Taming the Wilderness: Into the Woods with Tom Thomson

   

Tom Thomson, The West Wind (Winter, 1916–17), oil on canvas, 120.7 x 137.9 cm. Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Gift of the Canadian Club of Toronto, 1926

The Jack Pine and The West Wind have been reunited once again at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Into the Woods: Two Icons Revisited. This special exhibition encourages visitors to see these paintings, not just as iconic Canadian works, but also as tools that can help us understand our national history and mythology.

The two paintings, both recently cleaned and restored, are on view with their oil sketches, just as they were at the National Gallery of Canada for the recent Masterpiece in Focus exhibition. The AGO presentation offers visitors another opportunity to see the completed works, along with the sketches that inspired them. This time, however, they will not be accompanied by a series of additional sketches produced by Tom Thomson at the same time, but rather a contemporary work by Indigenous artist Michael Belmore.

“What we wanted to do at the AGO,” said Andrew Hunter in an interview with NGC Magazine, “was think about these paintings within broader dialogues about Canadian-ness, about the environment, and about certain defining issues the country is facing at this moment, and how the works fit into that.”

The AGO’s Fredrik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art goes on to say that, “The Group of Seven, and Thomson, and [Emily] Carr still seem to perpetuate the idea that Canada is about rugged wilderness and landscape. That’s been part of the narrative from as far back as you want to go — as far back as the European arrivals who thought of Canada in that way. And I wanted to ask, ‘How real is that? How true is that?’”

 

Michael Belmore, Breadth (2014), raku fired clay, copper leaf, 121.9 x 121.9 x 22.9 cm. Collection of the artist

Hunter says that, while many like to think of Thomson’s Canada as being one big, untamed wilderness, it really wasn’t. From the beginning of European settlement, Canada was mined and logged and exploited as a resource. By the time Thomson had made it to Algonquin Park, the landscape had already changed dramatically.

“If you look at Thomson’s production over his very brief career, a remarkable number of his works explicitly reference industry and logging in Algonquin Park. If you understand the landscape, you can see that what he is actually capturing is a second-growth or third-growth landscape,” explains Hunter. “Some of these iconic images, these brilliant explosions of fall colours — the birch grove in autumn in The Jack Pine, for example — were really representations of a landscape that only existed because it had been clear-cut in the 19th century.

“When we took out all the white pine, the dominant species of tree, all the other stuff grew in, so the reason Algonquin Park had these brilliant patterns of orange in the fall is because we logged it, It’s a ‘manufactured landscape’ to borrow a phrase from (Edward) Burtynsky.”

Hunter notes that the jack pine itself is a species of tree that could only flourish and spread once the white pine was removed. This is what makes the jack pine so prevalent today, as well as in Thomson’s time. The myth of Algonquin Park as an untouched wilderness was perpetuated by the Group of Seven, and others who attached ideas to Thomson’s work after his death.

 

Tom Thomson, The Jack Pine (Winter 1916–17), oil on canvas, 127.9 x 139.8 cm. NGC

“Thomson wasn’t like Lawren Harris,” says Hunter. “He wasn’t writing articles for Saturday Night or giving speeches about Canadians being a northern people in a rugged landscape. Thomson was making paintings. And that’s something we emphasize: that, in the end, Thomson was a great painter.”

The two paintings and their oil sketches are featured with Breadth by contemporary Indigenous artist Michael Belmore. The raku-fired clay-and-copper sculpture features a deer that has been run over by a vehicle. The contemporary work has been included partly to demonstrate how contemporary artists interact with classic Canadian paintings, and partly because Hunter wanted to bring the history of the park’s First Nations into the exhibition’s context.

“Algonquin Park is a part of a massive ongoing land-claim dispute between the Algonquin of Ontario, the Ontario government, and the federal government,” says Hunter. “The claim to what is the traditional land of the Algonquin — which includes an extensive watershed — takes up almost all of Algonquin Park, so we want to introduce that as well.

“When you come into the space, you will see the deer’s body, its remains. It’s quite burned and charred, and has been cut into sections. The artist has applied a layer of copper to the sections and, when lit, it has a glow to it. Copper is something Belmore often works with, and it has a lot of significance in Anishinaabe culture.”

Into the Woods: Two Icons Revisited is on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario until February 2016. For more information please click here.

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