I was at the Peterborough Art Gallery yesterday and although I was only supposed to be there to drop off and pick up my kids from an art workshop I couldn't help but stop on my way in when I saw what looked to be some works by the Group of Seven. Sure enough, there they were: a painting by Arthur Lismer. Another - a good one - from one of the Algoma trips, by Lawren Harris. I didn't know the AGP had any Group paintings, but what was more intriguing was the small wall exhibit in which they were showing.
The paintings had been collected by students at a local high school, PCVS, in the mid to late 1940s. I gather that they were something like gifts from graduating classes for the school. Someone at the school seems to have helped with collecting works of Canadian art. The little exhibition poster talked about it as being connected to the Canadian nationalism of the era.
You can say that again.
They ended up at the art gallery after a painting was stolen from the School Board offices around 1980 and it was decided that a safer home might be needed.
But all of this made me think about some of the debates which have surrounded the Groups' work and its connection to Canadian nationalism. Much has been made by some critics of the way the Group always tried to oversell the extent to which it faced adversity in establishing itself as a serious body of artists in its early years. They argue that this invented tale of adversity was just a part of the myth and that the Group was really very quickly enshrined in the midst of the bourgeois nationalism of the 1920s in Canada.
But here were a group of high school students buying actual paintings (not prints) in the 1940s, a period when the group should already have been well enshrined as national icons (and, indeed, within the world of Canadian art they were). It makes one wonder about the money involved. Were the students and their parents pretty rich? Perhaps, but unlikely. Or was the Canadian art market of the time (about which I have to confess little knowledge) simply so devalued that Group paintings could be bought by even a group of students in one small Ontario city. At the very least, it's worth thinking about financial limits to the Groups' popularity.
Certainly, the decision to buy their paintings was, though, about the postwar nationalism. The same period that saw the first Canadian citizen (none other than Mackenzie King) also saw the genuine rise of an indigenous English Canadian national identity that was much further removed from its British roots than that which had seen the creation and evolution of the Group itself.
The sad denouement to the story is that the high school, one of Canada's oldest, and right in the heart of the city's downtown, is now set to close in favour of an underused suburban alternative.
Perhaps the new school can be decorated with Thomas Kincaide prints. It would be a fitting symbol of the changing times.