A 1930 Frederick Varley painting of Yale’s St. John the Divine church is making its way, in digitized form, onto Google’s arts and culture platform 100 years to the day the Group of Seven had their first exhibit.
It was on May 7, 1920 that the influential school of landscape painters had their first exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario.) And 100 years later amid a pandemic where most people are cooped up indoors, Google has launched their ambitious push to digitize up to 200 of the group’s works in the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, including Varley’s ‘Church at Yale, BC, 1930.’
Google is placing these digitized works of art on their Arts and Culture platform, which can both be viewed as a website and downloaded as an app. They are inviting viewers to ‘discover the Algonquin school (another name for the Group of Seven), the most important art movement you’ve never heard of.’
Not only the painters, but the places they painted are being celebrated. People are being invited to check out these places using Google Street view.
“Canadians are stuck inside right now and we’re all social isolating, and we’re sort of waiting for that moment to go outside and usually, people will be planning camping trips and road trips,” said communicationsperson with Google Canada Alexandra Klein.
“They might use some of the actual locations that inspired the Group of Seven’s work, potentially to plan a trip… so we’ve sent out a few of those locations on Street view and then also attached the paintings producted because of the inspiration.”
Digitizing involves more than just snapping a photo on your smartphone and uploading it. Google has created cameras, Klein explains, able to pick up details down to ‘a brushstroke on an oil painting.’ It makes the experience of viewing these classic Canadian works more powerful, she adds.
“In May 1920, seven artists in Toronto came together as a group to exhibit a bright, colourful modern style of painting,” said Ian Dejardin, an art historian and executive director at the McMichael collection. Varley was one of the founding members.
“(They) set out to represent their vast country in a new, vibrant visual language,” Dejardin said. While initially ‘reviled’ Dejardin added, it’s hard to overstate what an influence they have had on the development of art in Canada ever since.
While many of the group’s individual members were from Ontario and depicted the province’s boreal forest, the group also ventured out across the country. Their works depict landscapes including Lake Oesa in Yoho National Park to mountains surrounding Alberta’s Maligne Lake. “It’s a great way to use this moment of celebration to encourage Canadian’s to learn more about the great areas that inspired these beautiful works of art,” Klein said.
Inspired by post-impressionist European art, Google noted, the group invented a ‘distinct Canadian voice,’ seen in works like Emily Carr’s depictions of the wild Northwest Coast of B.C. and the people who lived there. Carr was never an official member of the group although founding member Lawren Harris declared to her, ‘you are one of us,’ the Canadian Encyclopedia states.
Klein said the purpose of Google’s art and culture platform is to democratize the experience of viewing art and historical documents, opening up everything from Mexican sculpture, to original documents from the slave trades in the United States. It’s about “bringing the work you might only be able to see in a gallery, to a central location online that can be shared with the world very, very easily,” Klein said.