Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Lone Pine

The Jack Pine, after Tom Thomson

The tortured “Lone Pine” is one of the most famous images in Canadian landscape paintings by the Group of Seven.  A single tree in a stark landscape appears in paintings by AY Jackson (The North Shore), Lawren Harris (North Shore, Lake Superior), Franklin Carmichael (Cranberry Lake), JEH MacDonald (Lake O’Hara) and Emily Carr (Tree in Autumn), but the most famous twisted trees appear in paintings by Tom Thomson, particularly his The Jack Pine and The West Wind.  

There was a time when prints of these images hung in Canadian houses proudly, akin to McCubbin, Streeton, and Roberts images of the Australian bush.  It is astonishing how one vision can dominate a culture’s sense of identity.  In Australia the land speaks – or sings, in Canada it is the lakes which hold the secrets.

In the foreground of The West Wind are those heaving slabs of granite of the Canadian Shield.  In the summer they heat up like anvils and their smooth planes make tables and seats for picnickers and fishermen.  They are tilted and broken, exciting to clamber over:  home to rattlesnakes and toads and skunks.  They are like a pack of stone playing cards tipped along the shoreline.  Some of the crevices between slabs are over 20 metres deep, and the sun never penetrates them – perhaps there is still snow deep inside in summer.  They are pink and glitter, but the sheltered sides are patterned with lichen and moss.  Thick black corded veins run over the rock face, and like arteries a further net of whitish quartz inter-weaves the black.

When it is wet, water streams down the granite faces in sheets and collects in troughs and hollows.  These are young rocks that don’t show weathering:  sharply defined, fractured, hard, no blurring about the edges, with a few deep grooves where the last glaciers have passed by.

In Tom Thomson’s painting those slices of the heart of Canada are painted dark purple, brown and green.  It has been raining and the sky still carries the weight of a rain squall in its clouds.  The wind is whipping the clouds along, the waves are scampering to keep up with the flying sky, and the water reflects the colour of the shore, menacing in the rain.

The image is dominated by the Lone Pine, so much part of Canadian heritage that it has become a cliché.  The pine tree is stripped of branches on the windward side and gives with its leeward flutter of kites.  Thomson has captured the sawing of the tree in the wind, and the bunching of needles, as if they have been blown down the limbs.  The limbs are so many dirty mops flying.  The pine is tethered to that Canadian Shield firmly, toes locked into fissures and clinging to the rough soil, for the gusts of wind look set to uproot it and fling it into the foaming lake.

Storms on the Great Lakes come up suddenly taking the inexperienced unawares.  Even the myriad lakes in the northern heartland stir up and rage against the sky and the confines of their granite battlements.  Legend tells that Thomson was crossing one of the smaller lakes in Algonquin Park, alone in an open canoe when he disappeared.  Mystery surrounds his body – some say it was an Indian buried in his place and that Thomson’s has never been found – or that it slipped away amongst the submerged wedges of rock.  At the time there were theories of suicide, Indian spirits, or the more fanciful, an Algonquin monster – sister to Nessie.

The answer to his mysterious death lies in his paintings, for each one offers a crevice’s view into the northern lakes, and reveals their passion and will.  If you look behind the pine branches you can see his paddle drifting, hear the sound of a wooden canoe grating roughly on the unfeeling shore, and sense the slabs of granite heave under your unsteady feet.  Like a sailor or a jockey, you develop canoe sense so that those first steps on land fling you about as you compensate for the movement that doesn’t occur.

The West Wind, after Tom Thomson
Like all wet places, there is a stale smell of dying fish and drying seaweed near to shore, but in the wind you can only smell rain.  Maybe Thomson wasn’t drowned but landed on an unaccustomed island, and in the failing light stepped into the shadow of a rock slab, and slid down, slipping underground.  The granite heaves in near vertical planes – there would be no footprints, nothing to find.

After his disappearance his canoe was found floating on its side, scraped badly on the bottom.  His paddle was found several days later.  Did he strike a submerged rock, smash his head and  unconscious, fall from the canoe?  I like to think he went to join that edge that is the magic in his paintings:  where the stirring lakes and the broken land inter-lock in threatening beauty.

These sketches do not do the original paintings justice, but many images are available online.

Do you think every nation has a visual identity, captured by painters at a momentous time in the country's life?  Do you think landscape and psyche are inextricably linked?   Do the spirits sing in your homeland?

Also linked to Magpie Tales here


Tim Jones said...

Paintings of New Zealand by early European immigrants contrive to make the New Zealand bush look like polite, manicured southern English woodland. The first European artist I'm aware of to paint New Zealand in a way that actually looks like New Zealand was Petrus van der Velden - that, for me, is the iconic moment in (Pakeha) New Zealand art.

Isabel Doyle said...

Thanks Tim, I looked up Petrus van der Velden and was very taken by his paintings, would like to see some in the oil, as it were. After posting that piece I've since found out that the Group of Seven is no longer quite pc because they painted 'terra nullis' but I would argue the paintings are full of spirits.

Brian Miller said...

it is an intersting supposition...i think there is plenty of american art that captures moments defining and giving symbolism to what the country once was...

Kathy Bischoping said...

You write of my home turf in Northern Ontario, and I must say you do it justice -- the pleasures of the clambering, the streakiness of quartz, the feeling that glaciers are present. Love the "so many dirty mops" for branches, the scent.

When I was in Sydney a few years ago, I was struck by the palettes at a quilt show. Everything tilted toward the yellow -- orange earth, olive trees -- and when I got home to Toronto, all I could think was how blue our greens were, how damp our soil.

Wayne Pitchko said...

nicely done... thanks for sharing your words

Doctor FTSE said...

Very interesting and instructive. I think the great UK landscape painters captured the scenes of their era, even though they romanticised the lifestyle or the landworkers.

ds said...

Most interesting stuff. I do believe there is a connection between landscape and psyche. As someone told me long ago, "people have power in certain places." Thomson certainly found his, but at a terrible cost it seems. Thank you.

Tess Kincaid said...