by Wayne Larsen
Dundurn Press, Toronto, 2009
265 pp., illus., $60 hardcover
A.Y. Jackson was the archetypal Canadian artist. As a founding member of the Group of Seven, he painted Canada from Halifax Harbour to the Skeena River, from the arid hills of southern Alberta to the Barren Lands, in a career that spanned seven decades. Gregarious, gruff, and tough as old boots, he camped on Baffin Island with sleeping bag and groundsheet at the age of eighty-two.
Montreal journalist and artist Wayne Larsen has compiled a comprehensive and carefully researched account of Jackson the artist. Jackson the man remains elusive, however, making for a fact-packed but sometimes stiff biography.
Born in 1882, Jackson grew up alongside the country he loved. His childhood in Montreal was Victorian, right down to the Dickensian trauma of Jackson's bankrupt father abandoning the family in 1891. As a hard-up youngster, Jackson worked as a commercial artist but dreamed of being a painter, eventually making a European pilgrimage to sketch on the French coast and study at the Academie Julian.
Jackson enlisted in the infantry in 1915 and served in the trenches near Ypres before being recruited by Lord Beaverbrook's Canadian War Memorials staff. Returning to Canada, he reconnected with likeminded artists to form the Group of Seven in 1920. Rejecting the dark, dun-coloured Dutch landscapes then considered fashionable--"the houses bulged with cows, old women peeling potatoes and windmills," Jackson scornfully wrote--the Group applied modernism's vivid colours and frank brushwork to defiantly Canadian subjects.
Larsen emphasizes Jackson's dogged dedication. A frugal bachelor, Jackson organized his life around frequent and extensive sketching trips. Committed to making the Group a truly national movement, Jackson sketched on snowshoes in his native Quebec, dodged pack ice in the Davis Strait on the government supply ship the Beothic, and hiked far above the timberline in the Rockies. For thirty-six years, Jackson's only home was a monk-like space in the Studio Building in Toronto.
In keeping with the demythologizing trend of recent Group of Seven scholarship, Larsen is cautious about cliches. Yet in Jackson's case, the image of Group members as rugged outdoorsmen happens to be true. Jackson was impervious to cold and snow, Larsen points out, and mosquitoes and black flies only bothered him when they got stuck in his paint.
Other myths require careful handling. Although some conservative critics called the Group the "Hot Mush School" and suggested titles for their landscapes like Hungarian Goulash and Drunkard's Stomach, Larsen demonstrates that Jackson's stories about the hostile press reaction were often exaggerated. In fact, Jackson--a shrewd propagandist who understood the value of controversy--used pseudonyms to write letters denouncing the Group.
Larsen, who has also written on Tom Thomson and James Wilson Morrice, is himself a painter. He brings an artist's eye to Jackson's works, meticulously analyzing his materials and techniques. Unfortunately, the reproductions of the paintings are sparse, and there is no system for connecting the visuals with the pertinent text.
Since this is the first definitive biography of Jackson, Larsen spends a lot of time on the hard slog of research. He amasses facts and sets out a clear chronology, but leaves little room for larger ideas.
Through anecdotes and excerpts from Jackson's writings, Larsen portrays the public man as good-humoured and outgo ing, but the private man remains opaque. Larsen calls Montreal painter Anne Savage "the love of [Jackson's] life," for instance, but their relationship, while close and supportive, peaked with an extremely tentative marriage proposal in Jackson's fiftieth year.
In his long life, the hard-working, productive, and profoundly influential painter seemed to spend most of his time painting or thinking about painting, and consequently A.Y. Jackson: The Life of a Landscape Artist has to make do without the scandal, intrigue, and tragedy of so many artist bios.
Reviewed by Alison Gillmor, a Winnipeg journalist who writes on art and pop culture.
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|Date:||Aug 1, 2010|
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