shadbolt. Art of Emily Carr.November 1992, Douglas & McIntyre, Paperback, ISBN 978-0-88894-441-2, $45.00 Competitive titles: 1. David P. Silcox. The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson. August 14, 2006, Firefly Books, Hardcover, 9781554071548, $49.95 2. John O'Brian and Peter White. Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identiy, and Contemporary Art. September 30, 2007, McGill-Queen's University Press, Paper (0773532447) 9780773532441, $49.95 3. Charles C. Hill. The Group of Seven: Art for a Nation. November 1995, McClelland & Stewart Ltd., Hardcover, 9780771067167, Price unknown. Defiant Spirits, 2010, Douglas & McIntyre, Hardcover, 504 pages, ISBN 978-1-55365-362-2, CAD$36.95. Leonardo and the Last Supper. August 31, 2010, Doubleday Canada, Hardcover, 978-0-385-66608-4 (0-385-66608-X), $34.95 Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power. May 29, 2007; Eminent Lives, Hardcover, ISBN: 9780060817176; ISBN10: 0060817178; $21.95 The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism. March 2006, Walkerbooks (Walker & Company), Hardcover, ISBN: 0-8027-1466-8, ISBN 13: 978-0-8027-1466-4, USD28.00 Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling. January 2003, Walkerbooks (Walker & Company), Hardcover, ISBN: 0-8027-1395-5, USD27.00 Brunelleschi's Dome: The Story of the Great Cathedral in Florence. September 2000, Walkerbooks (Walker & Company), Hardcover, ISBN: 0-8027-1366-1, USD24.00 Ex-Libris (1998), Trade Paperback ed., December 15, 2003, Vintage Books, 978-0-09-946454-9 (0-09-946454-3), $21.95 Domino (1995), Trade Paperback ed., December 23, 2003, Vintage Books, 978-0-09-946455-6 (0-09-946455-1), $21.95 2 The Great Explosion 172 3 White Feathers and Tangled Gardens 185 4 The Line of Beauty 206 5 Imperishable Splendour 225 DefiantSpiritsInteriorFINAL.indd 6 08/07/10 10:04 AM 6 Shades of Grey 232 7 The Vortex of War 253 8 The Dweller on the Threshold 274 9 The Great Konodian Army 289 Book III 1 The Spirit of Young Canada 303 2 A Septenary Fatality 318 3 Are These New Canadian Painters Crazy? 333 4 Multiples of Ugliness 354 5 By the Shining Big-Sea-Water 367 6 Gypsies, Lepers and Freaks 381 7 Wembley 399 Epilogue: The End of the Trail 409 Notes 422 Selected bibliography 467 Index 472

Editorial Reviews

"Ross King’s collective look at the Group of Seven not only paints vivid portraits of the individual artists, but it reaffirms their place in Canadian cultural history and offers a clearer understanding of what it was like to persist in artistic activity.""Globe & Mail Top 100 for 2010""Although Canadian art is identified in the popular psyche with the Group of Seven, the attitude persists that the group’s work is somehow quaint…Ross King’s Defiant Spirits not only situates Tom Thompson, A.Y. Jackson, et al. in their historical contexts, it also conveys their emerging artistic sensibilities and their desire to create an authentic Canadian art, even in the face of institutional hostility.""Quill & Quire“If Ross King were a geologist, he’d have made millions striking untapped rivulets of gold or oil in overlooked places. Instead, as an art historian, he mines nuggets of obscure information that he forges into page-turners about Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Manet and, in this new book, the Group of Seven.”Montreal Gazette“In his book, Defiant Spirits, author and art historian Ross King does argue that far from being woodsy ruralists the Group was more aethestically shaped by the explosion of modernist Impressionism in Europe, which included the work of Cézanne and Van Gogh...Defiant Spirits explores how the dynamic paintings of the Group revealed a group of divergent painters who flaunted convention and were driven to interpret the rugged landscape of their country.” Critics at Large“King...has made nothing less than an historical reclamation project of the group, trying to exorcise the myth of idealized naturalists making art in a vacuum of Canadian shield wilderness.”Toronto Star