The harsh Canada seen through the eyes of white wooden runners

Forest as far as your eyes can see. Blankets of moss hang over branches, drowning out any sound except your own breathing. Chilling steep slopes that make the Pyrenees pale. Waterfalls that literally freeze blue in winter. Lakes deeper than the deepest fjord in Norway and greener than the most unlikely green you know in nature. The landscapes of Canada are indeed improbable. Especially if you are looking for nature that has not yet been damaged and destroyed by the logging industry, paper mills and mines.

This wild landscape is the subject of the exhibition Magnetic north in the Kunsthal in Rotterdam. The exhibition focuses on iconic painters from the first half of the twentieth century – adventurous explorers like Tom Thomson and the members of the Group of Seven, founded in 1920. They gave the young state of Canada a firm, national identity. That identity is one of dazzling views and landscapes without a child or a crow. The impression of overwhelming vastness and deadly loneliness, of enduring until the skin falls from your hands and the soles under your shoes are worn, is what binds the group of outdoor painters. Their motto: ‘Less of a study more of the forest’.

The exhibition features a wide range of breathtaking paintings, many from the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. With Group of Seven, you should not think of Arcadian landscapes, highly polished, but of neo-impressionist and Fauist canvases, where the colors jump out. The unreal, jagged icebergs that Lawren Harris paints in Davis Strait and Disco Bay in 1930 and 1931 look like gigantic spaceship wreckage, framed by hallucinatory dark blues and purples. For Harris, as for many of his colleagues, the northern wilderness is a cosmic powerhouse where the white is “alive, where solitude is “nourishing” and numerous unexplained voices “call” and “answer” in that nature.

Lawrence S. Harris, Icebergs, Davis Strait1930 (Oil on canvas 21.9 x 152.4 cm)

Photo Family by Lawren S. Harris

But even more important than the cosmic power source that some artists call God is the fact that all landscapes are Magnetic North fictions—created by white men, and sometimes a woman like Emily Carr. From the vitalist rapids and foul-smelling swamps that the virtuoso Tom Thomson painted between 1915 and his mysterious death by drowning in 1917 in Algonguin Park, to the hard, lonely trees in all weathers that Arthur Lismer and Franklin Carmichael painted in northern Ottawa: everything. in the Kunsthalle glows with the idea that they were here first, that Canada was a terra nullius and ‘New France’ (as Canada was originally called) a terre sauvage, where no one lived, and which was first seen by the painting, white colonialist. .

This is of course extremely nonsense. The good thing about the exhibition – and don’t forget the informative and excellently written catalog – is that this nonsense is not hidden. The exhibition shows The White Woodland Walker’s work in a critical decolonial context. There are films by young creators like Caroline Monnet and Lisa Jackson who show the country (rather than the landscape) from its crowded side. Overcrowded because of the rituals and ceremonies with which indigenous people strengthened their bond with nature. But also crowded, because centuries before a white man planted his easel here, these people lived meaningful lives, lives that were eventually broken by the Western colonialists.

Tom Thomson, northern Light1916-1917 (oil on wood)

Photo Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Jean-François Brière

Just as the members of the Group of Seven painted the original inhabitants out of their vistas, they also painted away their white fellow predecessors. Unfortunately, the exhibition does not pay attention to this curious aspect. And it’s a shame, because it’s special to know that a nineteenth-century artist like Paul Kane became famous precisely with paintings of First Nations people: the way they lived, worked, raised their children, in the middle of a nature, that hold no secrets. for them. Nowhere do the people of the twentieth century refer to predecessors who entered the wild landscape, made acquaintance with the original inhabitants of the land and thought: how special, how impressive – I want to capture that. None of the rich heritage becomes apparent. As if she never existed.

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