WEB EXCLUSIVE: Group of Seven on trial

By Paul Gessell

Winnipeg artist Diana Thorneycroft, Canada’s Queen of Creep, was the star witness for the defence at the recent Ottawa trial of that very iconic band of painters known as the Group of Seven.

Yes, the Group of Seven was on trial in 2011 for having staged something of a coup d’etat of the Canadian art world almost a century ago. More on that later. First, more on Thorneycroft.

All works by Diana Thorneycroft. From left: Martyrdom of the Great One, C print; Group of Seven Awkward Moments (Jack Pine), C print, 2007; Early Snow with Bob and Doug, C print, 2005

Thorneycroft is infamous for making art out of dead bunnies, forcing Mickey Mouse into cruel situations and, more recently, creating and then photographing dioramas in which dolls are abused in a variety of exquisitely clever ways. There are drownings, maulings by wild animals, plane crashes, and even a crucifixion of a doll-sized replica of hockey great Wayne Gretzky.

One body of Thorneycroft’s work is titled Group of Seven Awkward Moments; in this series, very Canadian stories involving black humour are played out in front of reproductions of paintings created by Group of Seven artists and their sidekick Tom Thomson. These wickedly funny artworks are meant to be cheeky send-ups of the best and worst of Canadian culture.

One of these Awkward Moments was Exhibit A at the aforementioned Group of Seven trial in Ottawa. Exhibit A, one of Thorneycroft’s tamer works, is titled Early Snow with Bob and Doug. Doll-sized replicas of hosers par extraordinaire, Bob and Doug McKenzie, sit around a campfire, drinking beer of course, while Tom Thomson’s painting Early Snow forms the backdrop.

From left: John Macfarlane and Shelley Ambrose, co-publishers of The Walrus; John Cook, architect, and wife Maria Cook; National Gallery of Canada director Marc Mayer. Event photography by Brent Gervais.

The trial was held May 11 at — where else? — the National Gallery of Canada, which championed the Group back in the early 1920s when much of the art establishment would have nothing to do with the landscape painters. The issue in the trial: Is the Group of Seven relevant today, or are those painters of yesteryear merely historical curiosities that should be sent packing back to the 1920s?

The trial was really a debate, the second annual art debate organized by The Walrus magazine on the stage of the auditorium in the National Gallery.

Defending the Group of Seven was Ross King, a much decorated author and art historian. Leading the charge against the Group was Tom Smart, another art historian who has served in key roles at several major Canadian art institutions including, ironically, the very Group-dominated McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Moderating the debate was Shelagh Rogers, jokingly self-described as “the pitbull of the CBC” but who is actually the cheeriest, least confrontational broadcaster in Canada.

From left: art historian Tom Smart, author Charlotte Gray and husband George Anderson, art historian Ross King; Christina Lubbock and CBC host Shelagh Rogers; Cory McPhee, Walrus co-publisher Shelley Ambrose, and National Gallery of Canada director Marc Mayer

The jury was comprised of about 300 of Ottawa’s finest: celebrated art collectors, such as John Cook and Glenn McInnes; diplomats including former United Nations ambassador Robert Fowler; several senior art-world bureaucrats including the new deputy minister of Canadian Heritage Daniel Jean; and literary figures such as history writer Charlotte Gray.

King opened his defence of the Group by projecting onto the back wall of the National Gallery stage various images of paintings by the Group and Tom Thomson and, placing alongside them, images of these paintings reworked by living artists Thorneycroft, Douglas Coupland, and Peter Doig to make statements, both amusing and insightful, about contemporary Canadian culture. King did not show Kent Monkman’s paintings in which Group-like landscapes, which normally contain no humans, are slightly adjusted to include tiny figures of stereotypical Indian warriors sexually subjugating cowboys, soldiers, and Mounties.

Artists such as Thorneycroft, by injecting Group of Seven paintings into their own work, demonstrate that the Group is still relevant today, King declared. “They’re part of our DNA.” To denigrate the Group as outdated is like saying Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci is outdated, he insisted.

The jury included artists, media, and other invited guests

Smart was not convinced. He says Thorneycroft and others using the Group of Seven are employing irony to show that the Group paintings do not reflect — never reflected — reality but are simply the embodiment of several false myths.

One myth is that the Group was a band of “Canadian” painters when, in fact, they were “regional” painters from Ontario. (Marc Mayer, National Gallery director, agrees with that assessment.) Another myth cited by Smart is that Thomson and the Group were untrained artists who sprang fully-formed from the soil, like Venus from the ocean. In fact, they were heavily influenced by various European painters in France and Scandinavia. Another “myth” is that the Group inspired whole generations of painters when, in fact, the Group became so dominant that it stifled artistic creativity in Canada for decades. “It’s time to move on,” concluded Smart.

The jury did not actually get to vote so the trial ended without an official verdict, although debate continued afterwards at a cocktail party in which Ottawa’s upper crust sipped wine, nibbled canapés and discussed their favourite paintings.

And, as for Diana Thorneycroft, she was in Paris. The same day of the Group of Seven trial, a solo show of Thorneycroft’s work, including the Group of Seven Awkward Moments, opened at the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris. The summer-long exhibition is titled Diana Thorneycroft’s Extraordinary Stories: Caustic Landscapes of the Canadian Imaginary.

All works by Diana Thorneycroft. From left: Group of Seven Awkward Moments — March Storm, Georgian Bay, C print, 2007; Group of Seven Awkward Moments — White Pine and the Group of Dwarfs, C print, 2009

Thorneycroft’s Awkward Moments have drawn rave reviews from top Canadian critics and have been shown at many of the best galleries in Canada, including Carleton University Art Gallery in Ottawa and the McMichael near Toronto, but not at the National Gallery. But that’s another story, another topic for debate.

So, what side does Thorneycroft support in this debate? Reached in Paris, the artist said she believes the Group of Seven is very relevant today.

“To start with, the Group of Seven are OURS,” Thorneycroft wrote in an email. “We are such a young country. To disregard any of our artistic past would be foolish. Yes, it’s tiring how they seem to get all the attention, and it’s sad when you learn that for many the only artists they know are the Group of Seven, but in my opinion, that is better than nothing.

“When I began my series my intent was to subvert the Group of Seven. At one point I had to extend a poster I had purchased to make it big enough for my set. I had to mimic the style to the left and right of the reproduction, and thought I could do it in an hour. It took me about six, and that was when I realized the Group of Seven were subverting me. My appreciation for the sheer complexity and beauty of their work took over my cynicism.”

Group of Seven Awkward Moments (Jack Pine), C print, 2007. By Diana Thorneycroft.

So, who won the Group of Seven debate? Diana Thorneycroft, of course.

Whether she is mocking or honouring the Group of Seven in her work, she has clearly established herself as an innovative artist with a lot to say about the state of Canadian culture. And the Group of Seven is at least partially responsible.

Perhaps 100 years from now, the artworld will hold a trial to determine if Thorneycroft, Douglas Coupland, Peter Doig, Kent Monkman, and the other Group of Seven-obsessed pioneers of this era are still relevant or deserve to be sent packing back to the early 21st century.