Don’t think of this exhibition as having to take a spoonful of bad-tasting medicine in the form of a dry history lesson—far from that—it is a sheer visual pleasure and pure delight to see.
Here are 41 paintings by artists who were members of the Group of Seven and their colleagues, including several women artists whose works have never been exhibited in Kelowna, now on view. This is traditional pure painting at its best. The time period covered is from 1920 to the 1950s, with many works from the Depression era. The 1930s formed a pivotal time for Canadian art, when artists turned away from depicting the wilderness landscape and began exploring social and political content in their work.
The paintings are installed in the order in which they were purchased by Hart House—a student recreational and cultural centre at the University of Toronto. Therefore a viewer has a more-or-less chronological sweep of works by important artists working through these decades.
Some highlights to watch for include the full-sized landscape work by Group of Seven member Arthur Lismer called Isles of Spruce, which is shown in this exhibition with its on-site oil sketch right beside it. This gives viewers the rare opportunity to look at the small oil-on-panel work painted while out in the woods (often from the vantage point of being seated in a canoe) and compare it to the much larger studio version the artist completed back in Toronto. Some people prefer the spontaneous and loose quality of the small sketches, others like the drama and compelling large scale of the finished paintings.
At the south end of the room is a beautiful and mysterious work painted almost all in greens by Group of Seven member Frederick Varley during the time he lived in Vancouver and environs. Open Window was painted in the mid 1930s when Varley was living in a shack at the canyon near Lynn Valley, north of Vancouver. The angled slats of the window frame lead the eye into the picture, where an infinite water and landscape is rendered in such a way that the water and land blend together and move upwards to the snowy tops of the coastal mountains. Varley was exploring transcendentalism at the time and this work is a perfect and beautiful signpost of his journey toward spiritual enlightenment.
Another riveting painting is Dark Girl, painted by Montreal-based artist Prudence in 1935. The woman portrayed is a black servant, stripped naked and shown seated among Canadian sumac branches. It is a powerful and haunting work and raises troubling issues of race relations, the power balance in the artist/model relationship, and the controversial aspects of nudity in art.
The Group of Seven and their artist peers were involved in building the art collections at the University of Toronto in a time period when the ideals of the British Arts and Crafts Movement were still in play. One of these was the notion of combining one’s art and life and the importance of living and working surrounded by original works of art. Now due to the high monetary values of the works, they sit in storage as there is no safe place to have them on exhibition. This is a problem faced by many small to mid-sized galleries that do not have a designated exhibition space for their permanent collection. So this tour of the paintings from Hart House to the Kelowna Art Gallery is something to truly celebrate.
Curated by independent curator Christine Boyanoski, A Story of Canadian Art was organized and circulated by the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery (Hart House, University of Toronto, Canada). The exhibition was financially supported by the Museums Assistance Program of the Department of Canadian Heritage. The show will remain on view at the Kelowna Art Gallery until July 19, 2015.
Take note: Admission to the Kelowna Art Gallery is free every Thursday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.