Film documents modern-day bid to locate Northern Ontario vistas painted by Group of Seven
By Portia Priegert
Photo: ©Gary McGuffin.
Joanie McGuffin holds a copy of a Lawren Harris painting, "Island Lake Superior"
Joanie McGuffin holds a copy of a Lawren Harris painting, Island Lake Superior, that shows the entrance to Peninsula Harbour, west of Marathon, Ont., where Harris camped with A.Y. Jackson in 1921.
For the last several years, art historian Michael Burtch, along with two friends, Joanie and Gary McGuffin, have been exploring picturesque spots in Northern Ontario, trying to retrace trips that artists from the Group of Seven made almost a century ago. Some of Canada’s most famous landscape paintings were done along the north shore of Lake Superior and in the Algoma region, but the exact locations for hundreds of small panels executed quickly on site – and even some of the large works completed back in Toronto – have been open for debate.
Burtch, a former director of the Art Gallery of Algoma in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., became so curious after his first exploratory trips that the project began taking on a life of its own – even spawning a documentary film. The help of the McGuffins, well-known authors and wilderness photographers, was critical. “I’d have been lost the first day,” says Burtch. The trio has located some 300 sites where Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson and other members of the Group of Seven painted between 1918 and 1928, he says.
The biggest thrill for Burtch is standing where the artists once stood, gazing at the same scene. “It’s like a time machine, a portal into another time,” he says. “That was just amazing.” Usually the view hasn’t changed that much. Sometimes, though, the forest has grown up, or receded, or water levels are different.
Still, the search is rarely easy. Their usual approach is to scour archival materials – old letters, for instance – for clues about where the artists camped. Once a base is located, they scout the area on foot and by canoe, assuming most painting sites will be reasonably close, as the artists would have wanted to maximize painting time in the field.
Their quest attracted the attention of White Pine Pictures in Toronto, which has previously produced films about Emily Carr and Tom Thomson. This film, Spirit Land: In Search of the Group of Seven, was developed in association with TVOntario, and produced by Peter Raymont and Nancy Lang. Billed as part mystery, part history and part adventure, it will be launched on television and then tour nationally on the film-festival circuit.
An advance screening for select guests is planned for Calgary in conjunction with a show of Group of Seven paintings at Masters Gallery, one of the film’s investors. The exhibition, which runs from June 11 to June 20, will feature some 30 paintings from private collectors in Calgary. Many of the works haven’t been shown publicly in years. “There’s some really wonderful things,” says gallery owner Ryan Green. “A lot will be as good as museum quality.”
The film compares historic paintings with current landscapes, features archival photographs and other materials, and even recreates the boxcar (the original burned in 1920) that was home to Harris, Jackson, J.E.H. MacDonald and Frank Johnston in Agawa Canyon in the summers of 1918 and 1919.