'Art as experience' in Tom Thomson's paintings

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Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven is now at the McMichael art gallery near Toronto, after what we're told was a successful European tour. Canadians are always impressed when their artists are hailed elsewhere. The phenomenon spans three centuries. I was at the McMichael in August, before this show, when it was also full of Thomsons and Group of Sevens -- from its own collection. I went with an observant 14-year-old and a cultured foreign friend. Both came away with a sense of depression evoked by those paintings of lakes and woods.

I could see why. There's so much brown and murk, the trees are snarled and forbidding. What accounts for that? Maybe it was depressing to be an artist here a century ago. Real art happened in the imperial centres. You were expected to go there to study, as some Group members did, and imitate them. Margaret Atwood wrote a chapter on this kind of artists' malaise in her CanLit study, Survival. Or maybe it was an after-effect of the First World War, which blighted the mood of their generation, when it didn't kill or maim them.

The exception is Thomson himself. His paintings of the same places are invigorating. The colours are bright, even when they're dark. As Roy MacGregor says, in Peter Raymont and Michele Hozer's film on Thomson, even his swamps full of deadheads are happy places. Thomson drowned in unexplained circumstances in Algonquin Park in 1917, at age 39, before the war even ended and before the Group was founded. What accounts for the difference?

He came from there. He spent half his brief life on a farm in Leith, near Georgian Bay. He was of it. Then, in 1912, he discovered Algonquin Park, close by and similar but different from the bay. It had compact, circumscribed lakes and woods. The bay is bleaker, wilder, vaster -- yet also more "social." He said it reminded him of Rosedale and when he was there, he yearned for the park. He was the portal to the north for others in the Group. For them it was a subject and source of material. For him it was home, where he loved to be. But what difference does that make and how does it change the result?

U.S. philosopher John Dewey, a Thomson contemporary, wrote about "art as experience." He said our experience isn't uniform or level, it's composed of discreet units, each with its tone, tempo, intensity, brightness. An artist fastens on the unique qualities of an experience, whatever they are, then "co-operates" with the "product," like a painting, to "intensify and epitomize" (Dewey scholar Richard Bernstein) them. The viewer then fastens on that product -- as you do when you stand transfixed before a painting -- to rediscover the intensity and vitality experienced by the artist. It takes time at both ends; you can't see a landscape "flitting" through it at 60 miles an hour (Dewey's example). Perhaps Thomson was simply closer to it than the rest, which allows us to re-experience his experience so vividly, especially in his colours, even when he's doing muskeg.

At the McMichael in August, I found myself fantasizing the theft of a small Thomson painting, like the art heist in the 1999 film, The Thomas Crown Affair. It portrayed a view exactly like that from the dock at my cottage, which is in the same country as Algonquin Park, though west, rather than east, of Highway 11. In the last 20 years I've spent hours at a time, amounting to weeks, maybe months, staring out from that dock, often wondering why I now prefer it to travel in amazing new places. Thomson and Dewey help me understand. Perhaps it's why another Thomson contemporary, Canadian artist David Milne, said, "it would have been wiser to have taken your 10 most prominent Canadians and sunk them in Canoe Lake -- and saved Tom Thomson."

There's a familiar critique of the Group of Seven: that people are absent in their paintings, which avoid the social realities of modern Canada. But it's not true of Thomson. There's a human presence there: he himself, sitting on a dock or rock, as we peer over his shoulder, enthralled by seeing what he sees.

Photo: andres musta/Flickr

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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