Primed for Travel: "Magnetic North" in Frankfurt

Tom Thomson Northern River, 1915 oil on canvas

Tom Thomson, Northern River, 1915. Oil on canvas, 115.1 × 102 cm. Purchased 1915. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Over the past two years, the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) has collaborated with the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Schirn Kunstshalle to organize Magnetic North: Imagining Canada in Painting 1910–1940, a major travelling exhibition scheduled to coincide with the Frankfurt Book Fair. The exhibition offers a critical review of works by the Group of Seven and their contemporaries and focuses on the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives to provide a more comprehensive story of painting on this land. Lending 23 works to the exhibition, the NGC staff prepared nine canvas paintings and fourteen plein-air sketches – by Tom Thomson, Emily Carr, Franklin Carmichael, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Lawren S. Harris – for travel to Germany in January 2021. Despite the ongoing pandemic and the challenges faced by museums amidst travel restrictions, the exhibition opened at the Schirn Kunsthalle in March.

Installtion view of Magnetic North exhibition at Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, 2021

Installation view of the exhibition Magnetic North: Imagining Canada in painting, 1910–1940, here showing works by Emily Carr, at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany. Photo: Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt

The style of landscape painting led by the Group of Seven is well known for its unique portrayal of the Canadian scenery. Their paintings focus on key landscape elements, such as trees, sky and water. The artists’ choice to simplify their images and depict a vast wilderness devoid of people, often excluding evidence of those who were already there, may now be reinterpreted as having created a false sense of an uninhabited world. One of the works the Gallery is contributing to the exhibition is Thomson’s Northern River, which shows this style of depicting the landscape: a lonely place in the forest, thick with trees and without a trail.

Northern River captures an eerie atmosphere but, in a break from Thomson’s plein-air practice, this work was not painted from real life. Thomson’s habitual practice was to paint an oil sketch en plein air and then work up the sketch into a larger painting in his studio during the colder months. For Northern River, however, he likely created a gouache study indoors, the concept being a synthesis of various ideas, probably a combination of Thomson’s memories and the influence of his commercial work. He then used this study as a guide in painting the large-format canvas over the winter of 1914–15. Thomson sold few paintings during his lifetime, and Northern River is one of these rare examples. It was purchased by the Gallery in 1915, directly from the artist. This major work by Thomson ordinarily hangs side by side with The Jack Pine in Ottawa, and will no doubt be missed by visitors. The loan highlights how important it is to share these masterpieces with an international audience.

View of gallery A107, including Tom Thomson, Northern River, 1915 and Tom Thomson, Jack Pine, 1918.

Installation view, Indigenous and Canadian Galleries, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

When a work of art is requested for loan, one key factor is the examination of the work by the Conservation and Restoration Department. As caretakers of the national art collection, one of our many responsibilities is to ensure that these works are carefully assessed for travel and, if approved, are prepared in accordance with safety measures for transporting the art. In order to complete the necessary examination for oil paintings, a paintings conservator considers its construction, current condition, past travel history, and the environmental conditions of the borrowing institution.

For oil paintings on canvas, the construction of the wooden stretcher is examined for structural integrity and whether it adequately supports the canvas. Next, we examine the current condition of the canvas fibres and consider how past restoration interventions will influence the painting’s risk during travel. The adhesion of preparation layers and paint are investigated, using visual examination with a microscope, to search for any instabilities within these layers. Finally, the frame is assessed to ensure it safely encases the painting, both for travel and for display.

Conservation specialist Tasia Bulger in the NGC Lab

Part of loan preparations may include exploring surface cleaning and varnish removal, as seen here. Photo: NGC

The assessment of oil paintings on wood panels differs from paintings on canvas, as these small panel sketches are made from a single piece of wood. This simple construction can make the situation physically less complex if the panel is properly prepared by the artist. In the case of many of Thomson’s panels, the paint has been properly mixed and often is adhered well to the panel. The danger panels face during travel is usually the result of improper framing, as well as due to the effects of environment and physical shock.

Preventive measures are added to the paintings prior to travel, and these small adjustments result in big wins in an artwork’s lifelong travel history. Attaching a removable solid backing to a painting prevents movement of the canvas during transit. The addition of a conservation-grade adhesive to any mobile area in the paint film or on the frame can stop further propagation. Additional modifications to seal the frame create an environmental barrier to reduce any effects that environment fluctuations could have on a painting during transit. Finally, a condition report references the state of the painting throughout its journey.

Conservators provide the Gallery’s Packing Department with recommendations for crate enclosures, as they construct custom-built traveling crates for each work of art. Crate interiors vary in terms of padding or the amount of insulation required to ensure a smooth trip for the work. The most direct route for transit is coordinated by our Exhibitions and Loans Department, and the works travel either by plane and/or truck to the borrowing institution.

Collage of images from conservation Lab

A collage of images giving a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Tom Thomson's plein-air sketches during the examination stage. Photo: NGC 

Modifying preparations and assessing risk amidst a global pandemic has been a learning process. Embracing change in order to continue supporting initiatives such as traveling exhibitions has been a challenge that has vitalized our creativity for problem-solving, especially at a time when we are unable to carry out our everyday work according to normal procedures.

The power of art to bring people together across the world is irrefutable in this exhibition. Overcoming obstacles of transport and travel during a global pandemic and reaching an international audience have given this exhibition a spirit of greater power and resilient connection. As we navigate embracing the history of the land known today as Canada, we are elaborating the story of a nation, giving credit to the land’s original caretakers, while promoting and practicing inclusivity as we all move forward together.


Magnetic North: Imagining Canada in Painting 1910–1940 is currently on view at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, and will be shown at the Kunsthal Rotterdam in Fall 2021. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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