Canada's cool school

IF in imagination you grid ``The Falls of Ste.-Anne'' (opposite page), dividing it into four equal parts, you may find, as I did, that the lower left sector will be the most forceful of the four. The dark, stark, simply defined rocks on the extreme left contrast dramatically with the white, striated foam; and the small rock sitting out on its own contributes a dimension of forlornness to what, in that square, is a presiding, rather clinical chill. It is not unpleasant, that part of the picture, nor is it wildly disturbing; the feeling you get from it is one of isolation and a perhaps not-unwelcome loneliness. The watercolor was painted by Thomas Davies, an English Army officer and topographer, who sketched and painted while posted in Canada in the 1700s.

To me there is something exciting about this grid exercise, because in that lower left square appears to be a kind of format -- or more accurately, an essence -- that characterizes the Canadian painting currently most favored by home-front connoisseurs.

The topographer's clean lines and cool analysis are very much part of the Canadian school of landscape and seascape painting I refer to, as are pale blues, greens, and grays, sometimes contrasted with decisive blacks and browns. The combination reflects space and silence, a certain emotional detachment required to press on relatively lightly regarded and unheralded, and possibly something akin to frugality.

If, indeed, topographer Davies introduced an image of Canada that has been recaptured and projected in the last half of this century, then it came by way of the Canadian painter Lawren Harris. In the '20s Harris was producing compositions so clean and frigid as to suggest they were carried out with colored icicles. Look again at that lower left square: Harris's scenes were superb enlargements and elaborations.

Harris was said to have been influenced by an exhibition of Scandinavian paintings he saw in 1913 in Buffalo, N.Y. In the words of Canadian art historian Dennis Reid, Harris and a fellow artist, J. E. H. MacDonald, were elated by ``the direct, clear expression of the exhilarating clarity and expansiveness of the lonely north,'' so similar to Canada's.

Those same qualities of clarity and expansiveness, though, are what I see in the lower left corner of Thomas Davies's ``The Falls of Ste.-Anne,'' which dates back to 1790. Harris, with his interest in Canadian art history, would have been familiar with that work; and that specific depiction -- when isolated from the rest of the painting -- strikes me as being astonishingly close to his own vision.

While Davies has likely been forgotten by all but art historians, there isn't a Canadian painter alive worth his or her artistic salt who is not conscious of Lawren Harris's work. So the current cool school of Canadian painting might be willing to concede that it owes its genre to Harris, unaware that Davies could conceivably have been the start of it. Above and beyond that, anyone -- artist or not -- in attempting to rationalize an up-to-date Canadian identity, would likely never dream of linking this picture to it. To do so, after all, does seem to stretch logic and imagination to gossamer.

And yet it's good, surely, that art and artists are able to give rise to well-intentioned conjecture and get us thinking and probing.

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