Not surprisingly, the Ontario Gallery of Art in Toronto has a large and impressive collection of Canadian art. But what really struck me, and had me enthusiastically going back for a second visit just as quickly as I could, were the several large rooms dedicated to the Canadian pleine aire painters of the early twentieth century. Many hundreds of canvases cover the walls, each one a small window into the fascinating world of the rural and even primeval Canada of nearly a hundred years ago. It is the colors that impress you first: vivid, glowing, often smouldering or even livid jewel tones look out at you from the squares or rectangles displayed everywhere you look. Many of them are quite small, having been undertaken by artists who trekked into the wilderness on a regular basis armed with brushes and paint and canvas-covered boards on which to make sketches they could later turn into full-sized paintings in the comfort of their studios. Now they are considered independent works all on their own, and you have to examine them carefully to make yourself realize that the ones in this category really were simply sketches. You’d be happy to have any of them on your living room walls.
One of the chief artists of this group was Tom Thomson, whose painting ‘The Jack Pine’, painted in 1916 or 1917 and now in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, is shown at the top of this post. Thomson himself died in 1917, and in a mysterious manner which has only increased his mystique, already great because of his obvious talent, in the annals of Canadian art. He disappeared on July 8, 1917 while on a canoeing trip on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park and his body was discovered floating in the lake about a week later. Fishing line was wrapped around one leg and there was a bruise on his head, but the injury appeared to have been made after Thomson had died. Speculations abound: that he was murdered by being struck with a fire grate in a drunken brawl, that he was depressed and succumbed to despair, that he was distraught over his relationship with a woman he planned to marry, and who is rumored to have had a child before they could actually be wed. The truth, I suppose, can never be known. But what we do know is that Thomson, not yet forty years old when he died, and as an artist almost completely self-taught, produced in a few short years a body of work considered among the best in the history of Canadian art. Take one look at his enamel-like skies of pale emerald green, egg-shell blue and faded cranberry cream, and you may well agree. Not bad for someone who got such a late professional start, and whose main interests in life seem otherwise to have been hiking, camping, canoeing and fishing, to all of which he devoted enormous amounts of time, perhaps more than to painting itself. Marvelous photos of him in plaid shirts, woollen caps, dungarees and hiking boots exist. They have a kind of unreal quality to them, eerie actually, as if the man with the bemused smile on his face, turned slightly away from the camera, knew all about his fate and future fame long before they ever came about.
Only three other exhibitions have impressed me as deeply as this, and I can remember them vividly. To all three I returned for a second visit as quickly as I could and memories of them haunt me most pleasantly even today in hours when I cannot sleep. They were the permanent collection of the works of the landscape artist Arkhip Kuindzhi (1842-1910) at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, the extraordinary display of medieval Italian religious art done in egg tempera on small wooden boards to be seen at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and a large exhibition of the works of Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco in the late 1990’s. To all three collections I had the exact same reaction: a rapid increase in heartbeat, a somewhat alarming shortness of breath, a rise in temperature in face and hands. After viewing the Italian egg temperas in Washington for the first time, I dreamed about them most vividly in the night, impelling me to hasten to the museum first thing the following morning in order to be there when the doors opened, so I could see those extraordinary paintings again. I felt that same way in Toronto. On my second visit to the Canadian painters, knowing I might not be seeing them again, I kept racing back to favorite rooms and works for one last look before departing the museum. It was a glorious experience.