By Matteo Cimellaro

In (Re)collecting the Group of Seven: Celebrating 100 years, Ottawa Art Galley curator Rebecca Basciano has framed Canada’s most famous art movement through the life of private collectors. 

The exhibition opened on the one hundredth anniversary of the Group of Seven’s inaugural exhibition on May 7, 1920. When I visited the gallery over a series of days, it was clear that Basciano stepped beyond typical curation, serving us a reproduction of the home of Ottawa’s most prestigious art collectors, O. J. and Isobel Firestone.

The story of an artwork can never be told without escaping the crude fact that it is property, a commodity to be bought or sold.

Who Were the Firestones?

Otto “Jack” Firestone arrived in Ottawa in 1938, fleeing Nazi persecution. He met Isobel Torontow from the large working-class Jewish community of Lowertown. Torontow was a concert pianist by trade, Firestone an economist and entrepreneur. 

The two married and frequented the National Gallery together, walking the halls meant to distill a national spirit. They became devoted to Canadian art and began to collect furiously. They became friends with the artists they largely bought directly from and even threw birthday parties for the Group of Seven’s A. Y. Jackson.

The Firestones saw it as their duty to collect, preserve, and share their private works with the public. The Firestone collection spans decades of Canadian art and covers over 1,600 pieces. The collection was financed by O. J. Firestone’s two investment companies and real estate holdings. 

In 1972, the Firestones donated their collection to the Ontario Heritage Foundation (OHF). But the collection remained in the Firestone home until 1991, two years before O. J. Firestone’s death and over a decade after O. J. and Isobel divorced. 

A year later the OHF’s custodianship of the Firestone collection was transferred to the Ottawa Art Gallery by the couple’s son, Bruce Firestone, a real estate developer. (Bruce is the man who brought the Ottawa Senators to town in the early ’90s — and who built a hockey arena in a farmer’s field in Kanata, in hopes of profiting from the increase in land value in the area.)

Along with the art came the Firestone’s marble staircase, which was installed in the lobby of the OAG’s new building in 2018. The Rockcliffe home itself was demolished in 2007. It was deemed unsalvageable due to the repairs needed to fix heat issues and moisture damage, which was caused by high humidity levels needed to preserve the many pieces of art it housed. 

O. J. Firestone presents original Group of Sevens, displayed in his own home. (Photo courtesy of the OAG)
O. J. Firestone presents original Group of Sevens, displayed in his own home. (Photo courtesy of the OAG)

Experiencing the Exhibit

When visiting the exhibit, I take these stairs from the front entrance to enter the exhibition. In the gallery I’m greeted by piano muzak from speakers embedded in the roof, as if the ghost of Isobel is playing in the corner of the room. From a small television, the voice of O. J. Firestone echoes from a video installation in the corner of the exhibit. His voice is enthusiastic and phantasmic. He tells stories of the artworks hung on his walls; the same paintings that hang around the exhibit.

When I spoke to the curator, Basciano, she said she consulted with the Firestones’ daughter to be accurate in her reproduction. And it is through this historically attentive curation that she asks us to consider to us how art is made and unmade through the power of philanthropic — but still private — ownership. 

As I consider the exhibit, it haunts me that the story of an artwork can never be told without escaping the crude fact that it is property, a commodity to be bought or sold. 

We often imagine that art is the opposite of commerce. But the eye of the collector — or more importantly their pocket — is as central to our understanding of art as the artist themselves. 

Art cannot escape the mediation of the collector under capitalism any more than it can be truly public through a museum or institution, something this exhibit dramatizes. The philanthropic owner gifts their private art holdings to the public, so that we can sit in an apparition of their home and admire their generosity. Yet how many paintings sit within a gated community, on private walls people will never have access to? How many sculptures are hidden in vaults covered in cloth and dust? 

The Firestone’s home. The same staircase in the background is now a part of the OAG architecture. (Photo courtesy of the OAG)
The Firestone’s home. The same staircase in the background is now a part of the OAG architecture. (Photo courtesy of the OAG)

For now, I’m surrounded by roped off mid-century modern furniture, as if lifted from the old photographs on display in the exhibition. Mahogany that lined the collectors’ home panels the ceiling and walls. Paintings by the Group of Seven’s youngest member A. J. Casson, another close friend of the Firestones, lean against a desk in a tableau that echoes the old photographs.

Casson and the rest of the Group of Seven wanted to paint a distinct Canadian art, one that drew from the European post-impressionistic style, but mapped onto Canadian subjects. It was a nationalist project inspired by national myth makers like Walt Whitman (who the group adored), the mysticism of Theosophy, and Scandinavian painters working in a distinctly northern European style.

All of the group’s most famous paintings depict Crown land as a wilderness empty of Indigenous peoples, a terra nullius (‘land belonging to no one’) ready for Canadians to identify with through an appreciation of the land’s beauty.

In his essay The Story of the Group of Seven, Lawren Harris wrote, “We became increasingly conscious of the fact that the spirit of the land must be discovered through its own character if there is to be any real life in its art. We came to know that it is only through the deep and vital experience of its total environment that a people identified itself with its land, and gradually a deep and satisfying awareness develops.”

Franz Johnston, Algoma Landscape. (Photo courtesy of OAG).

To paint Canada in the European tradition was also to see the land as a nationalized property. It was the labour of the brushstroke — like the pick, axe, and hammer before it — that helped to create cultural conditions that legitimized the claim to Crown Land. And to paint Crown land was to imbue it with a national ownership, primed and ready for extractive capitalism. The group’s work aimed to capture the look, the feel, and even the spirit of the land in a piece of an art — in a thing, a commodity that Canadians could themselves own and appreciate, whether through the originals or reproductions.

In contrast, Emily Carr was never part of the Group of Seven, nor was she celebrated in the same way as a national symbol, despite working in a similar style at a similar time. Not only was she a woman, of course, but her art showed Indigeneity integrated with the landscape.

The Group of Seven’s Canadian landscapes, then, painted and made visible a sovereignty tied to the colonial nation state. And perhaps this is why Group of Seven work propagated across the country, thanks to a post-WWII state-supported program to distribute inexpensive reproductions to government buildings, libraries, banks, schools, and private homes.

Maybe this is why my favourite Group of Seven paintings are populated with industrial figures of stark mine shafts, log drives, and downtrodden working class neighbourhoods. These works do not anticipate and obfuscate the privilege and costs of extravism, they represent it.

History remains alive on our walls. Who then recalls and intercepts these histories but the collector? If there was no rope, perhaps I would sit on the furniture and discuss with the dead. 

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