Kay Kritzwizer, "Thomson: myth dispelled, man emerges", Globe and Mail, Nov. 6, 1971

The most gratifying thing Joan Murray has done in organizing the exhibition The Art of Tom Thomson for the Art Gallery of Ontario, is to make a man out of a myth. She has cleared away some of the romantic deification which has inevitably encircled this Canadian painter.

Inevitably, because Thomson (1877-1917) was remote by attitude.

He was poetic. His taste ran innocently from Maeterlinck to Ella Wheeler Wilcox. He was a reluctant city man, particularly in the need to earn a living. He was the silent woodsman, knowing how to build fires (for early Springs in Algonquin Park) and as a fire ranger, how to put them out.

He was a tall (six feet), dark, with a forehead fall of black hair and he moved, they say, like swift pre-snowmobile Indians. A nice guy. The perfect guy to cast in a strong silent movie, to write books about, to make controversial speculation about his death at an age too young (barely 40) in the woods, under circumstances mysterious and unexplained.

Even the legacy he left in his painting has tended to become obscured by three obstinate influences: there will always be a reporter somewhere who insists on making Tom Thomson a member of the Group of Seven, a painters’ movement formed three years after his death: and the two paintings. The West Wind and The Jack Pine.

Generations of Canadian children have cut their teeth on kitchen calendar reproductions. You see how easy it is to contribute to myths? Were they ever actually calendar reproductions? At any rate, they were the Thomson paintings best known, best loved, and no Canadian painter since has painted anything as universally known.

But the exhibition The Art of Tom Thomson and the research in the catalogue written by Mrs. Murray, AGO’s curator of Canadian art, has finally given Thomson his true relevance.

Mrs. Murray tried to keep one question foremost when she began her research more than a year ago. “With Thomson, one forever wonders what more he would have achieved if he lived.”

The room after room full of Thomson’s work unfolding at the gallery supplies us with remarkable evidence of what the answer most likely would have been.

We can see for ourselves that as early as 1914 Thomson was intent on getting the shape and color of Canada into a semi-abstract expression. He shucked off the early influences of Constable and Turner and even Monet and the strong residue of the Aubrey Beardsleys in his work and was, all by himself, searching for his own truth.

Mrs. Murray comes right out with her opinion: “If Thomson had lived, truly abstract or non-figurative art would have appeared in Canada much sooner than it did. Thomson might then be remembered not only as a precursor of a national school of pervasive – and therefore occasionally limiting influence, but also as a liberating figure whose work had the effect of adjusting Canadian art to the modern era with greater ease than was actually experienced.”

Apart from providing proof for this supposition – and it’s a provocative one – Thomson’s work, seen all at once like this, is surprisingly eloquent. That West Wind, that Jack Pine, have the true presence of the masterpiece. They gave me that little shiver along the spine that came with seeing Rembrandt’s Tribute Money in Ottawa, with seeing last summer in Florence, the real David, for the first time.

This show is long owed – since 1935 when Martin Baldwin, Art Gallery of Toronto’s director, began a systematic study of Thomson’s work. Mrs. Murray based her search on the Baldwin index. Of the 44 known canvases, 40 have been accounted for. Two have been lost and it’s through this exhibition, which will go also to Regina, Winnipeg, Montreal and Charlottetown, that she discovered, or better still, the paintings recovered. […]

Source: Kay Kritzwizer, "Thomson: myth dispelled, man emerges," Globe and Mail, November 6, 1971

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