Ross King may not be known to most Canadians, but he should be. An experienced writer and historian, he has produced several well-researched and gripping histories ranging from Machiavelli to Leonardo da Vinci to French Impressionists. Each book immerses the reader in the world of their times. In his art histories, such details reveal how art is deeply rooted in the societies and cultures of the artists. His work focusing on Canadian art, Defiant Spirits, examines the formation of one of the most well-known artistic communities of Canada: the Group of Seven.
King expertly leads the reader through the aspiring careers of Canadian artists, their personal stories, the Canada in which they lived, and larger movements in the international art scene that surrounded them. The book opens long before the Group of Seven formed, with graphic artists Tom Thompson arriving in the stark wilderness of Algonquin Park in 1912 to fish, hike, and paint. It was his first foray into capturing the Canadian landscape in a uniquely Canadian style. Algonquin Park epitomized the national mythology of Canada's hard environment: a “hostile and unforgiving land that dictated the terms of human existence.” (17) A growing circle of painters formed around the employees of the Toronto design firm, Grip Ltd. It was there Tom Thomson met J.E.H. Macdonald, Arthur Lismer, Fred Varley, A.Y. Jackson and Lawren Harris, and others. Together they were determined to bring new life into the depictions of Canada's expansive wilderness. Canadian art was mostly sombre landscapes and painters like Homer Watson and Horatio Walker failed to distinguish themselves from European or American artists. But in the years before and during the First World War, this younger group of artists began to experiment with the new European styles they saw emerging in France, Scandinavia and Italy.
Though they encountered resistance from the art establishment of Toronto and Montreal, select patrons like Sir Edmund Walker of the National Gallery allowed what was then called the Algonquin Park School to flourish. Yet just as they began their forays into new fusions of European styles, the First World War broke out in August 1914. Several of the group, like A.Y. Jackson and Lawren Harris, enlisted. Jackson was wounded but eventually joined the ranks of the Canadian War Records Office headed by Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) alongside other Canadian artists. They were tasked with producing a Canadian artistic record of the war and encouraged to work in their own Canadian style. Though Tom Thompson's death (a mystery to this day) was a heavy blow for the Algonquin School in 1917, the opportunity for others to paint the terrible scenes of the war saved them from trench fighting and allowed them to work professionally as artists. A new way of war required a new art to convey it.
Despite the interest in some members of the Group of Seven's work during the First World War, the years immediately afterwards back in Canada were again hostile to innovative artistic styles. In May of 1920, the artists held an exhibition in Toronto and decided they had to escape the geographic limitation of the “Algonquin School.” Their new name, the Group of Seven, evoked other dissident artist movements. More importantly though, it was rebranding matching their “ambitions to bestride the national stage.” (330) The group saw themselves as “patriots and populists whose landscapes were meant to appeal to all Canadians as Canadians and to foster a sense of beauty in everyone.” (337) Only in the late 1920s and after their dissolution in 1932 did their work rise to prominence in Canada itself.
For decades the Group of Seven were heralded as icons of Canadian culture, but, King argues, their importance has diminished for contemporary Canadians. Their paintings of Canadian wilderness does not resonate with a society more enamoured with Canada's immigration and ethnic diversity. King writes that the “patriotism and nationalism that they promoted are seen by many outdated and unattractive ideologies.” (418) Today Canadians do not imagine a synchronicity between their national identity and the environment. Still, he reminds his readers in the final pages of the book that regardless of criticisms of the Group of Seven's work, they remain examples of powerful, beautiful works of art that articulated one vision of the Canadian nation.