ARTHUR LISMER: PAINTER
by Gregory Halpern, Photographer
Born into a working-class Unitarian family amidst the fog and
factory smoke of Sheffield, England, Arthur Lismer was eventually
to find fame as a young, impressionist painter of the Canadian
countryside. Considered by many a place of industrial ugliness,
Sheffield may have inspired in Lismer the desire to celebrate
what bastions of untouched nature remained in the world. As a
boy, he took lonely hikes through the English countryside, on
shorelines of sharp cliffs and on the borders of bellowing seas
and narrow fjords. On these trips Arthur took his sketching books
and his paints, recording day by day the limitless incantations
of the moody and weather-filled seascapes.
In spring, he would often walk all
night along the Manchester Road, providing his mother with limitless
worry, and himself with moonlit inspiration for his sketchbooks,
which he filled as fast as he could buy. In 1917, Lismer's mother
would write to him from across the Atlantic and, in a tender moment,
recall Arthur as a boy. He was full of "mimic and mischief," she
wrote, though she also recalled that he was a sensitive boy, aware
of his surroundings and of the heartbreaking beauty of nature.
At the age of nine, she reminded him, he had burst into tears
at the mere sight of a field of spring flowers. Later in life,
Arthur's weeklong hikes in search of beauty and his subsequent
painting binges would become his inspiration and trademark as
an artist. The artist's duty, Lismer would later write, is to
invest in "his passion for beauty, and out of the poignancy and
pain of existence, [hold] steadfastly to the integrity of the
human aspiration for beauty."
As a boy, Lismer
drew casual cartoons, animals, woodlands, Boer War heroes and caricatures,
drawing discreetly even during weekly Unitarian services (much to
his mother's dismay). Later in life, interestingly enough, Lismer
came to cherish the memory of his own childhood art and herald the
importance of art education for youngsters.
As a boy, it was clear that he was
not destined for factory or engineering work like his brothers.
His father knew it, and in turn encouraged his son to pursue his
own artistic flourishing. By the age of thirteen, Arthur had applied
to the Sheffield School of Art. Though there was some doubt on
his mother's part as to whether the traditionally upper-class
art world would be an appropriate place for her middle-class boy,
she agreed to the program, and on some level was reassured that
her son would receive a professional, seven year training geared
towards the production of commercial art. The school was interested
more in skill than in insight or inspiration, and though Lismer
would often consider the training "dull," he would later confess
that the thorough and meticulous instruction was useful.
Lake honoring Arthur Lismer.
By the age of twenty-six, Lismer
had gotten engaged to Esther Mawson, a companion from his late
night walks, and had gone into business for himself as a "specialist
in pictorial publicity," specializing in press art. Despite his
rigorous training, and despite his talent, keeping afloat and
profitable was a struggle. At the same time, many British artists
were immigrating to Canada where, it was said, prospects for an
active career in the commercial arts were increasing. As friend
after friend emigrated and wrote back of successes, Lismer found
he could bear Sheffield no longer, and in 1911 chopped up his
former office desk, made a traveling trunk of it and boarded ship
for Canada. He had left his fiance and family in England, though
in a year's time, after having established himself in Toronto,
he would return to England, marry Esther in the local Unitarian
church, and return to Canada with his new bride.
In Toronto, Lismer had found work
with Grip, perhaps Canada's most prominent commercial art firm.
There, he befriended the firm's crew of talented artists, who,
with Lismer, began traveling to the Canadian countryside for painting
trips. The group of friends would come to form what is today known
as the "Group of Seven". Collectively, the Group deeply
altered the Canadian art scene. In 1914, after a three week trip
with co-worker Tom Thomson, Lismer wrote the following: "The first
night spent in the North and the thrilling days after were turning
points in my life. . . the bush, the trails, lakes, waterfalls
. . . moving camp from one wonderful lake to another portage and
tent-pitching, fishing and sketching, and above all, the companionship
of a great individual, a wonder with canoe, axe and fish line."
Until now, the natural beauty of
Canada had not been painted successfully in its own style, represented
for its own character and spirit, or celebrated by Canadian artists
for its unique beauty. The concept of doing so, in fact, had seemed
a foreign one. "It is necessary," Lismer wrote, "that as Canadians
we should believe we are capable of producing great art as we
believe we are capable of doing great deeds."
Formed together to paint the Canadian
landscape as its own entity of unique power and beauty, the Group
of Seven offered an artistic tribute to the wild grandeur of Algoma,
the hills of Quebec, the shores of Lake Superior, Northern Ontario,
the Canadian Rockies and, as was most often the case with Arthur
Lismer, the Georgian Bay. Lismer would return to the Bay time and
again, throughout the remainder of his life, habitually varying
his approach but always focusing on the changing forces and opposing
movements that compose the fluid and elusive states of nature. As
fellow Group of Seven member Lawren Harris wrote:
Thomson, F.H. Varley, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, Marjorie
Lismer & Esther Lismer, October 1914, McMichael Canadian
Art Collection Archives.
In matters of
art and culture Canadians were at that time a subservient people.
The idea was generally held that anything we ourselves created
was not worth serious consideration. The European and old country
outlook and ideas of art dominated and dictated our artistic
efforts. Their suitability to our creative needs as a young
and growing country were never questioned. . . . Canada was
a country that demanded to be painted with complete devotion
before it yielded its austere and remote secrets. . . . [We]
did not recognize our own country as a paintable land. Since
that time the paintings of the Group have been accepted by most
Canadians as the beginning of a creative tradition in art engendered
by the country itself.
In what would
prove a coming of age for all Canada, Lismer and the Group of
Seven memorialized the Canadian landscape in one painting after
another, describing the land with brilliant impressionist colors,
coarse brush strokes, and a romantic sense of form and natural
rhythm. Meeting at first with public opposition (because of their
avant-garde style) the Group of Seven would, with timeas
the critics grew to perceive the beauty and nationalistic significance
of their individualitymeet with great success.
September Gale, Georgian Bay, 1921, by Arthur Lismer
As a painter, as a pioneer, and
as a "founding father" of consciously Canadian art, it was clear
within a few short years of his debut that Arthur Lismer would
always be remembered. Patriotic and inspiring as they were, his
paintings would come to adorn the walls of Canadian governmental
offices, galleries, museums, and the homes of Canada's cultural
elite. Though they are no longer thought of by the general public
as avant-garde or revolutionary in nature, they are cherished
as masterworks and remain precious commodities on the art market.
In 1995, for the Group's 75th anniversary,
a show of 189 of the Group's paintings toured Canada, and the
National Gallery of Canada asked a musical group, the Rheostatics,
to write a forty minute piece of music honoring the Group's work.
It is a mainly instrumental work, created to evoke melting landscapes
and thrilling skies. "Every Canadian knows the Group of Seven,"
wrote The Financial Times reporter Nick Woodsworth in November
of 2000. "No public building is bereft of patriotic pictures by
Arthur Lismer." Last year, as Lismer would have been pleased to
know, third and fourth graders at the First Unitarian Church of
San Jose created art inspired by Lismer's own paintings.
Arthur Lismer's contribution to
Canadian art, however, includes more than his own colorful canvasses.
Lismer was also endowed with the passion to teach and to bring
art to youngsters at all costs. With prestigious teaching posts
at the Montreal Museum of Art and at McGill University, it was
just five years after immigrating to Canada, in 1916, that Lismer
was offered the position of principal of the Nova Scotia School
of Art. Then, in 1919, he took a position as Vice-Principal of
the Ontario College of Art, and in 1929, the position of Educational
Supervisor at the Art Gallery of Toronto. It was there that Lismer
flourished as a teacher and as an educational leader.
Committed to the idea that every
child could be invigorated by art, Lismer worked tirelessly to
provide accessible art instruction to youngsters. Convinced also
that the creative energy of the child can never be wholly lost,
he encouraged adults to start classes as well, and succeeded at
bringing all ages together in the classroom. Lismer filled the
Art Gallery's dignified and marble tiled rooms with crowds of
energetic children and adults, each armed with pencil and paper,
each anxious to record on paper some intrinsic creative energy.
Lismer loved it, preaching constantly that the artistic impulse
inherent in all people should be encouraged and allowed to find
"natural and simple forms of expression." In a letter to a friend,
Lismer wrote, "I teach twenty-five hours a week, travel a fair
amount to other spots to do just that, run a school and several
art centers around Montreal, and get horribly fatigued and exhilarated."
In a lengthy booklet about the school published by the Art Gallery
of Toronto, Lismer eloquently and persuasively describes the school's
purpose and value:
Saturday morning children's class at the Montreal Museum
It has formed
a fertile field for the growth and sustenance of people. . .
. It is a living manifestation of the expression that life is
not all depression and material possessions. . . .
It is much more
than art as lessons, skills, accomplishments and professional
careers in the making, it is an effort to release valuable human
capacities. . . .
The aim of the
Art Centre is not to train artists, or teach art, or instruct
in drawing, but to lead out from the child, encouraging every
spark of feeling and originality and to aid in the extension
and co-ordination of hand, eye and mind toward the development
of a more emotionally active and alive little personality.
Each Saturday morning Lismer seemed
to accomplish the impossible: he drew hundreds of people into
the Art Gallery, filling its rooms and crowding its halls so that
only standing room remained. It seems that each day his classes
provided something of a famous event. Relatively careless of his
clothes and appearance, Lismer was known to move happily through
the Gallery, disheveled and energized, observing and encouraging
his children, guiding their hands as they drew, his own coat pockets
bulging with pencils, crayons, pipe, paper and notebooks.
Silhouette, by Arthur Lismer
With time, Lismer was invited to
lecture in England, France, the United States, Australia, South
Africa, Hawaii, the Fiji Islands, and New Zealand. Many came to
love him and praise him. Perhaps the definitive statement is provided
by Sidney Key, who in 1950 wrote the introduction to a small but
beautiful booklet of Lismer's paintings, entitled Arthur Lismer:
Paintings: 1913-1949: "More than any other member of the Group
of Seven, Arthur Lismer has kept alive the spirit of freedom and
even controversy." He has expounded the doctrine of the artist's
right to self- expression from one end of Canada to the other,
in the United States and half way round the world with the unflagging
zeal and resource of a crusader. . . . He has engendered, wherever
he appears, respect or at least tolerance for the experimental
September Gale: A Study
of Arthur Lismer of the Group of Seven by John A.B. McLeish,
(Toronto: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1955).
Through Art for Children and Adults at the Art Gallery of Toronto
by Arthur Lismer (Toronto: Art Gallery of Toronto, 1936).