Thursday, October 22, 2009

Oh, Canada

That being both an "Oh" of both reverence and exasperation, the latter which I am permitted because I married a Canadian. The occasion for dual sentiment was a magnificent exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Had you asked me what the best landscape painting show I could imagine might be, and had I thought about it hard enough, I would have said a contextualized juxtaposition of America's Hudson River School with Canada's Group of Seven. And it is just this that Vancouver has amply provided in Expanding Horizons: Painting and Landscape Photography of American and Canadian Landscape 1860-1918. The exhibit was organized chronologically, beginning with an early innocence, followed by domination over nature, and then a return to that original innocence, which is where North America's best kept artistic secret, the Group of Seven, came in.

The Americans Georgia O'Keefe, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, and John Singer Sargent all made dignified appearances in the show. But as an American, I can flat out admit that when one factors in Tom Thompson et alia, Canada far outpaces American landscape painting, and that's alright. Art is not a zero-sum game, and the paintings are there for the entire continent to discover and enjoy.

But then Canada had to get political, or rather, aggressively apolitical. To be fair, I should have expected this. At the impressive Anthropological Museum, a best case scenario of modern architecture, my co-traveler (and mega-blogger) Bill and I were struck with the oddness of the museum's commentary on Bill Reid's marvelous sculpture - carved from a solid block of Cedar - which is placed over previous defensive fortifications, fortifications which the exhibit referred to as "dubious," as if there was an inherent problem with Canadians trying to defend themselves during the Second World War. Such self-negating commentary was amplified at the landscape show.

While the American/Canadian juxtaposition was fascinating in and of itself, the curators decided to take the opportunity to unfurl that unofficial Canadian motto: "Not America." America, we learned, exploited their environment, and Canada (it was implied) wouldn't dare rearrange a distant Yukon stone. America, we learned, believed in Manifest Destiny, God and all that, as expressed, for example, in Moran's much-less-cheesy-in-the-original Mountain of the Holy Cross. Canada, the exhibit implied, had no such metaphysical ambitions, a move which requires ignoring, for example, the profoundly religious, admittedly theosophic, influence on the artists such as Lawren Harris.

If Canadians want to believe this about their history then so be it. They are at liberty to be wrong. Problem is, the City of Vancouver is not yet fully on board. Just as the visitor is about to leave the city through the main rail station, one sees this sculpture by Couer de Lion MacCarthy, commissioned by the Canadian Pacific Railway. It was built to commemorate the workers who gave their lives in World War I, men "called by King and Country," only to "pass out of sight of men by the path of duty and self-sacrifice that others might live in freedom," freedoms which Vancouverites, I can assure you, take full advantage.

Railroads realizing continental British ambitions, and then commissioning art about soldiers giving up their lives for Canadian sovereignty and liberty? It all sounds so less than dubious; so stridently Amer.... I can't bring myself to say it (lest an embarrassed Olympic Welcoming Committee tear the beautiful thing down). Can such ideals be abused? Of course they can, and have been. But to tell only the abusive side of the story is as revisionist as a history book subtitled "My country right or wrong." This is why public sculpture, such as America's own Augustus Saint Gaudens, is so important. It offsets the tyranny of the living, and permits the dead to get a word in edgewise.

But what about the aboriginal perspective? Don't get me started. Even First Nations artist Bill Reid is too much of a believer for the present generation. In the contemporary, supplemental installations at the Bill Reid Gallery, Reid's tour de force at the Anthropological Museum is mocked with a Campbell's soup can and chainsaw spinoff which are clever, but only clever. Reid's sculpture, on the other hand, was ambitious, serene, reflective of the finer First Nation ideals, and exponentially more difficult to create.

The Group of Seven were painting for Canada, not against America. Say what you will about the ideals - Royal or aboriginal - of previous generations. At least they gave us beautiful art. Conversely, my generation has given itself to one of the most seductive, ambitious ideals imaginable: The mistaken belief there are no ideals. Consequently, the art we have to offer is, far too often, parasitic at best.

update: Incidentally, to take this perspective further, the scholarship of Canadian historian George Rawlyk (not to mention Mark Noll) has done much to correct the Canadian tendency to edit out its own religious history.