My elderly mother was shocked when she paid her first visit to the National Gallery of Canada some years ago. Upon entering the area reserved for the Group of Seven, my mother suddenly stood transfixed. “I know these paintings,” she exclaimed as if she had just encountered a room full of long-lost friends. “We studied them in school.”
Back in the 1940s, silkscreened prints of Group of Seven paintings were distributed to schools, military barracks, and other institutions through a joint program of the National Gallery and the company Sampson-Matthews Ltd. The program evidently had impact. There was my mother 60-some years later recalling the paintings she had seen on the walls of her red brick schoolhouse in tiny Ogema, Sask.
Some of those very prints are now on the walls of the Firestone Gallery at the Ottawa Art Gallery. They are part of an exhibition called Sell Out? Note the question mark: It is meant to make you think about what is true art and what sacrifices artists must make to create their art. Is a great artist with a small bank account “selling out” when he or she, in order to pay the rent, creates commercial art, such as travel posters, Christmas cards, and schoolroom decorations? (Such examples are all in the exhibition.)
The answer must be “no;” the artist is not “selling out” any more than an artist is “selling out” by waiting on tables at night to supplement meagre or non-existent earnings from art. Catherine Sinclair, curator of this exhibition, seems to agree, calling these commercial works by the Group of Seven and others part of their “genuine artistic practices.”
Yes, the members of the Group of Seven, Canada’s most famous artists, had difficulties supporting themselves only by selling their paintings. For most of them, especially early in their careers, getting positive reviews and snagging the odd sale to the National Gallery produced insufficient income to pay the rent.
Thus, Tom Thomson and many of his friends in the Group worked for the graphic art firm, Grip Ltd. of Toronto while they were creating Canada’s most famous paintings. And yes, they also created commercial Christmas cards, which anyone could buy but were also deemed to be of such artistic significance that they were exhibited annually at the National Gallery. And yes, they accepted commissions (and free trips) from Canadian National Railways to create posters encouraging travellers to see the Rockies by rail.
It is a pity that more of today’s top Canadian artists are not given the same chance to “sell out” as did the Group of Seven and such contemporaries as Yvonne McKague Housser. I have seen classrooms of children, for instance, enthusiastically embrace the ingenuous art of British Columbia’s Brian Jungen, famous for turning Nike running shoes into Haida masks. Kids “get” Jungen.
Another good candidate for classroom study is Shary Boyle, the Toronto artist who creates, with bizarre twists, porcelain figures like the ones your grandmother collected. Kids would surely love to decipher those creations. But no one is reproducing the works of Jungen and Boyle for classroom study.
Some of Canada’s top artists, including Diana Thorneycroft and Dana Holst, have “sold out” to the French Theatre of the National Arts Centre by allowing their works to be reproduced on posters and programs advertising plays.
Ottawa brothers Stefan and Jason St. Laurent have been picked to be the artists for next year’s season. Do they consider that a sell-out? No.
On Nov. 8, the National Gallery is opening an exhibition called Artists, Architects and Artisans: Canadian Art 1890–1918. The exhibition will show how artists were employed to beautify everything from pianos to fireplaces during that 28-year period. Did those artists “sell out?” Definitely not.
Sell Out? continues at the Ottawa Art Gallery until Jan. 5, 2014.