Jeff Melanson, Record-Setting Art Sale Emboldens Canadian Pride

Canada is renowned around the globe for its majestic beauty and unparalleled vistas, so it has always surprised me that our landscape artists haven’t garnered more international acclaim.

That is until late last month when Canadian Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris’ iconic Mountain Forms on a large canvas sold for a record setting $11.2 million, the most money paid for a Canadian piece of art in the country’s history.

Harris, who passed away in 1970, is a beloved Canadian artist who was recently the focus of a North American art tour spearheaded and narrated by actor and comedian Steve Martin, who owns three Harris paintings in his private collection. Martin’s notoriety and the sheer beauty and magnitude of Harris’ work drew attention from around the world and helped promote the late November auction.

The large canvas painting, which was completed in 1926, depicts Mount Ishbel, a part of Alberta’s Sawback Range in Banff National Park. While the international attention towards one of Canada’s favourite artists is much appreciated, for many Canadians it seems weird that the attention came after a celebrity declared his love for the artist.

“It’s maybe ironic that it took Steve Martin to bring this quality of work to the attention of the world,” said Alan Klinkhoff, a descendant of the family that originally owned Mountain Forms and sold it in 1984.

For others, the international interest has renewed the argument for Canadian art to be displayed at the most respected galleries in the world, like The Tate or the National Gallery of London.

“The audience for Canadian art is out there,” British art historian Ian Dejardin said in an interview. Dejardin points to Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, as well as an Emily Carr exhibit that drew large crowds to London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery as proof that the interest is out there.

The newfound curiosity for Canadian art is also promising for the country’s current and future artists who deserve a place on the world stage with their contemporary counterparts.

“The day when people start bidding internationally for Canadian art will be a good day, I think, generally for the appreciation of Canadian art in the world,” says Dejardin.

In an effort to find the next generation of great Canadian artists, the government of Canada announced they would be doubling the amount of art-related grants and funding for organizations across the country earlier this year.

In a statement released in mid-November by the Canada Council for the Arts, CEO Simon Brault noted, “We don’t invest where it is most predictable, but where it will make the most difference not only for artists and organizations, but also for Canadians.”

This is exciting news for Canada’s experimental and contemporary artists who look to incorporate new mediums and techniques into their modern art.

“My goal is really not to hide under the radar, but to bring the arts front and centre—not only look at art as a way to escape reality, but an important player in facing reality,” wrote Brault.

“Because many of the problems we are facing as a society need that contribution that only the arts can bring.”

It will be interesting to see what increased funding to the arts sector will produce over the next five years.