MAGNETIC NORTH Imagining Canada in Painting 1910-1940 at Kunsthal

Lawren S. Harris (1885 -1970) Icebergs, Davis Strait, 1930. Oil on canvas

A lot of great art is associated with countries – Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism in the USA, Impressionism and Surrealism in France, Expressionism and Der Blue Reiter in Germany, the Renaissance in Italy, old masters in Holland etc. etc. One country not on that list is Canada. Everyone can name a French artist, a British artist, an Italian artist and so on, but if I gave a Euro to everyone who could name a Canadian artist, my bank account would not be unduly troubled.

So, it came as a real surprise to see all the incredible art currently on show at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam. Magnetic North – Imagining Canada in Painting 1910-1940 is a real eye-opener and begs the question – why isn’t Canadian art better known?

The show is a collaboration between the Kunsthal, The National Gallery of Canada and the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt where it was first seen in February after long delays and postponements caused by Covid. The exhibition brings together a collection of paintings mostly never seen before in Europe by a group of artists largely unknown here.

Between 1910 and 1940 the foremost Canadian artists, known as The Group of Seven, very aware that their country was a bit of an artistic backwater, were determined to rectify the situation. Prominent among them was Emily Carr from British Columbia who, in addition to her landscape work, was keen to pay homage to the indigenous art. Her Western Forest of c.1931 is a truly amazing painting, depicting a dark forest in a style not a million miles away from Expressionism. While many of the paintings here are clearly derivative and influenced by what was going on in Europe, they all have an identity which clearly marks them as Canadian.

In addition to the landscapes and ubiquitous trees there are other aspect of this vast country depicted. One is not surprised to see snow and ice but I don’t think anybody will be ready for the astounding paintings of Lawren Harris whose chilly blue and white peaks really capture the essence and desolation of the frozen north. There are other paintings of the aurora borealis which was believed by some of the indigenous Inuit to be the spirits of the dead playing ball with a walrus skull.

Another less predictable section deals with industry and the destruction of vast areas of forest to make way for the mining of valuable minerals and the exploitation of the myriad other natural resources. Quite different from his freezing landscapes, Lawren Harris also produces strong urban landscapes. His Ontario Hill Town of 1926 and Miners’ Houses, Glace Bay are very powerful images, as are Franklin Carmichael’s industrial paintings like A Northern Silver Mine and In the Nickel Belt. In these paintings both artists defy the preconceptions of Canada being a wilderness largely dormant under a blanket of snow and fir cones.

If you have the slightest interest in early twentieth century painting or the history of art then you need to see Magnetic North. It is a pity it will only be shown in Rotterdam and Frankfurt – it deserves to be seen around the world. Canadian art of this period can hold its own against anything that came out of France or Germany at the time and one feels privileged to have had the chance to discover it at this truly amazing exhibition. Who’d have thought it?   Michael Hasted   11th September 2021

Magnetic North – Imagining Canada in Painting 1910-1940 continues at Kunsthal in Rotterdam until 9th January