Monday, May 28, 2012

Book Review: Picturing the Land: Narrating Territories in Canadian Landscape Art, 1500-1950.

The Voyages of Samuel de Champlain

Race of Cain! in caves and huts
Shiver like jackals in the mire.
- Baudelaire

Notes on Canadian art: Canada, the land of Cain.

It all began in Hochelaga, where French explorers believed that they would find the unicorns who had emigrated there from China. These men left maps of their quests behind, the fabled creatures ebbing along their lines. The unicorns were the symbols of Christ and this was hoped to be the promised land, or at least, the promised trade route. The French and the English fought over the space in what at times seemed like a war of mapmakers. Samuel de Champlain: artist and mapmaker. The maps of the French grappled with the foreignness of the territory and the phantasmagoria that accompanied their particularly Catholic mode of conquest. The landscape of what would eventually become Canada didn't win everyone over. Jacques Cartier infamously referred to it as, "The land God gave to Cain."

The challenge of the new territory left artists confused. Many, particularly trained Anglo painters, readily began depicting Canada much like the farmed fields of England, something which they were very far from in fact. This was propaganda to attract a new variety of immigrants, rather than the not-so-steady-stream of convicts and syphilitic child prostitutes who originally settled this country. Most early artists, well into the nineteenth century, were members of the military and sold to the people back in London as exotica for imperialists. Usually these largely topographical images were unremarkable and bled into the generic forms of landscape illustration common in England. Some artists tried harder, but were unsure about what to do, depicting 'exotic' Canada as bison streaming through fields of palm trees. This challenge has remained. Artists in Canada have had a notoriously difficult time figuring out where the hell they are.

Louis Hennepin  Bison
The sedentary and the nomadic: Bifurcation of Territorialites.

It is these issues which Marilyn J. McKay examines in Picturing the Land: Narrating Territories in Canadian Landscape Art, 1500-1950. They have been perennial questions in Canadian art history. Her take on them is a bit different than most, marshaling a great deal of information and then schematically thinking through it. She takes as her task the analysis of the ideas, popular symbols, debates and myths around landscape which developed in the country from the earliest days of French settlement until the mid-twentieth century. It is an incredibly broad undertaking but a fascinating one.

One of the basic organizing principles of the book is that the emergence of various ways of depicting the space of Canada falls in two distinctive modes: the nomadic, that is, the drifting, uncertain depiction of space that bears the trace of foreign territories and a general lack of groundedness; and the sedentary, which is 'firm', although this firmness itself can readily be both terrifying (as in the wilderness) or comforting, verging on the maudlin (as in sentimental farm scenes). With the former, the subject is central and the view is panoptical. With the latter, the subject is so problematic it almost ceases to exist at times, bleeding into space. Natives appear like 'fauna', elements of the wilderness that decorate the countryside which is transformed to look like England.
Robert Whale View of Hamilton

She makes the bifurcation between the modes quite explicit, separating them from chapter to chapter and inevitably along Anglo-Francophone lines. Where this is most successful is in her examination of how two different forms of nationalism were created in the country. For the French, it was a clerico-nationalism, heavily indebted to various streams of Catholic thought (Thomist and otherwise). In the Anglo territories, it was a highly Protestant-secular nationalism.

Arguing against Northrop Frye's famous contention that early English Canada suffered from a 'garrison mentality', she opines that he misunderstood their use of the Sublime and its various cliches. The colonists were actually quite happy little imperialists; their view of the landscape coloured by their religious conviction that within it was to be discerned the clear workings of the immanence of God. They drove winding roads through the landscape to express both this striving for the Divine and to capture land. She notes that, contra to A.K. Prakash, both male and female artists painted the same, often highly gendered, fantasy with little genuine difference.

Paul Kane Mount St. Helen's Erupting At Night
The picturesque tradition described above, essentially nomadic and military, was pushed aside in the 1850s as the English army withdrew from the country and native born artists sprouted up in their place. They borrowed from Romanticism, if at some distance. This had less to do with personal experience of the land than with a certain alienation from it. The sedentary romantic tradition grew with the development of urbanity, but never seemed fully digested and, like most things Canadian, was full of contradictions and hesitation.(a) The fantasy of exotic Canada was recast, not by its conquerors but by its citizens, something that will repeat in perpetuity until today. The new urban elites helped fund this romanticism, mostly as a means of marketing the country for the new immigrants required for economic development. Canadian romanticism was more restrained than the European variety, and more ambivalent. "Janus-like" (75) Paul Kane would paint a dying culture, but he would also sell the corpse to those wishing to harvest something out of it.

Joseph Légaré Chaudiere Falls
After the English conquest of Quebec, the French were even more removed from France than before. Isolated, they mostly made religious painting. There was virtually no secular art. When Joseph Légaré emerged, he worked hard to instill a sense of territory in the population, but there was again the problem of models. His work, which borrowed from predominately English schools, was avowedly patriotic, but in a softened way. This was the beginning of a particularly sedentary kind of imagination. It sprung both from the growth of clerico-nationalism, but also from the tendency by many Francophones to associate urbanity with the English and their domination. The celebration of a sedentary rural world was part of a critique of their oppressors. It was a very mild one, however. The church went out of its way to support British rule while still supporting French nationalism and Légaré's paintings sold almost entirely to the British military, pretty much the only people outside of the Church who could pay.

Dread of urban life wasn't limited to the French. Plenty of English Canadians weren't happy about it either, though they weren't generally those who built the cities. New urban elites began fantasizing about the countryside as a kind of 'Arcadian' promised land they could have easy access to on their time off. It was the other side of their Protestant conviction that material progress and moral progress were interchangeable. In addition to Christian pretensions, this also meant jumping on the provincial bandwagon as painters started working in imitation of the Barbizon school to give Torontonians feelings of cosmopolitan superiority. These were usually images of farm land which idealized peasants and removed all of the harsh edges of poverty. The land they were raping to build their cities was aestheticised.

Horatio Walker Plough at the First Gleaming

This pursuit of 'Eden' continued with the drive West along the railroad. An entire subgenre of landscape work was commissioned by the immigration department as a way of teasing people into what would later turn into the dustbowl. The move West and North was controversial because it meant allowing foreigners in. Xenophobia rose from both left and right, but the expansion was always cast as a means to make the country more 'white', more middle-class, something the government explicitly did by uprooting aboriginals and forcefully trying to assimilate them. One of the other things the book records, and certainly not for the first time, is how deeply embedded racism is in the depiction of Canadian landscape (against the Quebecois, the Americans, the urban whites, the Amerinidians, Eastern Europeans and almost anyone else). This has less to do with overt demonization than with far subtler things, including an excessive and disingenuous suggestion of tolerance that readily manifested itself in everything from posters to paintings.

The violence of the landscape: He-Man Canadiana and the Group of Seven.

While the English were nomadic (imperialistic), and presented land as something to be harvested and conquered for the glory of God and government with the occasional figure blended into the landscape, the French had a tendency to make the human figure more central (one of the ongoing distinctions between their painting and that of Anglos well into the twentieth century). Things were more specific, more localized. They were sedentary and wouldn't go anywhere. Movement was violence. For those in Ontario and areas west, movement was all. They were already tourists in their own country and nature was just an 'interval' taken away from the city (the cold weather of the mystical north, even if it was just Georgian Bay, was thought to re-masculinize the men enervated by urban life). As McKay points out, the land was explicitly feminine in the discourses surrounding it. To be a man you had to conquer it. Unfortunately, she doesn't turn this around to examine how 'feminine' the city was, after all, it was life in a place like Toronto that made a 'He-man' girly. The ambiguity which this involves  –  provided one give it credence as something more substantial than a generic way of speaking  – and what it says about the frequently lauded femininity of Canada is never teased open.(b)

Tom Thompson Study for Northern River
It is clear that we can glimpse a sense of dissolution, both desirable and threatening here. This sense of dissolve, call it 'death' if you like, haunts the landscape (as it will later haunt abstraction). Appropriately enough, it's at this point that McKay crosses into the familiar ground of the Group of Seven and their aftermath. It was a complex intersection of often antagonistic positions within the national atmosphere that made them possible. A struggle for a distinct national style had been going on since at least the 1850s. In English Canada this increasingly focused on the idea of a virginal wilderness, one which was ideally devoid of human beings. This was not simply a matter of eliding the ethnic cleansing that was part of settling the country, but of attempting to establish a new race almost deus ex machina, emerging from the mists of a Nordic wilderness, albeit replete with boy scout outfits. This curious fantasy, orchestrated largely by the elites of Toronto and Westmount, came out in a motley of strange ways. Unlike a similarly northern country – Russia for instance, which would produce Dostoevski and Bely in its racial delirium – Canada produced Lucy Maud Montgomery and Stephen Leacock. Part of this is because English Canada was still, as some put it 'more English than the English'. In fact, this fin de siecle Anglo tendency still seems to be the cartilage in the backbone of aesthetic thought in Canada.

The aesthetic moment which this wilderness fantasy involved came in the shadow of massive industrialization. Lawren Harris, famously, being one of the scions of this economic boom which served to fund this image of Canada. To claim that the attitudes which emerged were simply a way of covering over their influences to suit their financial masters would be a bit crude (not that it isn't a frequent enough argument). It also has the deceptive quality of making the event which the Group were part of seem far more rational than it was. Everything about the Group was more deranged than that. They were Modernists, but in that peculiarly English way that Wyndham Lewis was. McKay typically plays the middle ground in her record of them, balancing their cynical media manipulation with Harris' frequent earnestness.

But the significance of industrialization they were a product of has another side. As Vincent Massey argued, the engineer and the miner are artists too and there is as much art in industrial reterritorialization as there is in painting, even if it's a more brutal, less repressed kind. To be generous: it wasn't just that the Group ignored the massive industrialization that was going on and longed for a 'golden age' of pre-human nature, but that, in some weird way, they glimpsed the dehumanization that was inherent in the thrust of material progress itself and the general insignificance of human existence to both the processes of nature and art. Although some critics, like Scott Watson for instance, have argued that this was essentially a way of eliding what was happening through mythologizing the landscape, I think that relies too heavily on making a distinction between art and industry. Not that any of this could have been fully articulated. Rather, it was sublimated and choked through spiritual clap trap and nationalist sentiment. But when you read the various writings by the Group and those reacting to them, some sense of the strange hemorrhaging of the inhuman always seems to be seeping out. The repression of this tendency came early on when they were institutionally rehabilitated as something conscious, that is, as part of an identity. One shouldn't forget that they were summarily attacked - if largely by baiting their critics - for creating 'inhuman' work that was 'mad' (178) and were often criticized for seeming to propound a vehement nationalism that amounted to patriotism as a 'love of solitude' (179) and 'He-Man Canadiana'. They were even compared to the Canadian KKK (184).

Lawren Harris Bylot Island I.

The implosion of landscape.

Although attacked for being Modern by conservatives, the Group in turn spent their careers attacking Modernism (Johnston famously referred to it as a cult of 'physical abortions') and certainly were not generally loved by foreign, pro-Modernist critics. It's now almost impossible to realize how violent their work seemed, even if this violence was, as Lynda Jessup and others have made clear, largely exploited by the Group and their cohorts in the media. A.Y. Jackson's ghost is probably laughing its ass off about the fact that some people still get annoyed by them and their hyperbolic claims. Unlike most of Modernism, with all of its gaping humanity, art in Canada, so saddled with landscape as it was, in some fleeting way managed to eschew its sentimentality. This strange abortion burbled through the shit of popular consciousness before choking on it, finally being cleaned up and re-sold as a baby alive. But maybe even that's too optimistic. Even before Tom Thompson died, he was complaining that Algonquin Park had become 'too much like Rosedale'.

A.Y. Jackson

As the Group itself fell apart while their work rose to institutional prominence, the debates continued. Eric Brown took over the National Gallery, quite literally claiming that he had been sent there by God to educate the nation's spirit. The Group's imaginary landscape became key to this tutelary venture where it was cast as the progressive successor of Native art. Meanwhile, Harris, who had funded so much of the Group's work, started turning away from landscape, turning on nationalism to become a Theosophical white supremacist. That is, he took the road toward abstraction and Continentalism.

When the 1930s rolled around, the Depression came. McKay wonders about how this seemed to impact on the content of art in any direct way (then again, how often do substantial political events ever enter into Canadian art production in a direct way?). The Group disbanded, in part because they wanted to make more 'conscious' work. Left-leaning critics would soon start praising painters for turning away from depicting 'things' to depicting 'humans'. Political content, even among those highly engaged with it, like Marxist Paraskeva Clark, would still paint landscapes, only now dotted with symbolic figures of struggle. Images which were perhaps even more idealized and unrealistic than those which were being displaced. Of course, this had no small part to do with the fact that the Canadian government, unlike the Americans or the Mexicans, refused to fund any art that contained criticism. MacKenzie King even admitted that the very idea made him 'shudder' (227). Suffice it to say, business leaders wouldn't fund it either. As landscape as a vital genre imploded, it became more commercial and more generic than ever. The Group became more fully institutionalized and all of the bite quickly vanished.

Charles Comfort Pioneer Survival

Through the 1940s, she observes that something weird was happening. Many art historians, like Dennis Reid for instance, labelled the decade's landscapes 'an abyss' that had to be overcome so Canada could finally move into abstraction (something business leaders were relatively happy to fund by that time). Painters began progressively de-emphasizing location. The landscape became ever vaguer, less monumental, often resembling crags and heaps. Paul-Émile Borduas, who also had a brief landscape painting career summarized the collapse of sedentary values in landscape by saying that, "My painting is my only birthplace, it is my territory." (248) For the most part, the French were more resistant of the drive toward vagueness. Marc-Aurèle Fortin continued to use the landscape as a symbolic way of attacking urbanism and the oppressive forces of Anglo-Canada. The English (MacDonald, Brooker) pushed for fantasy and David Milne finally rendered the land into meaningless squiggles of colour, even while attempting to emulate Thoreau.

Jean-Paul Lemieux Evening Visitor

It is this site-less landscape that suddenly becomes just land. Land, as such, becomes a matter of identification - a means of overcoding the territory through subjectification and the worship of its special effects. A refined grid for projection. Although there is the suggestion that this marks a kind of threshold between landscape and abstraction, and which Milne's renowned formalist prejudices attest to, McKay doesn't investigate this rich territory much. What happens here is not so far from abstraction in a certain sense. What it really seems to mark is the implosion of a certain form of imaginary Canada. Never managing to completely shake landscape, Borduas attempted to collapse figure and ground into one plane, that is, to make paintings that were no longer about space but about time. Not much later, Alex Colville actually goes in a different direction, retaining space and negating time. As spaces, each echo with the apocalyptic tendencies that were always present in the landscape, only it has become more human, more anxiety riddled.


What makes the book impressive – its general sweep – is also its shortcoming. Such a fast-paced roving over so much territory means that it necessarily ends up superficial. This is consistent. She doesn't take many tangents. In spite of being a kind of 'social history' of visual culture, the work's examination of advertising is tangential at best, likewise the exploration of wilderness in journals and newspapers is relegated mostly to its literary appendages. And, perhaps more obviously, the book lacks a substantial engagement with the history of landscape photography, its impact on painting, and the very explicit role it played in both colonialism and the development of a particularly Canadian set of aesthetic props.

In a sense what the book, along with Beyond Wilderness, articulates toward its close, is the re-emergence of the nomadic, that is, of the reformulation of soft imperialism. In art, this is generally encoded in terms of personal/social identity and often enacted explicitly on the body (what is termed 'body art' is more often than not, an imperialist art). This is, suffice it to say, a very different kind of imperialism than what we witness in the nineteenth century, but also, perhaps, a far more disturbing one. If anything, what the shifts in art since the 1950s have marked is that Canada has finally become far more successfully Oedipal and repressive, in no small part as an aspect of our society's push into becoming if not an imperial power, at least one of its favored lapdogs. Of course, it is no small leap from being a pervert to a hyper neurotic.

Picturing the Land: Narrating Territories in Canadian landscape Art, 1500-1950
by Marilyn J. McKay is available from McGill.

(a) McKay seems critical of this, but her constant registering of things according to cliches of development is problematic. Doesn't the abortion sit well with the Canadian imagination? See Faking Death.
(b) Curiously enough, the kind of psychology that the imaginative materials produced during the period come quite close to those explicated by Klaus Theweleit in the context of early German fascism. See his Male Fantasies. Suffice it to say that this became manifest in Canada in a more stilted manner. There is something very different that comes into play when 'the frozen' and the inhuman wilderness dominates over the oceanic.

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