There is in the soul of man a passionate unsatisfied longing for beauty. As the complex nature of man-made existence of the modern world turns its machinery and its knowledge of science towards the comfort of humanity, it yet aggravates the discontent which is evident around us. Our polluted cities, our mechanical fashion of living, our ugly squalid architecture, our commercial pride and foolishness, and cheap enticing entertainment, are all squeezing the beauty out of life, and making us a standardized disdainful people. We cut and slash our trees to make room for ugly buildings; we fill in and stamp out the natural beauty of our cities; we carry into the vast hinterland our city banalities, and prey upon its denizens…The still small voice of art-consciousnes, which is the silent protest against ugliness in environment, is nearly hushed. We try to recreate it by filling art galleries and museums with the dry bones of the past…but let us not mistake this for art. Art lies not in possession nor in pride of ownership…Art is a creative living force. If we should have beauty again in our lives, we shall have to listen…to the impress of sights and the sounds of beauty…the development of the artist in each of us is the response to these vital spiritual rhythms of existence. Arthur Lismer, in Art and Life, 1927
Mr Cyca, my sixth grade teacher, was a man who has had left a lasting impression upon me. He introduced our class to music, art, and wilderness. Also poetry and contemplation. He taught us how to tell our own stories. He was clearly a man who had some mastery in the art of living. I remember vividly the first time he showed us a painting by a member of the Group of Seven, that loose association of men who came to define Canadian landscape art. The reason I have such a strong recollection of this moment is because I was completely disgusted by the artwork, and by the fact that anyone could believe this to be an example of good art! I am not at all sure what I believed ‘good’ art was, but I suspect it was probably realist art, perhaps something like the work of Robert Bateman.
I still am in awe of Bateman’s work, so detailed and precise that most of his paintings are like photographs. My favorites among his many works are the ones that are close up views of long grass, perhaps from a rabbit’s perspective. The detail is astonishing. As well, his works have a strong sense of presence to them, a mood not usually captured by photography. And that of course is the presence of the artist, the patina of which is not captured on film.
Now several decades removed from grade 6, abstract landscapes like those of the Group of Seven are my favorite type of painting. While not unique to Canada, this style and the subject manner are very evocative of Canada, and call out to me strongly, much like the Canadian landscape itself. What I love most about this style of painting is the wildness of this great land seen somewhat abstractly: the paintings portray wind, and light, and weather, alive to the motion of the land as well its visual presence. And the mood created by this is a reflection of the land itself – perhaps a foreboding and windy day by the lake, perhaps a stern and austere mountain standing alone, perhaps the gentle dappled light of summer falling through birch trees. There is a sense of peace, and for some reason a sense of hope in all of this that moves me.
I wonder what Arthur Lismer would think of the world today. A world where all that he laments in 1927 is magnified logarithmically. (With the exception of squalid architecture – some progress has been made there I feel, although in Canada we are far behind other parts of the world in this regard.) Perhaps now even more than ever, we need art. As a way of connecting to our vital spiritual rhythms.
This subject, and these artists, have been on my mind since my trip to Banff, Alberta last weekend. I love this small town, nestled in the Rockie Mountains. While Banff is certainly an international destination, it still retains the strong flavor of its roots as a town pioneered by the Canadian National Railway, which opened up the west, and the Rockie Mountains in particular, to tourism. People flocked to Banff to see the mountains. Banff is still dotted with the original simple log homes of the early settlers. And the magnificent Banff Springs Hotel, a 150 year old massive and glorious castle-like stone hotel with an incredible view.
One of my favorite things to do in Banff is visit the several wonderful art galleries that feature the enduring style of Canadian landscape art. And I never miss a chance to visit The Whyte Museum, one of my favorite museums anywhere. On this visit they had a wonderful collection of paintings of winter, artwork from several decades, including the works of the Group of Seven, many lesser known but equally wonderful artists, and of course the delightful work of the Whytes themselves.
The older I get, the more I understand the importance of feeding my passionate unsatisfied longing for beauty.