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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Industrial Algoma and the myth of wilderness : Algoma landscapes and the emergence of the Group of Seven, 1918-1920 Fletcher, Allan John


In the summer of 1988, casting around for a thesis topic, I chanced on some photographs which stunned me. They were pictures of various sites in the Algoma territory, a region which up to that time I, like many Canadians, knew only from idyllic paintings by J. E. H. MacDonald and other members of the Group of Seven. The discrepancy between the two sets of images was startling. What the camera revealed: railyards, dockyards, cities and towns, dammed rivers, cavernous mines, mountains of slag, razed forests, huge smelters and gigantic milling operations was in striking contrast to the untouched northern wilderness depicted in works like The Solemn Land. I felt that art historians had helped foster the illusion that Algoma was (and is) as pure and unsullied as the Group depicted it. My thesis, then, is at its most basic level an attempt to counteract that false impression and inject some balance into the art historical record. It looks at the mythical structures of the north and the wilderness and shifts in their political, social and economic utility in the years just after the Great War and tries to locate Algoma paintings made between 1918 and 1920 within this larger context. The phenomenon of Tom Thomson, the archetype of the "bush artist" is considered as are issues of private and institutional patronage. Actual and potential audiences for Algoma art are examined, and a number of texts, promotional and critical are discussed. In the final chapter, four paintings, three by J. E. H. MacDonald and one by Frank H. Johnston are investigated and related to what I see as the primary task of much artistic production at this time—to harmonize Canadian culture with country's accelerating transition to a branch-plant economy.

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