Art · Creativity

Tom Thomson Meets The Muse.

This painting of a winter thaw in a Canadian wood is so lively you can hear the birds sing.
Tom Thomson: Winter Thaw In The Woods, 1917

Modern Art.
The art of Tom Thomson is, at its best, truly exquisite. He was active in his late thirties around a hundred years ago in Canada. He wasn’t a trained artist as such, he was a graphic artist which is to say the craftsman level of art*. That however didn’t stop him putting raw talent to use, and this was encouraged by Grip, his Toronto employers. A century ago, azo dyes had recently been introduced, and had revolutionzed many industries. Clothes were now bright colours instead of the earthy greens, browns and reds hitherto. Purple – once so expensive it was only worn by emperors – was now cheap enough for common housewives. In the run up to the turn of the nineteenth century, colour was a riot. Printers could print things never before possible at prices never before imagined. Shop awnings were bright red or green stripes, parasols were no longer white or umbrellas black. Painters now had cheap tubes of paint that they could daub and experiment with wildly.

It’s easy to imagine the art elites as being upset by the newcomers! Their staid world of measure and form was upset by untrained ruffians. These were no better than common apprentices, yet claimed equality of status! What an outrage! The moreso when you beheld what they painted. These weren’t pictures and whilst not quite at the stage of being thrown paint in the style of Jackson Pollock, they had the same effect. A painting was a tableau to behold, observe and allow one to criticize the technique employed. One could simply sit back and allow the forms to present themselves in perfection. They allowed you to sit back and appreciate the trouble taken in the portrayal. You didn’t have to do anything but lap it up.

Finding The Muse

Which is where Tom Thomson was different. Armed with canvas, brushes and paint, he did what only Tom Thomson could do. He painted things he loved to experience. He painted things he wanted to share, he wanted to paint his joy in what he beheld. Through the backwoods with a knapsack stuffed with his paintbox, sketching as the muse and his canoe led him.

Crude colours and brush strokes only add to the atmosphere.
Detail from Winter Thaw In The Woods; Effective painting doesn’t have to be refined.

He painted with a style that was largely his own that was frankly crude. He was a gifted graphic artist was neither here nor there. That was a living. That was all it was, a job. It was also his shackle in that the elite saw him only as someone pushing a paintbrush. Did this worry Thomson? Frankly I doubt that for one moment. He cared for nothing save that his art should express what he saw. He painted with a passion and vim that even his friends admired. He would give away paintings his friends viewed as masterpieces, to Thomson, they were finished and done with. How better to dispose of them than to someone who could see something in them that he wanted to share?

What was he trying to achieve? To be honest with you, it is hard to pick out one single element that makes a Thomson picture. Is it the style, technique or use of colour? There is however something genuinely magical about his better pictures. His winter scene is exactly the image that I have in my own memories of living in a Canada winter. How is it that a painting that was painted nearly a century ago can evoke such living images? The answer isn’t easy to explain. There is in Thomson’s work a certain unfinishedness. Whilst complete and whole, they are somehow not complete. In point of fact, they are the antithesis of the perfect painting according to the old school. They are certainly not the naive daubings of Alfred Wallis** whose artistic skill simply didn’t come near to his passion and joy. Thomson was after something else than depiction.

I want to add that there is a joy in Thomson’s paintings. They are as much a pleasure to behold as they were to paint. They wouldn’t be such a pleasure were the painting not pleasurable to the artist. Meeting the Muse is something truly special.

The Forgotten Secret Of Art

Thomson’s paintings don’t sit there waiting for the careful observer. Thomson’s paintings lie in ambush. Demanding your attention and won’t allow you to just sit there like some marionette. They are unfinished that you cannot be an observer: they are unfinished so that you finish them in yourself. You must engage yourself in beholding them.

That is the forgotten secret of art.

It is to engage you. It is you that makes the image in your mind that makes it perfect. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, this is what Thomson did. Because you’re in the loop means that their imperfections are ironed out by your own imagination. They’re alive because your imagination is alive. Don’t pretend for one moment that the images in your head are but sterile depictions formed by electrical impulses in the way of a computer screen. You are a living being, your brain is way more than an assembly of light-switches guided by software and ordered by a clock. That is, after all, what a computer is. Your brain is way more than that.

Any ordinary reproduction of a Thomson painting is but a poor reflection of what their reality wields. That goes for the pictures here, and I took care to take six or seven photos in order to get even a reasonable reproduction.

To behold one in the raw is like being slapped in the face.

That is, if you allow them to. To the old school they were only crude, that is to miss the point. The old school couldn’t appreciate what was being said to them in visual terms. That was “you can’t expect to sit back and merely observe”. If you want to appreciate a Thomson painting to its full, you cannot abstract yourself. You cannot be a passive observer. In engaging yourself your mind fills in those gaps, sharpens the focus and adds the depth using your own imaginative faculties. In your mind, you can hear the birds singing too. In engaging yourself in a Thomson painting, you will be over awed by the experience, as I most certainly was. That tiny movement of sunset in the middle of the Jack Pine still brings up goose-bumps!

You can only criticize these paintings if you have first criticized your own manner. Old school painters weren’t into self-criticism for their world was one where paintings were flat and largely lifeless. They stood still and did as they were told. The techniques could be criticized because that’s all that was left to criticize!

Stepping outside the box.

Thomson’s paintings don’t allow for abstract thinking. This is why this is posted in the outside of the box series. They are painting outside the box. Why do I say this?

It takes a great artist to communicate that which stands in front of him. Tom Thomson achieved this.
Maple Woods 1915 When you stand at a certain distance, it sort-of pings into three dimensions.

It outraged the old school because they were taught only to be objective – it is the curse of academia to this day. I’m afraid that the old school, just like today’s universities, are lazy when it comes to thinking. They are supine and their thinking must be objective and abstracted. There is no place for engagement, their view of the world is passive and absorbing. What’s more, they don’t even know that they can engage! They make it a rule that they aren’t allowed to engage, that they must be abstract. They demand the crutch of evidence, claiming facts cannot be gainsaid. But wait a moment: a Frenchman will choose different facts from an Australian or a Canadian. They pick and choose, not knowing that they are inadvertently filtering the evidence with cultural sieves they are unaware of.

Thinking outside the box isn’t abstract, it isn’t objective. Thinking outside the box must first be involved and subjective. If you don’t agree with this, please bear with me to the end. I have done this, and believe me, it isn’t easy to do. However, to do nothing is to miss out on what ought to be the biggest part of your life. You might just find yourself entering a new world. Alright, it will be the same world you see before you, only you will see it with new eyes. You will see it as something fresh and newly minted. The sun coming up will no longer be just light, but something real, dramatic. It will also be the unique happening that it truly is.


The Exhibition “Painting Canada, Tom Thomson And The Group Of Seven” was at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands until the end of September 2012. (The link is in English by the way). It was open until the end of October 2012 through public demand. I am sorry that you have now missed your chance to see this truly stunning exhibition. And for the record, I went three times!


*I have some right in saying this, I was an industrial designer previous to my being a copywriter.

** Alfred Wallis “They’re unique. He didn’t try and copy anybody and took no notice of other artists. They aren’t ‘childish’, they are ‘child-like’. Try and copy them and you will struggle.”

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