By Alan Bisbort
10:25 AM EDT, March 27, 2013
Arthur Heming: Chronicler of the North
Through June 2, Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme, (860) 434-5542, florencegriswoldmuseum.org
Long before Second City Television's Bob and Doug Mackenzie hoisted its banner, Arthur Heming (1870-1940) put the Great White North on the map. Heming was no hoser. Born in Ontario and educated at the Hamilton Art School (where he also taught), the prolific book and magazine illustrator, fine artist and author became an important vehicle through whose work outsiders gained a visual perception of Canada. As a member of the Group of Seven — an assemblage of like-minded artists roughly akin to our Hudson River School — he helped craft a national cultural identity for Canada by focusing largely on the majesty of its landscape, the mystery of its natural world and the dignity of its "First Nations."
And yet, this giant of Canadian artistry had a thing for Connecticut; specifically, Old Lyme. During the years 1902-1910, Heming made extended visits each summer to the Lyme Art Colony. He stayed in Florence Griswold's boardinghouse — which he helped restore — and settled comfortably among would-be impressionists like Childe Hassam, Harry Hoffman and Clark Voorhees. He was so fond of his years here, in fact, he later penned a charming memoir Miss Florence and the Artists at Old Lyme (1937). In tribute to that connection and to Heming's vastly underappreciated (at least in the U.S.) body of work, the Florence Griswold Museum offers "Arthur Heming: Chronicler of the North." This exhibition not only does justice to the breadth of Heming's career, it redresses an ignorance about Canadian art many of us still retain.
"Heming was a loyal member of the colony for almost 10 years," said Amy Kurtz Lansing, curator. "He was known as a great storyteller and one who wasn't averse to making jokes at his own expense. Why he came here other than for the friendships is still something of a mystery. He never did a painting of this area, as far as we can tell."
The show opens with an oil portrait of Heming by Richard Jack (1929) that exudes a solid, determined decency. The three full rooms of material, covering the breadth of Heming's varied career, do nothing to dispel that image. His is a muscular, energetic and vibrant vision, without being kitschy or sentimental. Part of this is due to his actually having spent large chunks of time in the field, camping and interacting with the wildlife and indigenous people. The originality of his vision, however, is due to his own color-blindness, which limited his palette to black, white, greys, light blues and some muted yellows. In the last decade of his life, Heming did open himself up to brighter colors — to startling effect. Until then, though, he wrested more "color" out of a muted palette than any painter of his time.
One of the highlights of the exhibit, "Voyageurs" (1915) shows Heming's unsurpassable mastery of the mute button. It's a detailed painting of pioneers in a bark canoe taking a break ("spelling one smoke," in Heming's phrase for a lighting a pipe) during an arduous journey. And yet the figures emerge with remarkable clarity out of near pitch-black darkness. They're mirrored in the placid water's surface with Vermeer-like precision, prompting the question: How did he achieve such effects?
Heming worked mostly in large scale, which lent itself to his often dramatic scenes. Take "In Canada's Fairyland" 1930, for example, in which a deer is caught in mid-leap between amorphous, almost surrealistic mounds of snow, fixing the viewer with a haunted eye. He did not just portray the beauty and majesty but the dark underbelly, such as in "The Otter Poachers" (1919). He also loved the sight and contours of bark canoes, a motif he captured in breathtaking fashion in a number of paintings, most notably "Mackenzie Crossing the Rockies" (1932), a historical work (think: Washington Crossing the Delaware) that's oxygenated by Heming's adoption of brighter colors. The five frontiersmen are hoisted in the air by a sudden burst of current, the deadly rocks on either side of them, all focused purely on survival.
Nearby hangs "The Whiskey Smuggler" (1931), the masterpiece of Heming's later years. One is drawn to this composition, for its size and its astonishingly original and effective layout, a "wave" of snow seeming to hover above the two horse riders (the horses rendered with Stubbs-like facility). One is a clean-shaven Dudley Do Right Mountie and the other a bearded scruffy "smuggler" who rides his mount with his hands cuffed behind his back. There was a rough justice in Heming's Canada.
For those who want to further their education about Canadian art, another exhibition in the area is worth checking out: "Oh, Canada" (through April 18) at Mass MoCA in North Adams, a large assemblage of contemporary Canadian art. For more information, check http://www.massmoca.org