Charles Comfort,  Young Canadian, 1932. Watercolour. Purchased by the Hart House Art Committee, 1934/35.
Charles Comfort, Young Canadian, 1932. Watercolour. Purchased by the Hart House Art Committee, 1934/35.

A century ago, Tom Thomson and the men who would later form the Group of Seven lived in a Canada which had a population roughly equivalent to the current size of Toronto. They took what they saw of Canadian nature and painted it through their point of view: "Canada", as formed by the landscape of northern Ontario, but a place that could only be Canada.  

Their work would eventually come to be stereotyped as the only worthwhile art ever produced in this country. But at the time their fall colours earned them notoriety as the "Hot Mush School," and drew comparisons to Hungarian goulash and "the insides of a drunkard's stomach."

Now they’re the venerable, sturdy classics, “the ones that got out” and announced the nation’s artistic potential on the international art stage.

Along with many of their contemporaries, many Group of Seven paintings are on display at the University of Toronto Art Centre as part of A Story of Canadian Art: As Told by the Hart House Collection, curated by Dr. Christine Boyanoski. It’s a story of the symbiotic relationship between Hart House and contemporary artists, and the promotional effects of Rt. Hon. Vincent Massey, in the early days.

The Group of Seven was founded and celebrated its first exhibition in 1920, a year after Hart House opened. Massey, like Lawren Harris, was a principal descendant of the Massey-Harris fortune and the House was Massey’s gift to the University of Toronto, in honour of his grandfather, Hart Massey.

Vincent Massey would then go on to play a major role in building Hart House’s collection, as a part of his foundational contribution to Canadian cultural enterprises. When not busy gallivanting to the United States or United Kingdom on ambassadorial duties in the 1920s and 30s, or serving as a trustee at the National Gallery, Massey was involved with the House’s collection. He was present at the meetings in 1925 which led to the House’s mandate to buy the best in contemporary Canadian art, and his special grant in 1934 was used to purchase Charles Comfort’s Young Canadian (pictured), among others.  

Even before the House opened, Massey had encouraged the creation of the U of T Sketch Committee (later the Hart House Art Committee) by promising it a dedicated space in new student centre. Its barren walls needed interior decorating, and the students on the committee would become responsible for purchasing “the best in contemporary art,” committing the institution to living artists.

The committee’s first acquisition, A.Y. Jackson’s Georgian Bay, November (1921), signalled the direction the House’s collection would take. With the exception of the National Gallery of Canada, no other institution was purchasing Group of Seven in 1922.

Every Group of Seven member except for Frank Johnston is represented in the exhibition’s 41 items. “What I think is very interesting is that as they began to collect beyond the Group, it was still very much in terms of the Group’s point-of-view,” said U of T art history professor and former AGO Chief Curator, Dennis Reid. This could be attributed in part to the Group’s direct influence on the collection: Lawren Harris and A.J. Casson sat on the acquisitions advisory committee from 1924-1935, and then A.Y. Jackson joined the committee from 1934-1948.

For a very male and Toronto-centric exhibition, there are included Emily Carr from British Columbia, some paintings from Quebecois artists, and Prudence Heward.

“They’re not all in the top echelon,” said Reid, “but still some real zingers.”

Heward is represented by her incredible portrait Dark Girl (1935-35). Professor Reid: “Up until recently, everyone thought that the young woman was in a tropical setting. Then someone pointed out that in fact these are sumachs. It is one of the most perceptive portraits. You just feel the personality so strongly, to such a degree that you don’t even think of her sitting there nude.”

Comfort’s Young Canadian (1932) is one of the most referenced and reproduced Canadian paintings of the 1930s. It sets his friend and fellow painter Carl Schaefer in the middle of a field during the Great Depression. Professor Reid: “There’s a funny realism to it, though it’s so stylized. There’s an element of despair, but at the same time -- visionary eyes. You don’t write it off as somebody lost and wondering, What the hell next?, due to the very fact that he’s sitting there with the brush in his hand. … I always really liked the hues in this one. A very limited range of hues but still an incredible tonal range within that.”

“The way they’ve installed [the exhibition] helps a great deal because it is related work together and the work resonates together for various reasons, and that’s really impressed me. Christine [Boyanoski] has really hung them beautifully.”

Not everybody is as impressed. “The nostalgic and overwhelming power of the natural landscape seems to trump all other modes of visual expression in the Canadian consciousness,” said contemporary Canadian artist Charles Pachter, when asked for his thoughts prior to seeing the exhibition.

“I would say that Charles is probably looking at it in a singular way, or looking too closely at the myth of it,” responded Barbara Fischer, chief curator for the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery and University of Toronto Art Centre, which federated into a single entity this year. She would credit the paintings’ appeal instead to “a sense of familiarity … a part of a sense of collective belonging.”

By the 70s, security and curatorial concerns forced most of the collection into storage. (Incidentally, three paintings of far less value were stolen from three separate locations on campus this February). Many of the paintings in this current exhibition were taken on a national tour in 1987-88, and many have been lent out, most frequently Tom Thomson’s The Pointers (1916-1917) and Lawren Harris’ Isolation Peak (1930).

Like many major museums, U of T can only display so many of its roughly 600 pieces at a time. Chief curator Fischer dreams that UTAC  and JMB eventually conjoin spaces in a single, dedicated building, but adding space in order to display the national treasures is not a priority. “We don’t want to make the museum a shrine, so when you only show the one generation -- that was never the idea.”

Rather than making long-term loans to larger spaces, or selling the national treasures, which Fischer explained is an ethically dubious proposition, the current exhibition is arguably a more progressive way of dealing with accessibility issues. “Museums are pledged to take care of the works that they have,” she said, and the paintings’ national tour exposes them to a maximum number of eyeballs, while the loan fees generate revenue which is in turn used to keep the paintings at a high standard of maintenance.

The paintings are showing at UTAC, while the contemporary exhibition, Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign, is at JMB, in Hart House. It’s a choice indicative of the two galleries’ continued mandates. UTAC supports the school’s academic mission, while JMB follows in the Hart House tradition of supporting living Canadian artists, though Fischer expanded the mandate in 2005 to reflect the modern contemporary art scene, comprised of a diverse array of artists using a multiplicity of media.

And just as the collection is called A Story of Canadian art, and was never meant to encompass the whole country or tell the whole story, so the acquisitions process remains Toronto-centric, and arguably just as influential in writing the contemporary tale, as an invitation for a Fischer-commissioned piece to represent Canada at the 2009 Venice Biennale can attest. 

The touring exhibition began its national criss-cross in Alberta in 2013, and will finish in Ontario at Queen’s University in Kingston in July.The exhibition is in Toronto until March 7.

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