INTERVIEW WITH DR. DAVID SILCOX: AUTHOR OF THE GROUP OF SEVEN AND TOM THOMSON
Interviewer: Norm Goldman, Editor of Bookpleasures.com
Please tell our readers something about yourself, your present position as managing director of Sotheby's Canada, the role of the art historian, your expertise pertaining to the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, and when and why you became interested in these artists?
I've always been interested in art since my Victoria College days, and particularly when I lived and worked at Hart House after I graduated in 1959.
There I had responsibility for the exhibition schedule and for the collection, which included many Group of Seven masterpieces.
Varley's Self Portrait and his Magic Tree each hung in my office for long periods of time. From Hart House, I went off to study art history at the Courtauld Institute in London, and then ended up at the Canada Council for five years (1965-70), developing the programs of assistance to artists, which are
still largely intact there today.
Then I went to York University, where I was Associate Dean of Fine Arts in the then new Faculty of Fine Arts.
I taught art history, Canadian and contemporary.
The year I left York, 1977, Harold Town and I prepared and wrote the wonderful best-seller, Tom Thomson: The Silence and The Storm.
The rest of my life, in parcels of several years each, consisted of setting up the cultural affairs department for Metro Toronto, being Assistant Deputy Minister (Culture) in Ottawa, then Deputy Minister of
Culture and Communications for Ontario, a Senior Fellow at Massey College, where I completed a large biography and the Catalogue Raisonnι of the great
painter David B. Milne, and finally the Director of the new University of Toronto Art Centre.
From there, a little over two years ago, I was enticed to join Sotheby's to run their Canadian operations.
That put me back in touch with historical Canadian paintings. At about the same time I got an invitation from Firefly Books to do a volume on the Group of Seven, a happy coincidence since they had just republished the Thomson book, which my old publisher had allowed to run out of print.
Do you have any favorites among the group and why?Lawren Harris is my favourite by far, and it shows in the number of works reproduced: nearly a hundred of the 369 plates in the book are his.
Mind you, I have favourites by each member of the Group, so 'favourite' is a work you have to be nimble with. What subject? What part of the country? What season?
What year? Of course, I also have, as I think we all do, a particular affection for many of the works by Tom Thomson.
There are only 35 or so works of his in this book, since there already is a book available with large and numerous plates, and since he was not alive when the Group was formed. Still, he is their spiritual leader, and some of his works undoubtedly contributed to the ideas that the Group espoused and inspired them to take the actions they did. But to answer your question in a different way, I have favourites among the works of each member of the Group, perhaps for different reasons in each case, but I can muster pretty strong feelings for particular works for each one.
How long did it take you to put together your book The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson and how did you go about deciding which images to includeThe book took about a year to find its shape and pattern, and then another year of adjusting to the exigencies of production.
I began by scouring all the old catalogues, books, and auction records I could find, and by making xeroxes of every image I thought was worth considering or taking a snap when no photos existed.
I went through the lists of public collections, asked curators and collectors for suggestions, and visited major collectors. Altogether I think I must have looked at well over 5000 images, maybe many more.
Then I sat down at the dining room table for what seemed weeks, and shuffled the xeroxes into different piles (and I had hundreds of them) until
the idea of some themes and a geographical tour of Canada seemed to emerge as a possible pattern from the mass of material.
At that point, I began to paste images into a sequence in a three-ring binder, a sort of page-by-page mock up of the book itself. This is what I brought to the publisher, who was both stunned and delighted, since we could at that point see what the book could look like.
From this point the issues became those of format (size of the book), balance (how many plates in each section), and spreads (which picture was opposite which picture).
The logistical issue of what photography was
needed, how good existing transparencies were (a lot of them were not good enough), and how long the texts would be, were aspects worked out with the wonderful
designer Linda Gustafson, with whom I spent many delightful and profitable hours.
I notice the book is made up of 10 sections. How did you plan these sections?
These sections of the book came about after I had rejected the idea of presenting the Group one artist at a time, which might have been a little boring and also showed up the weaker members even more; and after I had rejected the idea of trying to line the paintings up in chronological order, which also would not have worked; and finally after deciding to show works before, during, and after the actual years of the Group's existence(1920-1933).
This meant that the lifetime output of each artist was available for selection, that great works of whatever period could be included, and that the whole gamut of subjects could be considered. It allowed me to look at each painter/member as a whole artist: before, during and after. I start with what I call a 'fanfare', two major works by each Member.
This is followed by a section of still lifes and portraits, aspects of the Group's work that are often overlooked. The still life by A.Y. Jackson is a surprise to many people, but he did, after all, teach still life at the Ontario College of Art for a year. The same may be said of the attention members of the Group paid to urban subjects -- the cities, towns, and villages of Canada, which comprise the next section. And finally, among the themes that begin the book, are those incredible works painted by Members during the
First World War and immediately after, both in Europe and Canada.
Thereafter, the reader is taken on a geographical tour of Canada, from the East Coast (Newfoundland, Labrador, and the Maritime Provinces); up the St. Lawrence River to Quebec; into Ontario at Bon Echo, Algonquin Park, Georgian Bay, Algoma, and the north shore of Lake Superior; across the Prairies to the foothills and then into the Rockies; to the West Coast of British Columbia; and finally up to the Yukon and Northwest Territories and the high Arctic. Members of the Group painted in all these places, and gave the world images of the whole of Canada's landmass. An amazing feat.
Why do you think Tom Thomson had a great deal of influence on the group, even though he was not a member?Thomson was an odd personality, quiet and shy, but with a sharp sense of humour. He did not begin to show any real talent as an artist until he ran into some of the artists who later became the Group in Toronto. From them he learned many things, since they had received formal educations and training (he had not), and they had seen a lot of art in Europe and elsewhere. Suddenly, although he was older than all of them, he caught fire.
At that point, the student became the teacher -- they began to learn from him.
Two things I think Thomson gave his colleagues: the first is a great love of the north. Algonquin Park became his favourite place after his first visit there in 1912.
Harris and the others were able to transform this
passion of Thomson's into an Idea of North. And the North kept moving further and further north, until it finally reached the Arctic. Harris in both his paintings and his writings propagated the idea of Canada as a great northen nation. It is an idea that has fueled Canadian imaginations (and our politics) for almost a century since.
Second, Thomson died in 1917 in a canoe accident during the Great War. As soon as the war was over, his friends, having already erected a cairn at Canoe Lake, organized a memorial exhibition of his work. A few days after this exhibition closed in March 1920 at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the AGO), the Group of Seven was formed at Lawren Harris's house. I believe
that the formation of the Group was in large part a tribute to Thomson, and that the inspiration and friendship he had given each of the original
members was repaid in part by their agreement to show together and to present a vision of Canada that was bold and distinctive.
In my review I make mention of the American group- The Hudson River Group. If you were to point out 5 similarities and 5 differences, what would they be and why?
I think a better parallel to the Group of Seven in the United States would be The Eight, although neither they, nor the Hudson River School, really had the national ambitions the Group of Seven developed.
The Eight, lead by Robert Henri (and including George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Everett Shinn and John Sloan among others), were New York based, and were really city and society painters in lots of ways, not wilderness painters. But, like the Group of Seven, they did battle with the Academy in order to advance themselves, they claimed they were true -blue Americans with no pernicious outside influence from such places as Europe, and the believed they were (as indeed they were) defining a country.
What makes them a little different, however, is that the Group of Seven operated in a much smaller market for art (a smaller country with somewhat less ambitious collectors), and they were spread across the country for much of the time, whereas the Eight were clustered in New York City. And the Seven were preoccupied with the landscape much more than the Eight, whose social depictions of cities (slums), and such activities as sports (boxing, especially), eventually earned them the moniker 'The Ashcan School'.
Could you elaborate as to why you believe, as you mention in your book, that the book's primary objective is to understand the role the artist played in creating a country's identity, and to illustrate the importance
of art in our lives?
All artists are revolutionaries in one sense of the word. They are constantly changing our perception of the world by changing the way we see things, or hear things, or perceive things. They change the forms and the modes of perception. This, to me, is a healthy thing, since if things aren't changing, then they are going to sleep, and I like the idea of freshness and vitality that constant challenge brings. It keeps a society alive.
That's why, while I love the Group of Seven and respect the work they did, what it really important is what today's artists are doing now. The artists
of our day are doing to our society exactly what the Group did in its day: they are shaking it up and challenging our way of thinking about things. Artists
always work within a tradition, and today's artists work within the tradition established by the Group of Seven.
To people who say they can't understand modern art, I like to quote David Milne to them: he said 'If you
can't understand modern art, then you haven't understood the old masters.' There's a profound idea in that statement, and one that I believe has
Ultimately, of course, the Group of Seven created lasting images that remind us of who we are and what 'home' is like. You couldn't ask for more than that.
Could you elaborate as to why women were never invited to become members of the group?
Well, I really don't know why, except to say that they were displaying, alas, the chauvinism of their time. It really was curmudgeonly of them not to be more open to the great talents displayed by people like Emily Carr and Prudence Heward.
You mention in the book that the group had an influence on future generations of Canadian artists.
If you were to choose 5 artists who were influenced by the group, who would they be and why?
It's hard to think of only five, since all artists were influenced by them, from realists like Christopher Pratt to abstract artists like Harold Town. I would include all the artist of Painters Eleven and the Regina Five, and even conceptual artists like Iain Baxter.
Why did the group disband? What came after and what influence did the group have on these artists?The Group disbanded for several reasons. They had had a good run, first of all, both before they were a formal Group (1911-1920) and then as an exhibiting Group (8 shows between 1920 and 1931). They had nearly always
invited other artist to exhibit with them, and sometimes as many as 17 artists from all across the country had been part of the Group shows.
The Group disbanded in 1933 to make way for the much more broadly based Canadian Group of Painters, who were, while mostly younger, supportive
of the Group's overall aim to create an all-Canadian art.
The Group had succeeded superbly in their mission, and handing the torch over to the next generation was a way of preserving what they had achieved. It was, in many ways, a heroic gesture, and one worthy of them.
Thanks Dr. Silcox
To read Norm's and his wife's Lily Azerad-Goldman's review of THE GROUP OF SEVEN AND TOM THOMSON CLICK ON: