WHen I’m making a sketch I try to emphasize the things I want and ignore the things I don’t want.
I’m sitting down today and watching a 1941 National Film Board documentary called Canadian Landscapes. This is the story of Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson, and his work. Specifically, it deals with a canoe trip into the north. The north here is Northern Ontario.
We bgin with a history, geography and art history lesson. Early paintings of the Canadian North were done by Europeans in a European style. Then came Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. The film gives a quick overview, with examples, of thie thoroughly Canadian art movement. Alexander Young Jackson makes his appearance. He looks very good for a man of his age, and is identified as the leading landscape artists of his time. We find him working in Toronto in a building that was built for Canadian artists. Apparently he lives in a shack with a mining prospector. He paintswearing a tie, which is an interesting touch.
As Jackson and his companion prepare for the journey north he hopes into a canoe dressed like a coureur de bois. It is autumn so the trees are colourful. Since it is 1940 their tent is simple canvas, not the high tech synthetics you found on campgrounds around North America these days.
The image of an artist working in the bush is at first striking and contradictory. After all, while art often seems delicate and careful, the Canada north is rugged and dangerous. Jackson climbs on top of the Canadian Shield to overlook the river he has just travelled. The narration gives a fantastic description of the method and meaning of his work.
It is very useful to be able to watch the painting and the scene juxtaposed, so we can understand the way the artist manipulates his view to create the art. The quote at the top of this post sums up the general Group of Seven style quite well. It’s not about caturing exactly what is there, as A.Y. Jackson says, the scene is “the starting point” for the artists interpretation.
I should note that Jackson is working in the area of Grace Lake, Ontario at this point. Next we travel to St. Tite de Caps, in Quebec. It is spring time, though the snow is still omnpresent. Whereas in Northern Ontario Jackson focused on the hills and trees, in Quebec he turns his attention to the barns and other elements of rural life along the St. Lawrence. He paints little scenes as he snowshoes through the woods and fields of this tiny village. The narrator notes the difference in Jackson’s work here in Quebec. With painting done for the day Jackson plays cards with his French-Canadian friends.
This film is intended to demonstrate and explain Jackson’s process of creating finished works. He is constantly changing his paintings as he gains a greater understanding of the landscape he experienced. I have to say that the work is absolutely stunning. The variety of paintings featured shows a breadth of Jackson’s creations I was not familiar with until now.
We are taken on a visual journey across the country, a feature all NFB documentaries should contain. The narrator speaks of the vast untamed wilderness beyond settled Canada. Although people have since encroached upon more of this space, much of it remains open and empty of human touch. Still the work of A.Y. Jackson, and this film record of his efforts stands as a reminder of what was once the very definition of Canada.