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The treatment of nature in Canadian art since the time of the Group of Seven Walker, Doreen Elizabeth

Abstract

It is the purpose of this paper to examine the continuing manifestations of nature in Canadian art since the time of the Group of Seven. It has been the writer's endeavour to handle the available material in such a manner as to show not only the persistence of the nature theme, but also to show that the changes in the expression of this theme have followed basically the general trends in Canadian art since that time. Whenever possible, relevant comments by critics and writers of the period have been included so that works may be considered in the opinion of the acknowledged authorities of the day, as well as to a degree in retrospect. Pertinent comments by artists concerning their work and their attitude to art, as it relates to the general subject, are also included. In the past fifty years Canadian artists have responded to their environment in countless ways, and many meaningful interpretations have resulted. In addition to traditional landscape expressions which reflect our most familiar conception of nature, manifestations of responses to other aspects of nature are included. Nature is thus taken, for the purposes of this paper, in a wider meaning to include a number of conceptions of the physical world and its phenomena: a number of aspects of the world not made by man. In the opening chapter the facts concerning the establishment of the landscape tradition in Canadian art are reviewed. There is consideration also for the question that is rarely posed, as to why the strong sense of nationalistic pride of members of the Group of Seven found all but exclusive artistic outlet in interpretations of the rugged Canadian northland. During the Thirties the Canadian lanscape remained as the main theme of Canadian artists, and imitation of Group methods was rampant. However, in the works of some artists, it is noted that subject matter becomes more intimate and the statements more personal. The avant-garde Montreal painters in the Forties sought to replace the prevailing obsession with landscape, with works derived from School of Paris influence. Although these artists were to spurn the prevailing devotion to typically Canadian subject matter, the presence of nature, perhaps unconsciously revealed, is apparent in many of their works. Following the innovations in Montreal, School of Paris influences spread across Canada during the Forties and early Fifties, and many interesting landscape abstractions evolved. In many instances the French 'manner' was consciously applied to the traditional Canadian 'matter'. With the adoption of methods of the New York Abstract Expressionists, following the mid-Fifties, Canadian artists frequently expressed themselves in the form of 'gestural' landscapes. The Canadian environment is no longer the prime inspirational force in such subjective works, but there seemed to be a resistance to eliminate all suggestion of nature. There are lingering references in many works to the once all-powerful theme, but the landscape references are most frequently general and universal, rather than specific. A group of artists are considered who have turned from international influences and have maintained a commitment to 'realistic' art. This group have frequently combined landscape and figure in their work in order to express a meaningful human situation. Their vision is intense and their realistic approach to subject matter often borders on the surreal. When man is not depicted directly his presence is implied: landscape is a setting for a human situation. In a totally different vein are a number of works that would seem to realize in plastic form aspects of the 'new landscape' of our time. Due to the advancement in science and technology new orders of magnitudes, both microcosmic and macrocosmic, have become part of man's visual and mental experience and have stimulated his imagination. Artists struck by the wonder and mystery of the expanded conception of nature have enriched our experience with a wealth of imagery. In the Sixties the widening commitment towards formalism, which has been accompanied by an increasing denial of all subject matter, has taken its toll on the declining landscape tradition. In the majority of hard edge works the connection with nature is emphatically broken. On occasion, however, it is noted, that with the employment of certain elements, landscape overtones are to a degree apparent -perhaps as a result of a nostalgic tendency on the part of a romantic viewer, or as a lingering attachment towards landscape on the part of the artist. In either case the approach is subjective, stemming from a committed habit of association. A number of significant artists of the Sixties have consciously retained an association with nature. These artists are primarily involved with new attitudes and techniques, and have brought about drastic changes in the presentation of traditional landscape subject matter. Theirs is not so much 'new landscape' as landscape transformed. Frequently these statements are three-dimensional, and seemingly reflect a desire on the part of artists to achieve a more concrete form of expression in line with a present trend toward literalism in art. Essentially this group of artists have concentrated on the details of traditional landscape - interpretations of clouds, waves, earth, streams, etc. They have approached these details, however, in a universal sense as idea, rather than as specific topographical detail. It is this general, non-specific approach that would seem to hold meaning for these artists. A climax in the involvement of artist with 'actual materials', 'actual colour' and 'actual space' is seen in the current involvement on the part of some artists in Earthworks. Here the elements of the natural world provide not only the inspiration, but the media as well. In Canada this is not a major trend, but merely one further manifestation of interest in the world of nature. It is suggested that this urge to create in outdoor natural situations is surely, perhaps unconsciously, a form of reaction against the existing technologically-dominated urban society. The Canadian landscape tradition as established by the Group of Seven has not flourished since the Forties, but within the broader nature theme (of which landscape is a part), many artists have found a powerful motivating force. Undoubtedly the world of nature will continue to be a deeply influential factor for a number of artists in the future as they endeavour to come to terms with ever-changing world situations. The forms their expressions will take, however, one could not possibly predict.

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