The art world is fickle and mercenary, and there is a sense that working together offers artists a greater chance of critical and commercial success. The most important such group to emerge from Canada is undoubtedly the Group of Seven. The Ontario organization’s iconic landscapes changed the face of Canadian art, both at home and abroad. There have been many similarly innovative groups, including the Automatistes and the Beaver Hall Group. But according to Alicia Boutilier, a curator at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, one such group is consistently and unfairly overlooked.
“The Canadian Group of Painters had a real impact on the Canadian art scene and was really vital for the artists that were involved, and for the audiences at their exhibitions,” she says. “But it’s a group that tends to be overshadowed by its parents, the Group of Seven.” No longer. A new touring exhibition, A Vital Force, features some forty works by the group, which emerged in 1933 as “a direct outgrowth of the Group of Seven.” Over the next two decades, the CGP expanded on the Group of Seven’s mandate, and dabbled in various styles of modernist painting — works that reflected the Canadian experience.
What makes the Canadian Group of Painters difficult to assess is the diversity of the work its members produced, which is to some degree a function of its size. The Canadian Group of Painters was founded by twenty-eight artists, including six members of the Group of Seven; between 1935 and 1954, more than thirty more artists joined, bringing the total number of members to almost sixty. “With the Group of Seven, we think landscapes. With the Automatistes, we think pure abstraction,” Boutilier says. “But that was not really what the Canadian Group of Painters was about. They were about encouraging variety and encouraging younger artists.”
The inevitable result was diversity. Some members of the group continued to paint and experiment with landscapes, but many ventured into fertile new territory. Some painted portraits and various other figurative works; others explored street scenes that reflected the end of the Great Depression and the war years, as well as more regional concerns. A few, including Group of Seven alumnus Lawren Harris, dabbled in abstraction. Most members experimented with different painting techniques and materials. This diversity is on display in A Vital Force, which is made up of works shown in original Canadian Group of Painters exhibitions. “I wanted only artworks people would have seen at that time,” Boutilier says, “so you would know today that these are the artworks that critics were getting excited about in the thirties and forties.”
Because the Canadian Group of Painters did not have a definitive aesthetic, their work has been overshadowed by the flamboyant Automatistes and the ruminative Group of Seven. But Boutilier says the group made an impact in other important ways. “In coming together, the CGP was a recognition of what artists can do when they organize, and the opportunities that can come out of an organization like this,” she says. “It was about moving toward a greater recognition for artists within the nation, and also the need to provide them with a platform at a national level.” This mandate led to the Massey Commission of 1949, which established federal funding for the arts across Canada and set the stage for the creation of the Canada Council for the Arts.
This is only part of the reason A Vital Force feels so vital, however. In the years since the Canadian Group of Painters was active, the national arts scene has splintered. This fragmentation has numerous causes, including the rise of modern communications: today, artists organize and exhibit in very different ways. The Canadian Group of Painters’ vision of a unified national arts scene never came to fruition. According to Boutilier, that does not diminish the group’s legacy, or the body of work its members produced. “It’s about a freedom of expression,” she says, “and an opportunity to express yourself and not come up against any critical restraints.” In other words, the foundation for everything that came later.