Defiant Spirits – a book review
I have just finished reading DEFIANT SPIRITS, The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven by Ross King. It was a very enjoyable and informative read. King traces the formation of the great, now quintessential Canadian art movement, tying together the characters and the history of the time.
Although I was generally familiar with the Group of Seven, there were two fundamental lessons that had never really clicked into place for me before reading this book. The first was the influence of the First World War and secondly the struggle by the Group for acceptance of their art by critics and the public.
The First World War (The Great War) was very important to Canada’s development as an independent and influential nation on the world stage. I had heard this fact before but King makes it all so clear from the pressure at home to enlist, to the adventures and horrors experienced by members of the future group who fought in the trenches and served as war artists. A significant part of the book is set in Britain providing interesting insights into not only to the Group of Seven and painting, but also to the war effort and military structure.
It seems so hard for me to believe that the style of the Group of Seven met with such resistance in their time. Their art was decried by many critics and the public as radical, revolutionary and just poor art. The artists felt strong in their commitment to develop a distinctive, modern Canadian style of painting. They benefited from limited but critical support from two people. First was Dr. MacCallum who provided financial support that allowed key members to concentrate on their art and importantly to stay in Canada, so that their collective influences could ignite the movement. Second was the support of the National Gallery and particularly director Eric Brown and Sir Edmund Walker under whose guidance paintings of the group were purchased (not without criticism and controversy). The strong moral support (and of course the money) from this national institution obviously gave the Group members confidence to carry on with their struggle.
Another aspect of this book (in fact the one that first piqued my interest) was regarding the possible influences of the European art movements of the time upon the Group of Seven members. I have been a long time fan of the the Impressionist and Post-impressionist movements in France and curious if there were any connections with the Canadian landscape painting school. In Defiant Spirits, King does explain a number of connecting threads, such as which of the Canadians studied in Europe or otherwise came into contact with European art movements of the time.
The book also paints a clear picture of the relation between Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. I have long believed the supposition that Thomson, had he not died, would surely had been a member of the group, once if formally formed. This book presents so many examples of Thomson interactions with and influence upon the future members of the group (for example sharing studios and travels) that there can be no doubt.
Defiant Spirits is divided into three “books” and each book has a section with color plates of some of the paintings that are discussed. The book also features numerous black and white photos, particularly of the characters. The book seems to be very well researched (with an extensive bibliography) and definitely is well presented. It is a great story. I don’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who is interested in the Group of Seven and this period of Canadian history.