Rugged Beauty of Canada’s Wilderness on View in Sleek Setting
The Canadian Embassy in Washington is a picture of elegance—glass, stone and steel configured into a modern design that conveys urbane sophistication.
A new art exhibition at the embassy conjures a different image of the iconic North American nation. “Our Home and Native Land” draws on the rugged beauty of the Canadian landscape to celebrate a natural form that can’t be found within an embassy’s walls—except as exceptional art.
The collection, on loan to the embassy from the renowned McMichael Canadian Art Collection, gives viewers a glimpse of Canada’s vast frontiers, as well as a look at the indigenous creativity of the nation’s Indian tribes. Many of the images are familiar to Canadians, and almost all speak to their inherent relationship with the wilderness.
“Some [of the works] have iconic significance—they are touchstones of what it means to be Canadian,” said Michael Wilson, Canada’s ambassador to the United States, at the exhibition’s opening.
The Group of Seven, a legendary collaboration of Canadian landscape painters who rose to fame in the 1920s, is represented prominently in the exhibition. The group originally included Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and Frederick Varley. Blending simple form and dramatic composition, these artists established a distinctive Canadian painting style—strongly influenced by late 19th-century European impressionism centered around the Montmartre district of Paris.
The exhibition is subtly effective in reminding Americans of the different cultures that exist in Canada, and that the nation’s forests, mountains and streams rival any in North America for sheer scale and drama.
For instance, Harris’s “Pic Island” portrays a simplified, yet stylized northern landscape with towering mountains anchored in a milky white pool of snow as sunlight glints in every direction. The image is mesmerizing, serene and a bit existential.
By contrast, a later painting by Jean Paul Lemieux, “Solstice d’hiver,” depicts a bleak and forbidden snow-covered tundra. A bundled-up girl moves across the foreground, while a narrow black road cuts past the girl’s left flank, delineating barely perceptible buildings in the distant horizon. The viewer feels cold just by looking at the scene.
A magnificent ode to traditional Haida mythology (an indigenous people whose territories comprise an archipelago off the coast of British Columbia) is evident in “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii.” The compelling sculpture shows 13 mythical creatures crammed into a canoe, scraping and scrambling with each other for a foothold as they fight and inharmoniously paddle together toward some common objective. The sculpture, by Bill Reid, is one of many that celebrate the rugged beauty of Canada’s natural history.
A fierce but friendly Komokwa mask (mythical king of the undersea world) looms large over the entire collection. The wooden visage is similar to many African masks you’ll see at outdoor markets around Washington, but the features are distinctly Canadian Indian. The mask exudes positive energy, and its blacks, forest greens and rusts are reminiscent of the earth itself.
The piece—like the exhibition itself—feels real and the simple lines in many of the paintings and sculptures speak to the predicatable nature of a landscape uncluttered by humanity.
Our Home and Native Land through January Art Gallery of the Canadian Embassy 501 Pennsylvania Ave., NW For more information, please call (202) 682-1740 or visit www.canadianembassy.org.
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.