The McMichael Canadian Art Collection is synonymous with the Group of Seven. But its charm reaches beyond this obvious attention grabber. Like the paintings of these Canadian artistic pioneers, it’s all about the link between art and nature at the McMichael.
The story starts with Canadian art enthusiasts and collectors Signe and Robert McMichael, who gifted the McMichael in 1965 to the Province of Ontario (it opened a year later) with the idea of creating a centre for the nation’s artists and their works.
With grand windows throughout to offer views of the great natural landscape outside, the McMichael may be the best gallery space in the Toronto area. It also happens to be Signe and Robert McMichael’s former home, ‘Tapawingo’, which stood in the lush Humber Valley.
When the McMichael’s bought 10 acres in 1952 to build Tapawingo, the Village of Kleinburg — with its main strip just up the road on Islington Avenue — was itself a hundred years removed from its roots as a milling settlement on the Humber. The coming postwar decades would be pivotal for both the town and the museum: Kleinburg’s aim was to keep its historic integrity amongst suburban boom and the McMichael has its transition from a quiet private residence to an expanding public institution.
Naturally, the galleries exhibit much of the famed works of Group of Seven — Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley — and associated artists Emily Carr and Tom Thomson. The great works of Norval Morrisseau and other Native artists are also present, demonstrating the importance of Aboriginal voices in the institution and helping in answering the perennial questions of “What is Canadian art?” and “What is included — and not included — in Canadian art?”
To keep things in the present, the McMichael also has rotating exhibits of current contemporary Canadian art. The current photo-exhibition on until October 21, 2018, “…Everything Remains Raw”, is about the history of Toronto Hip Hop.
Perhaps more impressive than the galleries themselves is everything outside them. An excellently paced and presented audio guide takes one through the grounds.
It starts with the Tom Thomson Shack where the artist himself lived and worked in the last years of his life, famously for a dollar rent. Its original home was in the Rosedale Ravine in Toronto behind the famous Studio Building. Unfortunately, he left Toronto an excursion to his beloved Algonquin Park in 1907, never returning to his work-live studio. His death remains a mystery today.
A small cemetery nearby houses the resting place of the McMicheals and members of the Group of Seven. The shape of their stones reflect each person’s work and character; Lawren Harris’ triangular marker for example evokes the mountains of his Arctic paintings.
Further is a Sculpture Garden of the works of Ivan Eyre. The picturesque settings of the area as a whole allows the museum to open itself up to wedding shoots.
lichen, a piece by Mary Anne Barkhouse and Michael Belmore featuring canines seemingly waiting for the bus, offers a whimsical yet provocative origin story. The transit shelter idea arose from the introduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, oddly enough. In the early 20th century, all large predators were removed from the park as a safety precaution to visitors, allowing the elk population to grow unchecked.
To reintroduce ecological balance, Canadian Grey Wolves were reintroduced in 1995. Biologists who recommended the idea spoke local communities about the development, informing them the wolves would not be waiting at bus shelters for their children. The sculptures also reference the constant duality of effects of humans on nature and vice versa. Iichen was once located in the Toronto Sculpture Garden, too.
Finally, further past Wedding Hill and David Ruben Piqtoukun’s Inukshuk, a path leads one down to the Valley Trails — foot and bike paths which meander along and across the East Humber in a way that might evoke the historic Toronto Carrying Place. A less adventurous but still stunning Gallery Loop Trail leads one around the McMichael’s fieldstone walls and massive fenestration.