The Life and Art of Tom Thomson

Tom Thomson, “Thunderhead”, 1912-1913, 8.5″x 10.5″.

“He said I had something that the other artists didn’t have- that I had a sense of the wilderness and knew what could be expressed through art. I laughed and said I could pick the trees out and catch fish better than any artist. But my art was from my knowledge of the country, not from being a superior artist.”

Tom Thomson, Journal entry, May 20, 1917: Confessions at Tea Lake Dam.

Recently, I have been reading the late journal of the Canadian landscape painter, Tom Thomson. He is best know for his association with the Group of Seven who gave rise to an epic landscape style focused on the Canadian North, particularly around Algonquin Park in the 1910’s. Tom Thomson is the most well know of the group although, he never officially joined. Thomson was a non-conformist and joining any group did not sit well with him. The journal entries comprise of Thomson’s last year of painting in Algonquin Park beginning in March 1917. Thomson will die in a canoe accident at the end of July under suspicious circumstances. Many books on Thomson are focused on this drama.

But what I really found inspiring about Thomson was his love of nature and his attempts to place man within that vastness. His practice was to paint every day outside regardless of the weather. One can see from his images, that immediacy and deep engagement in the moment of painting. He is cold and wet, hot and eaten by bugs, blown around by the wind, joyful with the coming of spring, wandering around at night to see the Northern Lights, and exhausted from a long hike painting in deep snow. He is present and meditative seeking an experience of pure isolation- not spurning human company but searching instead, for a space in which he can engage with himself and with nature.

Thomson is very much like the Thoreau of the Canadian North. He rarely seeks personal attention and seems not to care much about what the art world thinks of him. He lets the artist’s ego go and chooses instead to live the full life regardless of his poverty. I feel this quote from Thoreau’s Walden is appropriate,

“The lesson he taught himself (Thoreau), and which he tried to teach others, was summed up in one word “simplify”. That meant simplify the outward circumstances of your life, simplify your needs and your ambitions; learn to delight in the simple pleasures which the world of Nature affords. It meant also, scorn public opinion, refuse to accept the common definitions of success, refuse to be moved by the judgement of others.”

Joseph Wood Krutch introduction to “Walden and other Writings by Henry David Thoreau”.

Thomson’s experience is very much like my own experience when I plein air paint. On-site, I am immersed in my subject and in my own thoughts and reveries. And the give and take between these two poles allow the image to emerge as a natural manifestation of the experience. Nature is generative and one’s deeply sought experience in that space allows the artist himself to be reborn and renewed. Thomson speaks of his need to paint, his need to get back to himself once again that could only happen through the very act of painting. Painting is recalling oneself back to center, back to an inward stasis that promotes creativity and gives the imagination space to manifest itself. If one is not true to oneself and one’s experience, the artistic spirit cannot thrive.

Tom Thomson, “Approaching Snowstorm”, 1916.

“In the evening, after dinner, I made a sketch of the sky in the failing light. The dark clouds from the cold front were moving in, smothering the sunlight from the early evening. There is a sense of inevitability in the scene I painted. Inevitability about what, I don’t know.”

Tom Thomson, Journal entry, May 12, 1917: The Trainors Arrive.

Thomson painted primarily, what I would call, pochades (Thomson’s are painted on birch panels and orange crate pine boards). Small, quick, spontaneous paintings done in one go. Most are around 8″x 10″or 6″x 8″. Some will mature to large gallery paintings produced later in Thomson’s studio in Toronto (under 24 canvases). But most will remain small under 14″x 16″. The journal entries of 1917 are all of the smaller sizes. Thomson is best known for his large image “The Jack Pine”, but I find his pochades focused on the sky the most compelling. The way Thomson makes the clouds lift up and press down from above are strong and beautiful, producing an incredible feeling of immensity and grandeur. It has caused me to reconsider the largeness of my skies. I admire the intensity of the color and the deepness of the tones in the clouds. The contrast adds dramatic effect and creates a greater range of values than I typically give myself. He also balances the color temperature, alternating between cool and warm passages that enliven the surface.

Tom Thomson, “Northern Lights”, 1916.

So what am I doing? I’m sketching. I’m drawing. I’m painting. I find it distressing that we’re fighting the very ones I drew inspiration from. The German Expressionists, their insistence on bold strong colour and harsh depictions. The North lends itself to these techniques, and it was me who introduced the rest to what was here…It’s good to have a plan, but sometimes it is better to live day by day and catch the moment when it’s appropriate.”

Tom Thomson, Journal entry, April 19, 1917: Thinking of Leaving

Thomson’s compositions I find so true to experience. There is, as he said, an ‘inevitability’ in his compositions. They feel unreconstructed, without pretense. Just as if I, myself, had walked into the scene- the vault of the sky, the laying in of the trees, the sharpness of the light generate a truth of experience in which my sight becomes clear, becomes heightened to perceiving the reality that lies before me. This is the calling of art, to brush away the scales from our eyes allowing one to see anew and therefore, feel more intensely than we have ever felt before.

“There are four seasons in the world, but there are only two in my mind- painting and no-painting.”

Tom Thomson, Journal entry, March 18, 1917: Last Canvas on the Easel.

The Individual and Nature

Judith Reeve, “A Morning in March”, oil, 16″ x 32″.

I recently read an essay by John Fowles called The Tree. Fowles is best know as a British novelist who wrote The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) which was later turned into a film starring Meryl Streep. The Tree is the first work of his that I have read. What intrigued me about this essay was Fowles desire to locate our disenfranchisement from nature- our detachment, our lack of integration in our environment. Fowles attempts a journey from within to find an answer to this pressing question- How did we become so removed from nature and what is the true relationship, that should be, between the human person and his or her environment? And where does art fit into this relationship?

Fowles sees the dilemma arising from our contemporary relationship with science. Fowles uses the naturalist, Carl Linneaus who formalized modern nomenclature of organisms, to describe this beginning of our disconnect to the natural world. Fowles states, “The Linnean mentality, which fussed endlessly to make nature seem categorical, serves in turn to introduce us to the differing approaches of science and ‘the kind of experience or knowledge we loosely define as art.’ Science pounces on chaos- on ‘unphilosophical, irrational, uncontrollable, incalculable’ nature. Art perceives no threat, no great evil in unlimited chaos; the engagement with nature is personal, intimate, and without objective.”(p. xiv)

This really is the clear difference between art and science. Art can live with great unknowns, with what Keats called ‘negative capability– the willingness to live and be satisfied with not knowing- “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. Art needs to dwell in this place, in this atmosphere of doubt because real insight, the intuitive grasp of beauty in the moment, flees from rational and calculated analysis. “Beauty is truth and truth beauty, that is all/ Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” Beauty can only reside within the equilibrium provided by the mysterious unknown.

The artist participates in nature in a very personal and individual way. But this individual lived experience in many ways cannot be described by any art. Fowles, the writer, believes that even his experience, “…whose deepest value (of nature) lies in the fact that it cannot be directly described by any art….including that of words.” (p.32) Fowles tries to reconcile this inability to describe a deep experience of nature by tapping into the eighteenth-century attitude which, “…viewed nature as a mirror for philosophers, as an evoker of emotion, as a pleasure, a poem, (and) was forgotten.” (p.33) In eighteenth-century writing, man/woman exists as a whole being, both artist, writer, believer, and individual in all his/her complexities. It is this ability to remain in this state of ‘complexities’ that allows us, according to Fowles, to fully participate in nature.

“Ordinary experience is …highly synthetic…and made of a complexity of strands, past memories and present perceptions, times and places, private and public history, hopelessly beyond science’s powers to analyze. It is quintessentially ‘wild’…and corresponds…with wild nature. Almost all the richness of our personal existence derives from this synthetic and eternally present ‘confused’ consciousness of both internal and external reality, and not least because we know it is beyond the analytical, or destructive, capacity of science.” (p.36-37)

One’s experience in the world is so elastic, multifaceted and complex. If I use an analogy of a ‘confluence‘- one can observe a smaller stream meeting a larger river at their intersection, but once that stream enters the flow of the larger river, one can no longer separate the two. They in fact, become one flow, one experience. So, it is with man and his immersion in nature. What science picks apart, experience reveals a sensory wholeness, an inward and outward unity.

“What is irreplaceable in any object of art is never, in the final analysis, its technique or craft, but the personality of the artist, the expression of his or her unique and individual feeling.” (p.42) One can only experience nature as an individual through creative self-expression and self-discovery. There is no art or writing or science that can connect us to nature- it relies on the individual alone- to live that experience fully in the moment. I believe that the artist just happens to be that individual that is highly receptive to this creative immersion, to this heightened awareness. Fowles manages to describe that state of being, that inherent creativity, that position of intent, that the artist must possess inherently. It becomes a ‘new’ way of knowing that is unique to each person and which the artist himself is uniquely possessed. Although, Fowler seeks not to raise up the qualities of the artist, but seeks to suggest that these experiences of nature are singular and in a sense, can never be fully shared through art.

What role does art play since nature can only be reached and experienced by each individual, alone, through their own creative self-discovery? Fowler uses the word ‘art’ in a looser way to describe a way of knowing and experiencing, “…that is internally rather than externally creative, that leaves very little public trace; and yet which for those very reasons is almost wholly concentrated in its own creative process. It is really only the qualified…artist who can escape from the interiority and constant now-ness, the green chaos of this experience, by making some aspect of it exterior and so fixing it in past time, or known knowledge.” (p.49) The artist through the artwork itself, can create some kind of a bridge to this experience of nature, but the art itself can never fully describe the interior self-discovery that transpires. It can only hint at such manifestations.

Nature takes us “…into a place always a complexity beyond daily reality, never fully comprehensible or explicable, always more potential than realized; yet where no one will ever penetrate as far as we have. It is our passage, our mystery alone…The artist’s experience here is only a special- unusually prolonged and self-conscious- case of the universal individual one.” (p.76). And this brings us back to Keats. The great mystery of experience must remain an unfathomable mystery that we must live with “… without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

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