Pages

September 9, 2008

The Great White North

Whiteness is in the news a great deal these days, as Sarah Palin is being paraded across the national stage, presented as the whitest woman with the whitest values from the whitest state in the nation (the lives and histories of the native citizens of the area notwithstanding.) Palin exemplifies that Northwest "frontier spirit", otherwise known as sneering small-town contempt for the non-Alaska world. She is the ultimate anti-Obama.

I was in Toronto when she made her debut at the Republican Convention and the denizens of that northern city were not very impressed one way or the other. They have their own version of whiteness up there, and it is quieter and more refined that what those "Alaska hicks" put on display. Alaskan whiteness pales (yes I said it) in comparison to Toronto's, and the cool demeanors there make Palin see m hysterical by comparison.

In celebration of all this relentless whiteness, I visited the McMichael Collection (a private museum and estate originally founded by art collectors in Ontario in the early 1950's and later donated to the Canadian government) which houses only Canadian art. Specifically, the McMichael has a huge collection of work from the Group of Seven, and six of the Seven are actually buried on the museum's bucolic grounds. So essentially the McMichael is a shrine to the memories of the pristine landscape of Ontario-that-was, and a shrine to the memories of a group of dead white male Canadian painters.

These artists gained renown in the 1920's through capturing the landscape around them with both a nationalist and a theosophist bent, displaying through their art the spiritual essence of their world in a unique way (the lives and the artwork of the native citizens of the area notwithstanding.) Much of the work, particularly Harris', has a strange, soft geometry of form. Emily Carr, of Vancouver fame, was later an appendage of the Group of Seven, to her detriment I think; only one of her paintings was on display here.Thankfully there was a small collection of First Nations artwork at the McMichael as well, to give some counterweight, and the paintings by Alex Janvier were totally fascinating.

Fascinating, too, was the experience of walking the grounds and seeing the natural models for many of the Group of Seven's subjects: white pines, horsetail, the white-golden light on the trees. I was impressed with the organic art history lesson around me. As I walked I could grasp what the Group of Seven sought to do, to (forcefully) imbue their canvasses with an intense spiritual or emotional sense that was so very fleeting in the real world. They loved their place and wanted to sustain it, but only the beautiful parts. That was what they wanted you to care about. And that was all they wanted you to talk about when you talked about their country. They used a warm method but the message was cold: the newly settled European-white world of Canada, its landscapes and country houses and lakes, was the world that must be defended.

Of course Alaska has a similar un-peopled beauty, and Palin and her compatriots obviously feel that they are the chosen managers and defenders of this possible northern launchpoint for the Rapture. And they too want you to care and talk about what matters most in that management and in that defense -- in the very whitest terms.

No comments: