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Group of Seven

Honourable senators, Autumn Sunlight, The Tangled Gardens, Falling Snow, The Northland, Beaver Meadow, The River Drivers, Sunken Road — ninety years ago this month, these and dozens of other paintings went on display for the first time as the first exhibit of the Group of Seven at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

This exhibit was daring and even revolutionary. The exhibit's program summed up the group's intent in a single sentence:

Art must be created and nurtured in a country before it can become a true homeland for the people who live there.

To achieve this objective, the seven painters chose to express their shared idea of Canadian identity by painting the rugged landscapes typical of the Canadian North.

The images in these works of art included a stand of birch in the dense Algonquin bush; an island of pines off the shore of Georgian Bay, crouching under the weight of a stiff northwesterly wind; and the sudden stirring of cool waters in an Algoma lake as a summer storm gathers strength.

For seven conspicuously Canadian artists — Carmichael, Harris, Jackson, Johnston, Lismer, MacDonald and Varley — these scenes are worthy subjects of artistic interpretation.

Visitors were very enthusiastic about this new approach, saying that it was a deliberate rebellion against the methods and scenes imported from other countries, and that it was the first time the true nature of Canada was represented. One critic even said the group's works were some of the most powerful of the new century.

This reaction comes as no surprise to us. Today, the Group of Seven's paintings are such iconic images that it is hard to imagine there was a time when they were not beloved.

However, 90 years ago the country's artistic establishment was astonished and angry. The group's work was called sinister and the products of deranged minds. The striking colours of their paintings were likened to bowls of Hungarian goulash. One detractor christened the new style the "Hot Mush School" for the resemblance of the images to porridge.

A more penetrating critique came some years later from historian Frank Underhill. He saw the group's work as more mythical than real, as representing how we Canadians would like to see ourselves, rather than who we truly are.

Despite the criticism, the Group of Seven's artistic vision of Canada not only endured, it continues to resonate strongly among Canadians as the defining representation of the harsh beauty of our country and an authentic expression of our national character.