Douglas Coupland and the Sampson-Matthews prints
By Portia Priegert
You might doubt that Douglas Coupland – The. Ultimate. Arbiter. Of. Cultural. Cool. – would be interested in an almost-forgotten series of fusty landscape prints that once populated Canadian schools, government offices and military bases.
But you’d be wrong.
Coupland is fascinated by the Sampson-Matthews prints, a project that wound down when he was a youngster, and the role Group of Seven artists like A.J Casson and Lawren Harris played in what some see as a pivotal exercise in nation building.
“I think it was very sweet, and slightly naïve, to assume that prints on a barracks wall or in a school hallway could inculcate a sense of national identity – and yet they did, so phooey on me,” Coupland says. “Good art always feels new, and the Canadian painting rooms at the Art Gallery of Ontario are one of my favourite places on earth.”
J.E.H. MacDonald, "Mist Fantasy, Northland" 1922
Put your stamp on it
Even if you don’t follow art, J.E.H. MacDonald’s 1922 painting, Mist fantasy, Northland, may look familiar. That’s because Canada Post used the image for a 15-cent stamp issued in 1973 to mark the 100th anniversary of MacDonald’s birth. Coupland was a young stamp collector at the time, and the image, which was brightened for the stamp, remains a favourite.
Coupland sees his own digital reworkings of classic landscape imagery – whether Harris’ Maligne Lake, Jasper Park or Mist Fantasy, Northland, by J.E.H. MacDonald – as part of an ongoing conversation about Canadian identity. And he likes the Sampson-Matthews prints so much that he decided to include them in the Toronto reprisal of his solo exhibition, Everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything, launched last summer at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
“I think it’s important to show the Sampson-Matthews prints because with them we can see a bridge across a century of Canadian landscape depiction, from the initial painting of an image, to Casson a half century later, and then the group of my own landscape works that pull the genre into this century,” Coupland says. “When I started doing the landscapes a decade back, I got dumped on a lot by people saying it was simply nostalgia, that who cares about the Group of Seven, etc. And now you see them everywhere, and the faceting mode I developed for doing the works is everywhere, too. Following your own hunches is more important than acquiescing to fleeting orthodoxies.”
Coupland’s show, the first major survey of his visual production (he has also published 14 novels, including his 1991 breakout, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, and his latest, Worst. Person. Ever.) was organized by Daina Augaitis, chief curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery. When the show opens Jan. 31 in Toronto, visitors will have to travel between two major institutions – the Royal Ontario Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art – to see all of it. Coupland says the Sampson-Matthews prints will be displayed at MOCCA, in a hallway between his show and the National Gallery’s satellite space.
See related stories:
- WAS IT ART OR PROPAGANDA? New book looks at a public art project that helped Canada establish its national identity
- VAG launches its first Google Art Project with Douglas Coupland
Coupland first heard about the prints in the early 1980s while attending what was then the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design – not in a classroom, but from a teacher, Sam Carter, who collected the prints himself.
Flash forward to several years ago, when Coupland discovered gallery owner Ian Sigvaldason’s website about his Sampson-Matthews collection. Coupland flew to Salt Spring Island, where Sigvaldason runs the Pegasus Gallery of Canadian Art, for a firsthand look. “It was nice to see them all together – there are still a few he doesn’t have, believe it or not – and I don’t think they’ve ever been all together like that for decades,” Coupland says. “The density was remarkable. It was also sort of like visiting a museum of dead 1940’s colours.”
The experience stirred something in Coupland, who had sensed that a new type of national identity was emerging as Canadians increasingly turned their attention to the possibilities of the Internet. “I wanted to find a way of making the works approachable again,” he says.
Coupland’s G7 series is composed of geometric abstractions of paintings by Emily Carr, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. “I wanted to create what I called secret handshakes,” Coupland writes in an essay for Sigvaldason’s book, Art for War and Peace. “These were images which, when shown to Americans or Europeans, would read as abstracted landscapes but, when shown to Canadians, created a sort of Aha! moment: ‘That’s a Lawren Harris, isn’t it? It is!’ And every time viewers saw my crystallized images and made the right artistic connections, they became just a tiny bit more Canadian than they perhaps thought they might be.”
One scene, three takes
People see the world in different ways, and artists are no exception. This stunning view of Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park was first painted by Lawren Harris in 1924, then adapted as a screenprint during the Second World War. Some 60 years later, Vancouver artist Douglas Coupland revisited the work, bringing it into step with new ways of seeing in the digital age.
"Harris Maligne Lake"
John O’Brian, an art history professor at UBC, describes the technical process in a catalogue essay for Everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything. “The laser pigment prints on watercolour paper and the acrylic paintings on canvas look as if they might have been made by peering through the lens of a kaleidoscope to record the faceted patterns inside,” O’Brian writes. But things aren’t quite that simple. “Coupland took large image files of selected Group paintings and used Adobe Photoshop to break them into polygons, determining the hue of each polygon according to his own colour sense. A print based on a sketch by J.E.H. MacDonald, for example, one of the most highly abstracted in the G7 series, is also one of the most highly coloured.”
Michael Prokopow, a professor at Toronto’s OCAD University, notes the radical nature of the work. “Gone are the gestural paint strokes characteristic of art making in the 19th and 20th centuries and the defining techniques of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism transposed to art making in the nascent nation,” Prokopow writes in his essay for Coupland’s catalogue. “Instead, the familiar, stalwart images of forests and water are rendered by Coupland in clean, flat, refracted forms.
“With a visual sleight-of-hand and a calculated nod to the defining, arguably sacral status of this category of Canadian art as national patrimony, Coupland uses the potentially deceptive optics of geometry in order to infer three-dimensional, contoured surfaces that result in picture planes of considerable complexity. All at once, the familiar and the new are conjoined and the status of the originals is both affirmed and questioned.”
Painted copy, print original
While some Sampson-Matthews prints were reproductions of existing paintings, many were not. The prints were often created from original designs by commissioned artists. And, in one case, the painting came years after the print. The work in question? A.J. Casson’s White Pine, a classic of Canadian art.
The print, completed about 1948, was inspired by a watercolour Casson did near Whitefish Falls, Ont., and was a top seller. “I’ll never know why it became so popular,” Casson said later. “There’s one in almost every school.”
A version in oil was not painted until 1957, when wealthy art collector Robert McMichael expressed an interest in buying it. There are minor variations between the two works – for instance, the clouds in the painting are breezier than in the print, according to McMichael, who paid $300 for the painting, all that Casson would accept. White Pine is now in the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., where future generations of students can enjoy it.