My Canada, 42/150: Inspired in the woods

It’s not unusual for wealthy philanthropists who collect art to bequeath both their home and collection to create a public gallery: think of the Frick in New York or the Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston. The Canadian version of such generosity is not a mansion in a large city: it’s a log lodge out in a bush.

In 1952, Robert and Signe McMichael bought 10 acres of land in the village of Kleinburg, Ontario, north of Toronto, and built a large home featuring logs and fieldstone. Soon after, the couple began collecting art painted by Canada’s Group of Seven.

The Group of Seven was initially seven male Canadian artists: Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley. They worked as commercial artists (sign painting, graphic posters) and painted portraits, cityscapes, and a variety of subjects. Jackson, Lismer, and Varley also were official war artists during the First World War.

However, they all were inspired by their friend, painter Tom Thomson, who frequently made extended trips to Algonquin Park and other wilderness areas of Ontario, sketching the landscape and then creating large-scale oil paintings on his return to Toronto. Thomson died in 1917, his body found eight days after he disappeared on a canoe trip. His seven friends made similar journeys and began painting Canadian landscapes in different ways than previous European painters. In 1920, they had their first joint exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto, now the Art Gallery of Ontario.

One initial member – Frank Johnston – moved west shortly thereafter and in 1926 A.J. Casson joined the group, as later did Edwin Holgate and Lemoine Fitzgerald. When J.E.H. MacDonald died in 1932, the artists declared the Group of Seven dissolved although all surviving members continued to create new works.

The McMichaels continued to collect Group of Seven paintings through the 1950s and 1960s, amassing nearly 200 and displaying them at their home in a private gallery, a mixture of paintings they purchased and ones donated by the artists or other art lovers.

In 1965, the couple offered to donate the collection, their home, and their property to the Province of Ontario and, in 1966, the “McMichael Conservation Collection of Art” opened to the public.

The McMichaels, when alive, became unhappy with the direction the gallery was taking as it brought in other Canadian and newer works. To quote the Toronto Star on the issue: “Robert McMichael grew increasingly agitated. In 1996, with the collection approaching nearly 6,000 works, he sued the province over what he argued was a violation of their original terms.

“In 2001, McMichael appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada to take on the suit, but they refused to hear it, effectively ending his legal challenge. Nonetheless, Ontario’s Conservative government under [Premier] Mike Harris gave McMichael control of the collection in 2001, creating the position of board designate, allowing him to enforce his mandate. He immediately announced plans to sell almost 3,000 works in the collection, effectively freezing exhibitions and hurting attendance badly.”

Robert died in 2003 and Signe in 2007; a sad postscript is that they entrusted their estate to lawyer Geoffrey Zimmerman who, in 2010, was ordered to repay $1.1 million in court costs and funds that the judge found the lawyer had unethically withdrawn from the trust. Four months later, Zimmerman died at age 52, leaving behind a wife, children, and debt, including what he owed to the McMichael trust that is to provide ongoing financial support to the gallery.

On a beautiful sunny winter day, however, at the start of the gallery’s 50th anniversary year in 2017, all this drama seems impossible. The gallery is situated in a gorgeous wooded area, with a short hiking loop dotted with sculptures.Visitors can sit in comfy chairs in the gallery and view the natural scenes out the large windows, whose art-damaging light is blocked from the 13 gallery areas by partial walls.

We saw the last day of an exhibition by Toronto abstract painter Jack Bush, which was overlapping with a new exhibition of work by Group of Seven member Lawren Harris.

Harris got a popular boost in 2015 when comedian, actor, art collector and all-around wild-and-crazy guy Steve Martin curated a show called “The Idea of North”, featuring Harris’s iconic Arctic icebergs and other northern landscapes. It was shown at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in 2015 and moved to the AGO in 2016. Andrew Hunter –  a colleague of mine years ago when we both worked at the University of Waterloo – is the Fredrik S. Eaton Curator, Canadian Art, for AGO and he added a fascinating prequel exhibition of Harris’s earlier paintings of urban Toronto. There was also a third section, with little original art, that explained how Harris moved from landscape to abstract painting later in his career.

That abstract work is fully explored in Higher States: Lawren Harris and his American Contemporaries, on at the McMichael until Sept. 4, 2017. If you got to The Idea of North, you really should make the trip to Kleinberg to see Harris’s full artistic story played out.

In its golden year, the McMichael really is coming into its own, both honouring the legacy of the Group of Seven while exploring how they inspired (and provoked) art after them.

There even is, dear heavens, satire. I leave you with Diana Thorneycroft’s 2009 work that we stumbled across in the original main lodge gallery. I don’t think it would be to the McMichaels’ taste, but it sure made me laugh.

41 awkward group of 7
Diana Thorneycroft, Group of Seven Awkward Moments (Maple and Birches with Winnie the Pooh), 2009. The McMichael Gallery Collection. Photo: Chris Moorehead.

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