By Violette Stepaniuk
This review was written as an exercise for The Ottawa Art Gallery’s Articulation: Critical Art Writing Workshop and first published on Apartment613, December 22, 2014, under the title The West Wind by Tom Thomson at the NGC. Visit Apt613 to read more articles by the workshop participants and to catch up on art-related Ottawa news.
Thank you to Ian Carr-Harris, Toronto artist, professor and OAG Articulation workshop facilitator, for sharing his art criticism insight and for helpful edits.
Tom Thomson, The West Wind, Winter, 1916–17, oil on canvas, 120.7 × 137.9 cm. Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Gift of the Canadian Club of Toronto, 1926.
The West Wind by Tom Thomson is one of the most recognizable images in the history of Canadian art, and it is on display at the National Gallery of Canada as part of the Tom Thomson: The Jack Pine and The West Wind exhibition.
“Nothing new,” you might say. While it’s a familiar image, it’s not exactly a “celebrity” painting like the Mona Lisa, worthy of an envy-inspiring selfie. So why bother making a trip to the National Gallery to see the actual work when a postcard will do? Plenty, I say, and here’s why.
Not merely an image
No matter what anyone may say, a painting is not just an image that can be equally appreciated on a postcard, a life-size poster, or a computer screen. The West Wind is a collection of individual strokes applied by Thomson to make us feel the beauty and harshness of the northern Canadian landscape. Give Thomson’s work enough quiet attention and you’ll feel the strong western wind – as though you are standing on the lake-side rock watching the white caps rise and push one another, with the low cloud cover hanging just above you. You’ll see the glimmer of light reflecting off the waves, and patches of shadows cast by the clouds moving across the lake.
There are other details to be noticed, such as the thin burgundy line outlining different elements and separating sections of the painting. Why did Thompson do that? Why did he add this graphic design or abstract element into an otherwise realistic painting? The insistent outlines may even remind you of the colouring books you enjoyed as a child. Did you colour within or outside the lines? What crayons would you use to match Thomson’s colours?
(See UPDATE below)
And speaking of colours, The West Wind, and its equally famous sibling The Jack Pine hanging next to it, have been meticulously restored to reveal the colours that Thomson used almost a hundred years ago. Over time paintings get covered with layers of protective varnishes, dust and dirt, and lose their original appearance. So, even if you saw the work twenty years ago, it’s worthwhile seeing it again, the way Thomson intended it to be seen.
This Masterpiece in Focus exhibition is also an opportunity to get a sense of the artist’s creative process. Two small oil sketches that Thomson did on location for later elaboration are on display. It’s interesting to compare the oil sketch of The West Wind – a painting in itself – with the final large and much more detailed work. Thomson’s portable paint set and other artefacts are also displayed.
Finally, because this exhibition focuses on only two works, it is limited to just one gallery, creating an intimate setting, perfect for getting up close and personal with those famous paintings. You may want to plan your visit outside of the National Gallery’s rush hours to allow for a quiet one-on-one contemplation, and to experience the work as if it were hanging in a private living room.
The West Wind is the last painting completed by Tom Thomson. The artist drowned in mysterious circumstances in Algonquin Park that same year. He was said to be critical of the painting, of the combination of abstract shapes and realistic background. Looking at his work makes one wonder, had the artist lived longer, would we be looking at a different version of this work, one that would meet with his approval, and if so, what changes would he have made? Would it be a flat abstraction or a fully realistic landscape, with shading replacing the colouring-book-like outlines?
We will never know. But it doesn’t matter. What does matter is what you will experience in the presence of what the artist has given us – not a postcard, but a painting that has forever pictured for us our image of who we are.
Tom Thomson: The Jack Pine and The West Wind is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until March 1, 2015.
The Ottawa Art Gallery’s Articulation: Critical art writing workshop series is intended to offer participants the support, skills, and editorial assistance they need to establish or expand their critical art writing practice. Each workshop is designed and led by a leading Canadian expert in the field of art. Apt613 is publishing select articles produced from the workshops. This project was made possible with the support of the Access Copyright Foundation.
UPDATE: The burgundy outline explained 🙂
One can never have too much red in a painting.— Tom Thomson (@TTLastSpring) February 15, 2015