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Heming's works capture The Great White North

By Kristina Dorsey

Publication: The Day

Published March 29. 2013 4:00AM
Submitted photo
“Mackenzie Crossing the Rockies” by Arthur Heming; 1932; oil on canvas

During Arthur Heming's life - he died in 1940 at the age of 70 - he was one of Canada's most famous artists.

His work helped to mold people's view of Canada as a place of wilderness and adventure. His paintings capture humans battling snowy landscapes and raging waterways, and animals bounding over rugged terrain.

Heming also spent time in Old Lyme, as one of the painters who frequented Miss Florence's boardinghouse as part of the Lyme Art Colony. In fact, he wrote a memoir of his life there.

What better place, then, for the sole American stop for a new exhibition about Heming than the Florence Griswold Museum?

"Arthur Heming: Chronicler of the North" - which is the first major Heming retrospective - is on view here through June 2.

Museum London in Ontario organized the show, and the pieces come from Canadian and American museums and private collections.

Amy Kurtz Lansing, curator at the Florence Griswold Museum, says Heming's art "really helped shape the image of Canada by emphasizing the heroic deeds of the people who explored its wilderness regions - the frontier figures. He helped create an imagery that gave them a sense of their own history as well as the majesty of these vast wilderness areas that are so much of what Canada is."

Heming's 1920 series of works about the Canadian fur trade, for instance, was described as a "national collection" for depicting an integral part of the country's history.

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In conjunction with the "Chronicler of the North" exhibition, Flo Gris is publishing a new edition of Heming's book "Miss Florence and the Artists of Old Lyme," about his time at Griswold's boardinghouse.

"A lot of what we know about what life was like in the house, day to day, comes from that (book)," Kurtz Lansing says.

The lighthearted tome isn't a diary but rather Heming's recounting of amusing moments and striking personalities. He recalls wide-ranging anecdotes, from cats overrunning the building to Woodrow Wilson visiting to artists sprucing up the place as a gift to Miss Florence.

A segment of the "Chronicler of the North" exhibition focuses on Heming's time in Old Lyme. (He was introduced to the Lyme Art Colony by artist Frank Vincent DuMond, with whom he studied.) Photos capture him sitting on the boardinghouse porch with his fellow artists. One picture shows him painting at an easel outdoors, but the prevailing wisdom is that it was staged, since Heming isn't known to have painted any scenes of Old Lyme.

He did, however, paint one of the dining room panels in Miss Florence's boardinghouse in 1906. That image, "Death's Rapids," reappeared in Heming's 1907 novel "Spirit Lake." It was a Canadian scene of two native people shooting the rapids.

Indeed, the focus of Heming's work inevitably remained his home country, as he conveyed its frontier challenges and raw beauty.

"Heming's portrayals of life in remote places have been called 'fictionalized fact,' or 'factual fantasies,'" the exhibition wall text states. "Originally quite realistic and narrative in nature, the work for which he gained the most attention is often slightly surreal, populated by 'flying' bears, deer and canoes, weird snowscapes, and the like."

Heming was inspired by his trips into the wild, and he painted the resulting images with a strong sense of design, a result of his training as an illustrator. Much of his work served to accompany articles and his own books.

An interesting sidenote: Heming was color blind. That might, the exhibition notes, have "inspired him to develop the glowing light effects and strobing graphic elements that are characteristic of his black-and-white paintings."

The years that Heming thrived was a vital time for Canadian artists. It was during the same era that The Group of Seven came to prominence. These artists, like Heming, painted Canadian landscapes, but their style diverged from his.

Kurtz Lansing says the Group of Seven's work "tends to be a little bit more expressive. You get a sense that they're a modern movement where people aren't afraid to show their brush strokes. But what I think is also interesting is there are areas of common ground between (Heming and the Group of Seven)."

They both created large, powerful forms on canvas. Some of the Group of Seven, though, were more interested in abstraction and paring things down to the essentials. Lawren Harris' "Glaciers, Rocky Mountains," for instance, creates a composition of interlocking shapes to represent mountains, rocks and ice fields. That is among the Group of Seven's pieces showcased in the "Chronicler of the North" exhibition.

Heming achieved a level of fame during his life, but, as the art world shifted, his renown faded.

"You start to get into the era of abstract expressionism, and people aren't really interested in artists who told narrative stories in their work," Kurtz Lansing says.

Consequently, during much of the 20th century, there wasn't a great focus on painters like Heming. In the past few years, though, that has changed.

Now, artists like Heming and, on the American side, Norman Rockwell are more likely to be celebrated.

"People realize those works have a lot to say about the American culture or the Canadian culture at a certain time," Kurtz Lansing says.

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IF YOU GO

What: "Arthur Heming: Chronicler of the North International Exhibition Devoted to Canadian Artist and Member of the Lyme Art Colony"

Where: Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme

When: Through June 2; hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sun.

Admission: $10 adults, $9 seniors, $8 students, free kids 12 and under

Contact: (860) 434-5542, FlorenceGriswoldMuseum.org

Book info: The reissued version of Arthur Heming's book "Miss Florence and the Artists of Old Lyme" is being sold at the Florence Griswold Museum shop for $22.50. It features illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist James Stevenson.

Lecture info: Jaleen Grove, historian of illustration and Canadian art, will present "Wild Fancy: Morality and Nationalism in Arthur Heming's Illustrations and Paintings of the North" at 2 p.m. on April 18. Admission is $7 ($5 for members). Register at the museum's website.

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