Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt
February 5–May 16, 2021

By Lily Tiger T Wells

For the first time in Germany at The Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, the works of Canadian modernist painters will be displayed in the exhibition ‘Magnetic North’ providing an opportunity for both celebration and critical revision. Curated by a three-fold effort from institutions across the nation, Dr Martina Weinhart of the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Georgiana Uhlyarik of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, and Katerina Atanassova of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

Canada is renowned for its breathtaking landscapes, pristine ancient woodlands and its Arctic skies illuminated by the Northern Lights. It was this which painters from the early 20th century, such as those from the ‘Group of Seven’ in Toronto looked towards, creating a superficial vision of the country which had escaped industrialism, urban developed and stylizing the land as uninhabited wilderness. 
While falsely presenting Canada as escaping the expanding cities and towns, the paintings also create a pictorial language which fails to recognise the Indigenous population at home in the supposed barren lands. 

Dr Philipp Demandt, Director of he Schirn Kundstahlle Frankfurt reflected upon how “these much-reproduced paintings still today shape the image that many have of Canada. At the core of this magnificent work, however, is a void: that of the First Nations. For us it was thus important to show how the popular Group of Seven is currently being explored and to integrate Indigenous perspectives into the presentation."

On display are over 100 paintings and drawings by a predominantly white male cohort of artists such as Franklin Carmichael, J. E. H. MacDonald, Lawren Harris, Edwin Holgate, Arthur Lismer, Tom Thomson, and F. H. Varley showing notable works such as Harris’ Mt. Lefroy from 1930 and Thomson’s The West Wind Wind from 1917. “The artists of the extended Group of Seven created a visual language that was seminal for the subsequent development of Canadian painting. Their works are characterized by bold compositions, expressive brushwork, and powerful colours that set them apart from the academic style then popular in Toronto. Aiming to create a genuinely Canadian art, they arrived at a new image of the artist and a new painterly vocabulary.” Reads a statement by the curators. 

Also included are paintings by female artist, Emily Carr who undertook multiple trips to First Nations’ villages in Haida Gwaii, the Upper Skeena River and Alert Bay which had made a “lasting impression” on her and heavily influenced her practice. However, she did not receive widespread recognition or gain access into the Group of Seven until she changed subject matter from Aboriginal themes to more neutralised landscapes and forest scenes.1

Video works and documentary material by the Algonquin-French artist Caroline Monnet and the Anishinaabe filmmaker Lisa Jackson accompany the paintings, opening another narrative which seeks to question from an Indigenous perspective, the formation of Canadian national identity as well as the binary relationship between man and nature. This element of the exhibition provides an important counter-discussion which highlights the coloniality inscribed into each painting of the famous Group of Seven. While technically and aesthetically skilful, the works paint a mythical ideology of Canadian history and deny responsibility for the exploitation of indigenous lands by expanding industrialism. The curators added that “At the same time, their (the painters’) artistic search for a visual representation of Canada excluded the First Nations. The exhibition shines a light on this interrelationship by including at its heart filmic works that critically examine this process and provide a current perspective.”

The exhibition Magnetic North. Imagining Canada in Painting 1910–40 has been made possible with support from the Government of Canada, in the context of Canada’s Guest of Honour presence at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2020/2021 and the Friends of the Schirn.

A catalogue edited by Martina Weinhart with Georgiana Uhlyarik has been published in an English, a German and a French edition. It includes a foreword by the directors of the Art Gallery of Ontario, National Gallery of Canada and the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, essays by Renée van der Avoird, Rebecca Herlemann, Ruth Phillips, Carmen Robertson, Jeff Thomas, Georgiana Uhlyarik and Martina Weinhart, as well as interviews with Lisa Jackson, Colleen Hemphill and Caroline Monnet.

Director: Dr. Philipp Demandt
Curators: Dr. Martina Weinhart, Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Georgiana Uhlyarik, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, and Katerina Atanassova, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt
60311 Frankfurt am Main

Image credits: Lawren S. Harris (1885-1970), Mt. Lefroy, 1930. Oil on canvas 133.5 x 153.5 cm, Purchase 1975, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 1975.7. © Family of Lawren S. Harris.

1 Morra, Linda M. (2005). "Canadian Art According to Emily Carr". Canadian Literature. 185: 43–57. ISSN 0008-4360. Archived from the original on February 3, 2017. Retrieved March 19, 2017.

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