Thursday, November 7, 2013

Distant Trumpets: Wayne Larsen on AY Jackson and the approach of the Great War (1/2)

Wayne Larsen's A.Y. Jackson: The Life of a Landscape Painter(Toronto: Dundurn, 2009), is a handsome book which offers a biography of one of Canada's most renowned artists, illustrated richly by the painter's works. It provides an excellent primer to an ongoing exhibitionat the Glenbow Museum (Calgary) featuring Jackson's work alongside the landscapes of Otto Dix, and emphasizing the various conceptions of nationalism affected by the Great War.  Jackson is a quintessentially Canadian painter, but Larsen makes it clear that the future Group of Seven member, was indebted to European impressionists in his pre-war works.

Larsen argues that Jackson's most important role was that of promoter of Canadian art, and his post-war resolve to continue to support the Group of Seven's desires to form a dynamic national style. Larsen notes that it was the core Group of Seven members' discovery of Jackson's The Edge of the Maple Wood in a 1911 exhibition in Toronto, which connected the artist to these influential painters. This was the first time that Jackson applied his Parisian training to Quebec subjects, depicting a sunny day in the Eastern Townships. (Larsen, p. 5-7)
The Edge of the Maple Wood (1910) A.Y. Jackson Canadian, 1882 - 1974 oil on canvas
54.6 x 65.4 cm Purchased 1937 National Gallery of Canada (no. 4298)
Courtesy of the Estate of the late Dr. Naomi Jackson Groves

Sweetsburg, Quebec (1910)
 Courtesy of the Estate of the late Dr. Naomi Jackson Groves
54 x 64.1 cmoil on canvasBequest of Dr. J.M. MacCallum,
 Toronto, 1944National Gallery of Canada (no. 4730)
Jackson had traveled to France and had studied at the Academie Julian in September 1907, but  art dealers and collectors were little impressed by Jackson's works upon his return. As he would later write, it was European art which was in demand: "Dutch pictures became a symbol of social position and wealth...The houses bulged with cows, old women peeling potatoes, and windmills." (Cited in Larsen, p. 33). Another work which applied impressionist style to Canadian subjects was Sweetsburg, Quebec(1910). The depiction of mud in front of a dilapidated barn suggests that decaying, barren, and muddy landscapes were a part of Jackson's work before the Great War.

Autumn in PicardyA.Y. Jackson1912
Courtesy of the Estate of the late Dr. Naomi Jackson Groves
21.2 x 27 cm oil on wood
Gift of members of the Arts & Letters Club, Toronto, 1914
National Gallery of Canada (no. 6529r)
By 1913, after a further sojourn to Europe, Jackson had taken the plunge and moved to Toronto, where he was championed by Lawren Harris and and JEH MacDonald. As the inheritor to the Massey-Harris farm implements fortune, Harris had the time, energy, and money to commit himself to art, which he did with great zeal. In 1913, Harris was in the process of building a major new studio space to foster Canadian artists, scheming to introduce Jackson's works to the National Gallery. Without asking the Gallery whether it would like Jackson's work, Harris pooled money from members of the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto to give Jackson's Autumn in Picardyto the Gallery. He then proceeded to advertise the fact to the press, putting National Gallery director Eric Brown in a difficult position. While the stunt finally came off, it was hardly necessary, as the Gallery had already accepted Jackson's The Drive as well as Sand Dunes at Cucq.

The pre-war years were a time that Jackson began to gain some notoriety for applying Impressionist techniques to Canadian landscapes, yet he still had his traditionalist academic detractors. It was at this time that Toronto Star critic HF Gadsby coined the term "The Hot Mush School", in reference to these new artists, noting "all their pictures look pretty much alike, the net result being more like a gargle or gob of porridge than a work of art." (Larsen, p. 57-61).

Tom Thomson Algonquin Lake, 1914.
Credit: Franklin Carmichael
/ Library and Archives Canada / e007914169
In 1914, Jackson was in the Rocky Mountains, on a commission by Canadian National Railways to paint the mountains for hotel lobbies. Very few of these paintings would survive, as Jackson threw many of them into the fire when he learned that the company went bankrupt. Jackson was his own sharpest critic, and destroyed many of his own paintings over the years.  One day when he returned from hiking the mountains to a small mountain construction camp, he learned that Canada was a war. (Larsen, p. 66-67) Jackson did not rush home to join a regiment, however, instead heading to Alqonquin Park to join Tom Thomson.

Larsen suggests that Jackson did not sign up in the Canadian services believing, like many, that the war would end very quickly. (Larsen, p.69) It was the Spring of 1915, when the painter learned of the Canadians being gassed at the Second Battle of Ypres, that he realized the grave nature of the conflict. He wrote, "At the railway station one morning I heard the first news of the Battle of Saint-Julien. I knew then that all the wishful thinking about the war being of short duration was over." (Cited in Larsen, p. 71)

In addition to Larsen's book, the National Gallery of Canada has a large range of Jackson's paintings online, for those wishing to examine his earlier works.  Many of his sketches from his time in Paris exist, and a sense of his early European influences are clear.  Soon after the shock of Second Ypres, the landscape painter would cross the Atlantic himself, and was wounded on service before finding his role as Canadian war artist and promoter of a national school of art.

For more on Jackson and the Great War, see the following post.

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