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Culture news
Never too late
09.21.2004 13:13

tom_thomson St Petersburg Times

Photo by Alexander Belenky / SPT

He is a giant of Canadian art, but Tom Thomson is hardly known outside Canada. But since last Friday the State Hermitage Museum has given the landscape painter pride of place in the Alexander Hall in its first major exhibition of a Canadian artist.

Thomson, who died in mysterious circumstances in 1917, is considered a Canadian original. This show is the first major retrospective of Thomson's work outside Canada and marks a watershed in cultural relations with Russia.

The Canadian consulate in St. Petersburg supported the opening with a "Days of Canada" mini-festival while the show's organizers, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery of Canada and the Hermitage have put together lavish support materials to raise Thomson's international profile.

"His work, so refreshing and spirited when it was first shared with Canadians almost one hundred years ago, continues to speak to the essential spirit of a northern country well defined by links between man-made landscapes and the wilderness," reads the show's official brochure. "There is a liveliness in Thomson's work that makes it seem eternally new."

Thomson was born near Toronto in 1877 and after a career as a commercial artist turned to nature studies and landscape painting in his 30s.

His technique of making detailed sketches in the field gave his landscapes an appealing honesty suited to the emergence of a distinctly Canadian national identity at this time.

Thomson's works "The Jack Pine" and the "The West Wind," completed in 1916 a year before he disappeared while hiking (his body was later recovered from a lake and he may have drowned) have become icons of Canadian art.

"The sketches of the last year and a half of his life exemplify Thomson's remarkable capacity to fuse design, the act of painting and the lived experience in one breathtaking object," Dennis Reid, chief curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario writes in the brochure to the show.

Reid, who was in St. Petersburg to supervise the hanging of Thomson's canvasses in the Alexander Hall, hopes that the artist's belated international debut will spark a revival of interest.

"What's necessary is for curators in other places to get interested," Reid told Canadian national broadcaster CBC last week.

"And art historians and people who are going to write about early 20th Century art are going to realize that Tom Thomson is part of the story."

The show is part of a partnership between the Hermitage and the Art Gallery of Ontario which dates from 1998 and will continue with an exhibition in Canada about Catherine the Great in 2005 to be drawn from the Hermitage collection.

The climate and frontier spirit of the world's two largest countries has forged cultural bonds too.

The organizers of the Thomson show clearly hope that putting him in the spotlight on the Hermitage stage will bring Canada to the world's attention, but also to that of Russia's too. "Although his paintings present the wilderness of Canada, the Russian visitor to the exhibition will experience something familiar and close to hand," says the exhibition's listing on .

"Thomson's 'Sunset' brings to mind a study of the same name by Arkhip Kuindzhi in St. Petersburg's Russian Museum. Thomson's 'March' and his winter landscapes may be compared with the paintings of Konstantin Yuon, Isaak Levitan or Igor Grabar."

"Art lovers in Russia can really appreciate the beauty of this northern country, depicted by Thomson with such ardor," said Pierre Theberge, Director of the National Gallery of Canada, which contributed 41 of the 58 paintings on display.

Tom Thomson is showing in the Alexander Hall of the State Hermitage from Sept. 10 through Nov. 14.

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