J.E.H. MacDonald? A Tangled Garden
J.E.H. MacDonald?, Unknown, sketch after The Tangled Garden, n.d., oil on paperboard. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

J.E.H. MacDonald? A Tangled Garden

Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC - To May 12

by Robin Laurence

Nearly a decade ago, the Vancouver Art Gallery received a donation of 10 oil sketches, allegedly created by J.E.H. MacDonald (1873-1932), an esteemed founding member of Canada’s iconic Group of Seven. Chosen from a respected private collection in Toronto, the works were initially validated by two respected Canadian art historians and were the source of excitement and delight in Vancouver, seeming to fill a gap in the VAG’s holdings. However, they soon became the focus of highly publicized contention, their authenticity challenged by other art experts and by the media. Refreshingly – and in the name of full transparency – the controversy and the VAG’s subsequent actions to resolve it are revealed to the public through J.E.H. MacDonald? A Tangled Garden.

Curated by the VAG’s Richard Hill, the show opens with a display of “securely attributed” oil sketches by members of the Group of Seven and a discussion of the significance of such plein air works to their painting practices. It then employs images, diagrams, didactic panels, video interviews and the disputed works themselves to tell the story, from their celebrated acquisition to their eventual refutation after intense scrutiny by renowned art historian Charles Hill and experts at the Canadian Conservation Institute. Initial elation turned to disappointment.

The controversy surrounding the contested oil sketches has hung over the VAG for years, from long before Richard Hill joined its curatorial staff. “It was unfinished business that needed to be taken care of,” he says. “And the best way to take care of it was to tell people what we had found out.”


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