Doris McCarthy: Roughing It in the Bush

Essay by Nancy Campbell

The title of this exhibition, Doris McCarthy: Roughing It in the Bush, alludes somewhat ironically to a classic piece of nineteenth-century Canadiana. Susanna Moodie’s book Roughing It in the Bush, published in 1852, chronicles the British-born author’s trials and tribulations as she adjusts to her new home in Canada. Doris McCarthy was born in a more established Canada in 1910, but her groundbreaking life and career represent a continuation of Moodie’s pioneer experience.

Doris McCarthy was born in Calgary but spent her youth in the east-end Beach area of Toronto. She grew up with a sensitivity to nature and the natural world that would form an integral part of her painting in the years to come. Her childhood interest in sketching, combined with art classes and a scholarship to the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, led McCarthy to her life’s work. She entered the art school in 1926, studying under the tutelage of such notables as Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and Hortense Gordon. At the time, it was unusual for a woman to pursue post-secondary learning, but McCarthy was determined to be an artist, and graduated from the Ontario College of Art in 1930. As was the custom at that period, McCarthy showed her work in prestigious juried exhibitions, thereby solidifying her place in the Toronto art scene. She was a member of the Ontario Society of Artists, the Royal Canadian Academy and the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour. To support herself and her art, McCarthy had a long and successful teaching career at Toronto’s Central Technical School, beginning in 1932 and continuing until her retirement in 1972.

In 1939 McCarthy again expressed her tenacity and adventurous spirit by purchasing a tract of land on the edge of the Scarborough Bluffs overlooking Lake Ontario. This property — affectionately named “Fool’s Paradise” — would become McCarthy’s lifetime home and studio, as well as a centre for animated artistic debate and spiritual reflection. Sixty years later, in 1999, McCarthy’s foresighted investment was donated to the Ontario Heritage Foundation, along with a $500,000 endowment, for future use as an artists’ retreat and residence.

Her pioneering spirit was also evident in her love of travel. Along with her many friends and fellow artists, McCarthy regularly journeyed north to paint and sketch in Muskoka and Haliburton. These trips led to the collective purchase, with artists Virginia Luz, Yvonne Williams, Margaret Cork and Gwen Oliver, of “Keyhole Cottage” and “Knothole Cottage” on Georgian Bay, which provided a base from which she could work during the summer months. Throughout her life, McCarthy continued to travel extensively, painting in situ and recording the world’s landscapes. The early influence of the Group of Seven and the subsequent development of a strong landscape tradition in the twentieth century in Canada served McCarthy well. “My grasp of it [the landscape] is intellectual,” she states. “I see it with my mind and my eyes and respond to it with my emotions.” 1

As a centenarian, McCarthy is remarkable for her longevity, but far more important is her contribution to the history of Canadian landscape painting. She represents a model of commitment and creativity for subsequent generations of artists, particularly women, in Canada. Art historians and curators throughout her long career have extensively chronicled her adventurous life and work, and she herself has written and published three volumes of memoirs. Major exhibitions have documented her vast oeuvre, including her oils and her accomplished watercolours, culminating in the comprehensive McMichael Gallery exhibition Celebrating Life: The Art of Doris McCarthy in 1999. On the occasion of the artist’s one-hundredth birthday, Roughing It in the Bush is a celebration of her inspiring life and work. With this exhibition, it is my intent to highlight an area of her practice that still remains relatively unexplored, and to attempt to look at her much-loved art in a new way.

McCarthy’s formative work depicted scenes from the familiar Canadian landscape, and later from her travels overseas. Her style, as with most young artists, was influenced by her teachers, who for McCarthy included well-known painters such as Arthur Lismer and Yvonne McKague Housser. By the 1950s she had firmly established herself as a skilled painter and lover of the Canadian landscape. McCarthy had experimented with abstraction, influenced by her peers, the members of the Group of Seven and the artists of Painters Eleven, in particular her friend and mentor Hortense Gordon, and her familiarity with the artistic fashions of the time, specifically abstract expressionism, began to make itself felt in her landscapes. These experiments played with form and movement and masterfully reworked the elements of the landscape seen in her earlier work. In the mid-1960s a new style emerged in McCarthy’s painting. This hard-edge work, which has seldom been exhibited, was the fruit of a period of great productivity for the already prolific artist. More than one hundred in number, these paintings explored the natural rhythms of water, clouds and land. As William Moore explains in his comprehensive 1991 essay, “She would reduce those movements … [waves, clouds] … to simple structures of shape, colour and line. The influence of the Post-Painterly Abstraction, Colour Field and the Minimalist movements of the sixties is evident in the ‘hard-edge’ works. The influence is simply of style and method — the subject of the work continues to be the places the artist experiences and wishes to communicate.” 2 This exhibition highlights these rarely seen works for the first time.

The simplification of form was pivotal in McCarthy’s major breakthrough following a trip to Resolute, Nunavut, in 1972. The Arctic landscape not only captured the artist’s imagination but also served as a springboard for her studies in form. The sharp edges of the icebergs, the blocks of colour and the shifting light offered a setting that perfectly suited the expansion of her earlier explorations during the sixties. Iceberg Fantasy #1, painted in September 1972, was the first of a series of more than sixty iceberg paintings. The early Fantasies are hard-edge in composition, with some of the later works becoming more painterly, but McCarthy’s awareness of form was always crucial to the finished work. The McCarthy landscape continued to be influenced by her work of the sixties: her use of the abstracted form can be seen in her paintings from the Badlands in the eighties, her many works from Georgian Bay, as well as her pieces from Prince Edward Island and Tlell, in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands.

For Roughing It the Bush, I have not set out to present a chronological view of the artist’s oeuvre. Instead, I have elected to position works in a more playful and form-based way, using the relatively unseen paintings of the sixties and seventies as a jumping-off point for viewing McCarthy’s masterful landscapes of Canada, both those that predate and those that follow this period.

When reviewing the work of a single artist, created over such a long span of time, it is natural to observe experimentation in various styles. Yet it is noteworthy that in all her oil paintings of the Canadian landscape, Doris McCarthy’s continuity of form always stands out. When an examination of her work is pared down to an analysis of form, it is clear that McCarthy’s vision has remained relatively consistent over the past fifty years. Using the hard-edge works that so simply render form and colour as a point of departure, I have made comparisons with her work from other periods.

Works that predate the hard-edge paintings are interesting in this context. For example, Red Rocks at Belle Anse, Gaspé, 1949, was done in McCarthy’s so-called “Romano” period, in which she uses a brighter range of colour, inspired by the painter Umberto Romano, whom she visited in Maine in 1948. This example of experimentation with colour and abstracted form seems to be a precursor to her later work. Rhythms of Georgian Bay (Georgian Bay Landscape in Reds), 1966, for instance, adopts the same bright palette. Similarly, Keyhole Harbour, 1965, presents an abstracted aerial view in rich greens and blues. Oily Cross Currents Wave Movement, 1969, also offers a useful comparison. This aerial view of wave movements, with its vivid palette, mimics the patterning and composition of the earlier work.

McCarthy’s first iceberg painting, Iceberg Fantasy #1, 1972, is a small blue composition that depicts an ice floe and shifting icebergs on the Arctic water. When it is viewed alongside the hard-edge work Cloud Form #1, done in 1971, we can see beautiful similarities. Although it is a study of cloud movement, the dark background or negative space mimics the dark sky of the Arctic scene. One of McCarthy’s later large iceberg paintings, Broughton Floes in Spring Fog, 1984, with its mountains in the background and ice floes surrounded by grey water, recalls Georgian Bay — Rocky Forms (Grey Rocks at Jackknife), from 1969. This hard-edge Georgian Bay scene, painted in similar tones, seems to lay the groundwork for McCarthy’s iceberg series, which was to become such a significant part of her oeuvre. We see this with another large hard-edge work from 1969, Lakescape Horizon (Winter Horizon), and also with McCarthy’s latest iceberg painting, the spectacular Pink Iceberg with Floes, from 2005. Pink Iceberg reveals the waterline and the ice floes beneath the surface, and although the forms of the ice are more graphic than painterly, the similarities to Lakescape Horizon (Winter Horizon) are unmistakable in terms of composition.

Many of the works in this exhibition reveal McCarthy’s long exploration of an abstracted Canadian landscape. This abstracted landscape, particularly as seen in her Arctic paintings, has inspired oft-debated comparisons with Group of Seven member Lawren Harris, whom McCarthy visited in 1928 at the young age of seventeen. There is no doubt the Group did influence McCarthy immensely by opening the door to strongly personal interpretations of the landscape. As Moore writes, “In the monumental Arctic visions of Lawren Harris, we confront dense and dramatic portraits of the surfaces of the north. They are idealized structures and through them we feel the idea of place.” In contrast, McCarthy’s icebergs seem highly personal, inviting us to see and experience the landscape as the artist did. Moore continues, “We share this place; her structures surround us and we enter into a communion not with the landscape but with the artist.” 3

Because her work documents the landscape of Canada and beyond, Doris McCarthy is not, strictly speaking, an abstract artist. But neither is she a landscape painter in the conventional sense. Her strength lies in the binding of the two, and her most successful landscapes are abstracted while remaining highly specific. One can imagine viewing the scene that the artist is painting, and standing where she stood. The hard-edge works, although highly graphic and abstracted, still take the viewer to a place that is strongly felt. The cloud formations and wave movements McCarthy depicts are always meticulously observed and evocative, and the horizons and flora remain strangely identifiable. By comparison, as we view the more naturalistic paintings of the Badlands or the Arctic, we see that abstracted forms and the skilful use of colour can sometimes achieve more than straightforward documentation in bringing a landscape to life.

Every artist’s career follows its own trajectory and Doris McCarthy’s has been longer and more productive than most. Throughout her decades of experimentation and adventure, always fearlessly roughing it in the bush, she has created a place for herself as an artistic pioneer, and as one of Canada’s most precious interpreters of the Canadian landscape.