BOLDLY CALLING themselves the Group of Seven, a posse of over-the-border artists set out early this century after unusual prey: the "horrible Great North."
At least that's what guest curator Jeremy Adamson calls the landscape that dominated Canadian artists' imagination from World War I up until the 1950s, and is the focal point of the Canadian Embassy's current art exhibition. In only 13 paintings, from a single collection at the University of Toronto, Adamson traces the evolution of the artists' desire for national images -- and the technique to represent those images -- from the early years of iconoclasm to a success so resounding it began to stifle further development.
But this Great White North, though harsh and bleak, is anything but monotone. Tom Thomson, the group's de facto leader, uses post-impressionist dabs of coral and lavender to create the 1915 canoeing scene known both as "The Pointers" and "Pageant of the North."
According to Adamson, a native Canadian now a curator at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery, Thomson's subject matter represents a "new, mythologized vision Canadians had of themselves -- a diverse people molded by their confrontation with an unyielding and hostile environment into a strong and vigorous nation."
Old hat to American artists, but powerful stuff to the landscape-leery Canadians. Eventually every public school had its Thomson print, and the artist's mysterious death by drowning in 1917 only fanned Canadians' campfire imaginings.
By 1923, Graham Noble Norwell was able to take advantage of the growing trend toward abstraction and reduction to produce "Camping Scene," a hard, glittery landscape in which two men turn their backs on continued on next page from previous page England and Empire and their faces toward the frontier and the future. The air of industry is not inappropriate; Canada's landscape was becoming a natural resource to be exploited as much as exalted.
The movement reached its peak -- literally -- in the mid-'30s, with two powerful paintings. Charles F. Comfort's "Saguenay River" stakes a claim on the rugged landscape with masterful geometry, while W. P. Weston plants his flag on the glorious summit of "Cheam." You might not want to hang the latter in a ski lodge, since its gleaming crevasses suggest an avalanche barely in check. As a national symbol, however, it's right up there with the bald eagle.
THE CANADIAN LANDSCAPE -- Through March 16 at the Canadian Embassy, 501 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Metro: Archives. 202/682-1740. Open 10 to 5 Monday through Friday. Good wheelchair access.