Saturday, November 8, 2014

Toronto Adventures: The McMichael Art Gallery and the Group of Seven in Kleinburg

Jack Pine by Tom Thompson
Are these new Canadian painters crazy?—Augustus Bridle, Canadian Courier 1920

I was looking for adventure off the typical tourist route and borrowed a ride north on Islington Avenue all the way to the village of Kleinburg, about 50 km northwest of Toronto. This charming tourist destination forms a pleasant lacework of outdoor cafés, bistros, and ice cream parlors guaranteed to taunt, titillate and treat. I decided to taste my way along Main Street, ambling from café to gift shop and café again.

The village nestles amid rolling hills between two branches of the Humber River and is surrounded by agricultural land. John Kline, a German/Canadian settler, founded Kleinburg, which translates to "small town." In truth, Kleinburg could equally be named after its landscape (in which case it would have to be spelled "Kleinberg" for “small mountain"). Kleinburg’s annual fall festival called Binder Twine has its roots in the town’s agricultural history and draws 25,000 people each year. The village has attracted many affluent visitors and residents, including Canadian author Pierre Burton and Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. Kleinburg is also the home of Toronto International Film Studios and a popular location for shooting films and TV shows.

On the south end of town I steered off Main Street along a winding road through lush forest to the cloistered McMichael Art Gallery. The gallery is devoted to Canadian art and is the spiritual home of the Group of Seven. It was founded by Robert and Signe McMichael, who began collecting paintings by the Group of Seven and their contemporaries in 1955.
Mountain by Lawren Harris

I entered the high-ceilinged lobby where master native carver Don Yeomans had created an eclectic totem pole entitled “Where Cultures Meet”. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that he’d carved a laptop as the “foundation” of the totem.

Whiskers tingling, I passed the glass doors into the Group of Seven exhibit and stilled my breaths: I was in the presence of magnificence. There they were: the sweeping, bold strokes of Lawren S. Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Frank Johnston, Franklin Carmichael and A.Y. Jackson. 

Red Maple by Lawren Harris
The Group of Seven contributed significantly to the identity of “Canadian Art” during the early 20th Century. They clearly helped define the Canadian “persona” and its rugged landscape when their “exotic” art exploded to equal applause and condemnation in a May 1920 exhibit in Toronto—not unlike the reception received by the French Impressionists in the late 19th Century when their art first appeared in Paris. The Group was initially drawn together by a common sense of frustration with the conservative and imitative quality of most Canadian art at the time. 

As with the European fin de siècle symbolists and post-impressionists, the Group rebelled against the constraints of 19th-century naturalism in Canada.  Just as with the Impressionists before them, The Group shifted their emphasis from the conservative imitation of the natural towards the expression of their feelings for the natural.

Sunset by Frank Johnston
The Group of Seven blended the palettes of Art Nouveau, Neo-Impressionism, and Fauvism into a genuine celebration of the unique Canadian wilderness. It was a kind of “primitive” style that matched the equally primitive landscape they had chosen to capture. 

They used broad brush strokes with liberal application of paint to portray the wild beauty and vibrant color of the Ontario landscape. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the art of Tom Thomson, who died in 1917 (before the inaugural Group of Seven exhibit) but who has remained synonymous with the Group of Seven. An avid outdoorsman, Thompson incited A.Y. Jackson, Frederick Varley and Arthur Lismer, to paint the unkempt and unruly part of Canada with bold displays of feeling.

With time, Harris, MacDonald, Carmichael and even Varley simplified their colors and layouts, using thin pigment and stylized designs. By the mid-1920s Harris had simplified his paintings into monochromatic forms and ventured into abstraction soon after.

I celebrated my tour of the Group of Seven with a fine lunch on the patio of the Gallery Café, where
Toulouse discusses good food with Sayima
waiter Sayima Kaya served me a tender and flavorful maple-pommery glazed Atlantic salmon, served on buttery mashed potatoes and garnished with roasted green beans.

I selected a Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, whose intense aroma and sparkling taste of Golden Delicious apples danced a wonderful tango with the wild salmon dish.

From the gallery, I strolled along Main Street and something made me stop at Desserts of Distinction. Well!... Of course, my superior nose and whiskers had steered me right. Maria Montinaro, the owner of the café, served me a decent Americano and a raspberry and chocolate mousse tart with cassis (blackberry) nappage gélatine. 

The Black currant topping was drizzled with white chocolate drops and fresh berries. I sipped my Americano and savoured the cassis tart, which had my whiskers stand on end. The tart was not overly sweet, which allowed the vivacious notes of black currant and fresh raspberry to emerge through the creamy chocolate. 

Kleinburg in the summer
The chocolate mousse tart was only one of many delectable pastries, tarts and pies offered at Desserts of Distinction.

All in all, a fine day was had in Kleinburg! Come for yourself and see. And tell them Toulouse sent you!
Toulouse beside himself...

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