• Feature

An Inuit Art Counternarrative to the Group of Seven's Vision of the Arctic

May 12, 2021
by Anik Glaude

For hundreds of years, the Arctic has captivated the imaginations of outsiders—including artists from across Canada, many of whom returned again and again to depictions of tundras and icebergs. But how do these foreign legacies of picturing the Arctic engage with a more local view? Here, a curator considers how new works reveal the Arctic from its true vantage—as home.


Frederick Horsman Varley
Arctic Sketch II (1938) Watercolour and graphite 22.2 x 30.2 cm


In Frederick Varley’s Arctic Sketch II (1938), a green band of colour divides the pale brown stretch of land below and the rising blue-tinged mountain above. Cutting the land almost in two, this shard of water brings life to an otherwise empty coastline. A group of wispy clouds envelop the top half of the painting, and from these, gently falling snow emanates and falls to the ground. The small, white blotches that dot the surface of the watercolour are not effects created by a paint brush, but rather by snowflakes falling on the surface of the paper. In 1938, Varley embarked on a 10,506-mile voyage to the Arctic from Montreal, QC. This two-and-a-half-month journey would see him visit numerous places throughout the North, including Nunatsiavut, Nunavik and Nunavut, as well as Greenland. Inspired in equal measure by the breathtaking landscape of the Arctic and the traditional Inuit ways of life, Varley produced several works over the course of his trip, including drawings, watercolours and oil sketches, many of which were painted en plein air, like Arctic Sketch II.

Painting the Arctic landscape has long fascinated artists from Southern Canada and their paintings have, for the most part, influenced the public’s visual imagination of the North. For more than one hundred years, artists have trekked north, first by boat and now by plane, to reach this isolated region. On paper and canvas, they have recorded their impressions of the land, its geography and its peoples, and producing, among other subjects, luminous paintings of floating icebergs, piercing views of tundra and intimate portraits of Inuit in traditional dress. None of these depictions are more emblematic than those by members of the Group of Seven[1], namely A. Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris and Frederick Varley[2]. Having produced some of Canada’s most iconic landscape paintings of the early twentieth century, the Group of Seven aimed to create a vision of and for Canada based on its vast natural environment. Their paintings of windswept pine trees on rocky outcrops, boreal forests with changing autumn leaves and the play of light on the calm waters of Georgian Bay are but a few examples of the works they painted.


Composition (2020) Watercolour 48.3 x 75.6 cm


It is understandable, then, that their attention would eventually turn to the North in search of new painting vistas. As Jackson stated before his first voyage, “there is a country to the north of us which is unique and distinctly Canadian. Let our artists turn explorers; let them go up into this territory and interpret it for Canadians”[3]. They weren’t the first, and certainly not the last, but their travels inspired future generations of artists to follow in their footsteps. Consequently, the depiction of the Arctic in paint has, up until now, been mostly from an outsider’s perspective. For reasons explained elsewhere in this issue, including the lack of access to materials, Inuit artists living in the North have not featured prominently within the legacy of painting in
the Arctic and their ability to interpret their own lands in paint has been limited.


Frederick Horsman Varley
Arctic Sketch I (1938) Watercolour 22.2 x 30.2 cm


As the curator of the Varley Art Gallery of Markham, whose collection contains several of Varley’s Arctic landscapes, I’ve long considered these pieces, their artistic qualities and historical significance, but also more recently, their problematic nature. I agree with fellow curator and art historian Emily Falvey when she suggests that, “when addressing the work of the Group of Seven in a contemporary context, one must be prepared to be critical of its role in bolstering modern Canadian nationalism, colonialism, and industry”[4]. This is especially true of the Group’s Arctic paintings, as issues of sovereignty, displacement and representation are also at play here. As such, for the past few years I’ve aimed to reconcile the ways in which Varley’s works of this period are thought of, displayed and interpreted. One way to recontextualize this historical work is to engage with Inuit artists, to centre their work within this complex history and consider the ways paint can disrupt this outsider narrative. In a recent phone conversation, Niap (Nancy Saunders), a multimedia artist from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, QC, based in Montreal, QC, explains that there is a disconnect between artists from elsewhere painting northern landscapes, and that their depiction of the land can often be too simplistic, too superficial. “There [are] a lot of paintings of the North,” she states, “and it’s time for Inuit to paint their own land”[5]. Fortunately, a new generation of Inuit artists, Niap included, are exploring the medium anew.


Composition (2020) Watercolour 27.9 x 45.1 cm


In River Series (2020), Niap uses watercolour to create soft, yet vibrant abstracted landscapes. Pigment is added to an already watered paper, blending into and out of each other. Horizon lines form at the centre, where the colour is denser and extend to both sides of the paper, almost as a never-ending continuum. From the centre, rich blues, purples and yellows extend outward and contrast the white of the paper beneath. On top of these are hand-drawn elements, small triangles, dots and lines, like a flock of birds or tattoo markings floating on the surface. When we discuss the representation of land in her work, Niap explains that it’s not the land that’s important here, but the water. The artist uses water from her community, as well as other sites, to mix the paints, a deeply personal act that helps the artist to connect back to her home. When talking about gathering the water, she mentions a fishing trip with her brothers and how she’s asked friends and family to send her water from various locations in the North to continue the series. Water, she adds, bears witness to where it’s been and also where it is going. It allows us to connect with a particular moment in time, when the water was collected, but also to a much older time as it carries within it ancient minerals—remnants of the earth itself.


Composition (2020) Watercolour 23.5 x 28.6 cm


During his own voyage, Varley must have collected and used water from the various locations he visited when painting. Did he, like Niap, notice a difference in the vibrancy it produced when mixed with paint? Would the water from Kimmirut, NU, be different from that of Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), NU? To consider the landscape not only as simple topography, but also within the dichotomy of time and place, is an interesting venture. As an important conceptual grounding in Niap’s work, do they also resonate in Varley’s? At first glance, maybe not. However it is interesting to consider that remnants of 82-year-old Arctic snow, however microscopic, might lie on the surface of Arctic Sketch II, contributing to its making. Place, including time and space, is crucial to both artists’ works, but only fully and intentionally embraced by Niap who, not coincidentally, carries her lived experience of the land into her practice. This subtle but critical shift underscores what is missed when non-Inuit visions of the Arctic are centred, and how much work is left to be done to fully integrate Inuit perspectives into a broader history of Arctic landscape painting.

This Feature was first published in the Winter 2020 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.


1 The founding members include Franklin Carmichael (1890–1945), Lawren Harris (1885–1970), A. Y. Jackson (1882–1974), Frank Johnston (1888–1949), Arthur Lismer (1885–1969), J. E. H. MacDonald (1873–1932) and Frederick Varley (1881–1969). Later members would include A.J. Casson (1898–1992), Edwin Holgate (1892–1977) and L. L. FitzGerald (1890–1956).

2 Jackson would make the trip three times (1927, 1930 and 1965), while Lawren Harris (1930 with Jackson) and Varley (1938) went one time each.

3 A.Y. Jackson, “Artist-Explorer,” Canadian Bookman 9.6 (July 1927): 216, quoted in Jeremy Adamson, Lawren S. Harris. Urban Scenes and Wilderness Landscapes 1906-1930, (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1978), 89.

4 Emily Falvey, Hot Mush and the Cold North: Bouillie chaude et Grand Nord (Ottawa: Ottawa Art Gallery, 2005), 125.

5 Phone interview with the artist conducted by the author, October 2020.

Suggested Reads

Related Artists