What’s with the Canadian obsession for categorizing our artists according to numbers? There’s the Group of Seven, Painters 11 and the Regina Five, for starters. We’re not the only nation to do this. The Americans had The Eight and I am sure there are many other examples around the world. However, we may be unique in not being able to count.
I know they were only painters, but the Group of Seven should have been able to get their own number right. More accurately, they could have been described as a group of 10 or 11, depending on when and where they exhibited. Thomson, Casson, Fitzgerald and Holgate were variously substitutes and add-ons to the original members that consisted of Harris, Jackson, Macdonald, Carmichael, Johnston, Lismer and Varley.
To be fair, a couple of deaths confused the issue – Thomson’s before the Group officially formed in 1920 and Macdonald’s about a year before it disbanded in 1933. And Johnston’s early defection, after only a brief period of time, led to Casson’s invitation to come on board.
The Americans had The Eight, but many of those artists also overlapped into a grouping with a more colourful name, the Ashcan School. I’m concerned that English Canadians, at least, have a love of order that precludes the exciting and daring. It may be our bean-counting Scottish heritage. I know that plays a role in my own work, with my love of lists.
Our lady artists have not fared much better on the name front either. The most famous congregation of Canadian women artists is in the Beaver Hall Hill group. Now there’s a gentle but hard-working name with an unfortunate connotation. Actually, it’s based on a wealthy enclave in Montréal where the local residents made most of their money from building the Canadian Pacific railroad.
Consider some other names in art history. Britain had the pre-Raphaelites. That could hardly sound more decadent. Impressionism, cubism, abstract expressionism, post-painterly abstraction – these are all great titles with some wild and crazy overtones. Our Québec artists did better on this score, choosing to ride under more original banners such as Refus Global (which translates as Total Refusal), Prisme d’Yeux, automatistes and plasticiens.
It’s not that our artists were staid or boring. Painters 11 and the Regina Five were risk takers with the best of the international scene. In fact, it was a professor at the University of Saskatchewan who coined the term hallucinogenic for the mood-altering drug LSD. The Regina Five were willing experimenters and day trippers.
The influential New York art critic, Clement Greenberg, took up the cause of both Painters 11 and the Regina Five early on. He became one of the first guest lecturers at the Emma Lake Workshops that were annual summer art classes held in Saskatchewan.
But once again, this highlights the problem. Emma Lake Workshops sounds like something hosted by a musty old grand aunt. The U.S. had its Black Mountain College for aspiring artists in North Carolina. That name suggests a touch of villainy, the very thing necessary to get the artistic juices flowing. The seminal moment in U.S. art history came at the Armory Show – a muscular name, if ever there was one – in 1913. Cutting-edge art from Europe received exposure in a traveling forum that started in New York and moved on to Boston and Chicago.
This propensity for the innocuous pervades more than just the Canadian art scene. Let me give you another example. The U.S. has its Thunder Roads and Tarnation Alleys in cities and counties across the nation. In Canada, outside Barrie, Ontario and running past the military’s Base Borden, a stretch of highway has just been renamed Peacekeeper Way. Sheesh! Be still my heart!