AI,  art

The Emily Carr, Mattiusi Iyaituk & Tom Thomson approaches to AI

(with apologies to real experts in Canadian art, and probably all Canadians. And artists.)

Here comes an extended, and possibly inaccurate attempt at developing an analogy for how we approach new technology such as the internet and now, AI. How the perspective of Western Art came to interpret the landscape of Canada is, I’m suggesting, analogous to how higher education can come to understand the new landscape of an AI rich internet. Before we delve in, it’s important to note that Western Art, like higher education, is only one perspective, and a problematic one. But the point here is how any established area tries to understand something that is new to it (even if it isn’t new to others). So, with that caveat in mind, let’s dive in.

Winter Landscape 1849

When Europeans began to colonise Canada, they brought with them many customs of their own (murder, oppression, racism, to name a few), including for our analogy, artistic techniques and approaches. Thus a lot of early Western Canadian art looks distinctly, well, European. For instance, Cornelius Krieghoff’s Winter Landscape, (1849) represents how Canadian art originally attempted to impose these European traditions onto the new setting. Krieghoff, originally from the Netherlands, and trained in Paris, can be seen as part of a tradition that imported European styles to Canada. Winter Landscape could be viewed as part of the Dutch Golden Age tradition of landscape painting.

This begins to change with the work of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, who were successful in using modernistic techniques to offer a critique of European interpretations of Canadian experience. Thomson is, in many respects is regarded as the founder of the development of an art that is specifically Canadian. As Ross Cameron puts it, ‘Thomson, wholly Canadian in training and experience, was the first truly Canadian painter’.

Much like Van Gogh, it is difficult to separate an appreciation of Thomson’s work from his biography. Born in 1877 in Claremont, Canada, Thomson trained at a graphic design studio, but received no formal art tuition and, significantly for his style and posthumous reputation, did not study in Europe. He is associated with the outdoor life, and his art mainly features rugged scenery, particularly that of Algonquin Park. Thomson died, with an air of mystery, in a canoeing accident in this area in 1917. With its prominent brush work and rich palette, Thomson’s style is influenced by impressionism, post impressionism and the avant garde movement in Europe, for example Joan Murray compares the style and structure of Thomson’s The Jack Pine to Monet’s Cap d’Antibes. But it is also distinct, and combined with the subject matter, distinctly Canadian.

The West Wind 1917

The combination of style and Thomson’s personal outdoors lifestyle (and demise) made him ideal for a set of his contemporaries to establish his legacy following his death. This group became known as the Group of Seven, and they continued much of the pioneering work of Thomson to establish a uniquely Canadian sensibility to painting. This was allied with notions of national identity, and particularly male virility and the untamed wilderness. Writing in 1926 F.B. Housser stated that the group demonstrated ‘a new type of artist; one who divests himself of the velvet coat and flowing tie of his caste, puts on the outfit of the bushwacker and prospector; closes with his environment, paddles, portages and makes camp; sleeps in the out-of-doors under the stars; climbs mountains with his sketch box on his back’. This can also be viewed as an eschewing of European culture and approaches to art.

Thomson’s The West Wind and its companion piece, The Jack Pine, capture the essence of Thomson’s approach and appeal. It was painted in Algonquin Park in 1916-17, just prior to Thomson’s death in July 1917. Carolyn MacHardy explores the success of this painting, highlighting how the motif of solitary tree in Ontario setting was often repeated in paintings by the Group of Seven. The content represents the basis for much of the dominant perspective of subsequent Canadian art – an untamed landscape with no trace of human habitation. Arthur Lismer declared in 1934 that West Wind was ‘the spirit of Canada made manifest in a picture’.

While Thomson’s style represented a break from European traditions, or at least a reimagining of them, by examining a previous interpretation of Canadian art it also itself a new set of limitations. Emily Carr can be seen as providing an extension and critique to this method. Carr, who has been labelled Canada’s Van Gogh, knew the Group of Seven and was influenced and encouraged by them, but her perspective differed from theirs. Her early exhibitions which developed the expressionist style were not successful. At the age of 56, she saw the work of the Group of Seven, declaring ‘Oh, God, what have I seen? Where have I been? Something has spoken to the very soul of me, wonderful, mighty, not of this world’.


In contrast to the Group of Seven however, her work is focused on the position of people within the landscape. Because Carr spent years living with indigenous people, she perceived the landscape differently, not as an untamed wilderness that challenged a sense of masculinity, but as an inhabited space, which communities worked in harmony with. As well as being more respective of the history of human habitation, this is also a distinctly less male perspective on the Canadian art identity

Carr spent many years with the Nuu-chah-nulth people of Vancouver Island, and the Haida of Haida Gwaii. During this time she witnessed the arrival of missionaries and much of the removal of native artifacts and disappearance of traditions. The forlorn, askance totems in a painting such as Totems resemble gravestones as Carr seeks to mark the passing of cultures she has been immersed in. Totems also captures their dignity without needing to provide a realistic representation.

Carr’s attempts to import a European style onto distinctly Canadian subject matter were unsuccessful, and she referred to these as ‘the dead ways of working’. It was only when she could combine the stylistic sensibility that had been developed to represent the Canadian landscape with artforms that she felt pierced the landscape that she created art she felt was worthy.


Both of these artists can be contrasted with Inuit artists such as Mattiusi Iyaituk. This art represents a different perspective on Canadian art to the dominant one that Thomson and the Group of Seven came to be associated with. Stylistically, it uses a different medium, like much of aboriginal and Inuit art in Canada it is in the form of a sculpture. The European perspective of art posits painting as the primary artistic medium, and this was reinforced by Thomson. This hindered the recognition of much of indigenous art as works of art. Iyaituk deliberately plays with the use of medium, using limestone, caribou antler, musk-ox hair and sinew, which all hark to materials used by the Inuit. In terms of content, this work refers to Inuit shamanism, in the act of making music, with the emphasis on the actors in the environment rather than the environment itself.

AI generated image of “A person sitting with a computer in the forest in the style of Tom Thomson” From

So, (finally!) what does all this have to do with the internet and AI? I think we can extrapolate three methods of coming to understand from these artists.

The Thomson approach is to take existing frameworks and adapt them to the new context. He built on impressionistic techniques to create a new style that could better represent the landscape. In our terms this might be akin to using existing theories and conceptual frameworks and adapting them to understand what is happening in an AI rich internet society (Bentham’s panopticon for instance).

The Carr approach can be seen to be more anthropological in nature. This might seek to find and understand usage and values from existing cultures that emerge from in the technology environment, for instance how we looked to newsgroups and sites like The WELL to develop an appreciation of online culture.

The Iyaituk approach can be seen as one step further than the Carr one, wherein the participants in those cultures challenge values and create their own artefacts, resources and culture outside of the traditional ones of the given perspective.

None of these are wrong (in our respect for understanding technology from a higher education perspective anyway), and there will be some integration and synergy between them. But now consider how each of them might approach an AI-abundant approach to assessment. The Thomson approach may adapt existing models of authentic assessment, a Carr framing might discover what students are actually doing and adapt to that, and an Iyaituk perspective may come from students themselves who embrace AI generated content.

I’m not sure any of that makes sense. I had covid recently and was a bit fevered – it seemed profound then.


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