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Prelude (1945): An Artifact of Modernity

By Lillian Luan


Figure 1: A. J. Casson, Prelude, 1945


Quaint little deckhouses, a placid waterfront, towering verdant trees: all are requisite elements of the bucolic cottage scene, and all can be found in Alfred Joseph (A.J.) Casson’s 1945 painting Prelude. Yet, Casson’s Prelude is far from a straightforward tribute to the Canadian landscape. With saturated colours, almost neon in their intensity, and broken up by stark solid shadows, Casson fashions a melodramatic tableau that is seemingly illuminated from within. This unnatural, nigh-ominous picture is completed with a single strike of lightning (Fig. 1). Unlike most landscapes associated with the Group of Seven, Prelude is not suggestive of timeless, primordial nature; rather, the lightning strike animates the entire work with a sense of narrative and the momentary. It is also atypical of Casson’s personal oeuvre, both for its theatrical melodrama, and for the geometricized, almost-Cubist rendering of the deckhouses. The latter is a visual vocabulary with which Casson experimented from the mid-40s to 50s, before transitioning to flatter, frontal facades, but the former is almost entirely unique within his work.[1] Invested with temporality, and thoroughly different from Casson’s other works, the painting is an artifact of modernity that compels viewers to ask: if this is a prelude, then prelude to what?


Redstone Lake, Haliburton—the location of the sketch for Prelude—was one of Casson’s go-to haunts before the Second World War. It was a hideaway of “rustic tranquility,” undisturbed by crackle of radio or the alarm of newspaper headlines.[2] However, the little town was already undergoing the same shift afflicting the rest of central and northern Ontario. With the rise of automobile ownership following the First World War, a rapidly expanding system of provincial roads penetrated the hinterlands of cottage country.[3] Haliburton became accessible through Highway 35.[4]Cottagers no longer had to travel in steamboats or by rail, meaning they were no longer limited to existing cottaging communities.[5] Moreover, the construction of roads both in the interwar and postwar period expedited the sale of lands for cottaging purposes.[6] Like the small, isolated figures that populate the wooden pier in Prelude, cottaging became an increasingly nuclear, individual activity, now flooded with middle-class urbanites. 


One can only imagine the problem this posed for Casson whose interest lay in rural Ontario and, like the rest of the Group of Seven, cultivated a persona around nature. In his view, the best art should should be “a sincere attempt to record an emotion experienced by the artist”; without “deep and genuine love for the outdoors,” he continued, an artist was incapable of creating “a worthwhile work of art."[7] But Casson’s vision of an untouched outdoors was slipping away. “It seems that with each succeeding year,” he wrote in a retrospective, “one has to travel further and further to find subjects of comparable interest.”[8] This notion of a disappearing landscape created problems for Casson, who was not entirely satisfied with the work Canadian artists were producing at the time: “In one sense the canvases have been true records of our times, but not great works of art.”[9] Following his own definition, a great work of art faithfully records the artist’s love for the outdoors. Faithful records of a landscape undergoing dramatic alteration by modernity could not help but fall short of that standard. Where, then, did that leave Casson as an artist? 


Around the same time as Prelude, Casson—along with other prominent Canadian artists—was hired by the Pulp and Paper Industry to produce paintings for its advertising campaign, which sought to portray the business as a “native” and therefore wholesome industry by interspersing narrative accounts of business success with print reproductions of Indigenous art.[10] The other pictures that formed the campaign were wide-ranging, but were all related to the vast wilderness that provided the raw materials for the industry, or depictions of the picturesque communities that Pulp and Paper boasted were nurtured by their industrial sites. Casson took up the latter theme in his commissioned work Mill Village of 1947 (Fig. 2). Reduced to basic geometric forms, with little elaboration except the occasional porch or tower, the houses here are abstracted in a similar manner to Prelude. Such a tendency is more a reflection of the work’s graphic stylization than it is a preoccupation with Cubist philosophy; yet, the conditions of its creation are nevertheless reflective of modernity. 

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Figure 2: A. J. Casson,  Mill Village. Reprint in Saturday Night, Mar 08, 1947

As the scholar Rosemary Donegan has shown, the artists who did commercial work were mired in a web of “mining prospectors, university professors, industrialists, lawyers, and senior civil servants,” whose economic activities financed their artistic ones.[11] The tension between fine art and commercial art was a question that hung over Casson’s entire career, in part because did not give up his commercial work with Sampson Matthews until 1958. Critics partial to Casson often emphasized that he was ultimately more artist than graphic designer. He was no simple “poster-maker,” as Liddell Franks declared, even if his art bore elements of his design training, like his preference for clear, legible forms, and his use of bold, rich colours. Casson himself was less clear on the distinction. His exhaustion with commercialization comes through in a comment on his work from this time: “I did more and went farther and farther with them and suddenly I found they were selling like hotcakes. I felt I had a gimmick and it was working… so I just dropped the whole thing.”[12] The modernity of Casson’s experiments with abstraction may not point to engagement with modernism-proper, but rather the modern industrial scene of resource extraction that enabled (and also set parameters on) artistic expression.


When read side by side, Prelude and Mill Village appear to be variations of the same theme, but where the mill-factory—that undeniable sign of industry—is made unobtrusive and shunted off to the upper left hand corner, Prelude’s lightning strike splits the dark sky and emphatically announces its presence. They are reciprocal accounts of modernity: the golden promise of industrialization, and the anticipatory unease that follows this promise, the individual artist’s response. The next stage towards which Prelude and all its unusual features gesture is still undetermined, but Casson’s mixed feelings about the changes taking place are clear. Whatever new reality loomed ahead, it would certainly be different from the world that came before. 


[1] Examples of this geometricized style include Late Flurry (1946), Drowned Land (1948), and First Snow (1952). Earlier examples of the storm theme, Thunderstorm (1933) and Passing Storm (1938) are less stylized in rendering and colour.

[2] Paul Duval and A. J. Casson, A.J. Casson, His Life & Works: A Tribute (Toronto: Cerebrus/Prentice-Hall, 1980), n.p.

[3] Peter A. Stevens, “Cars and Cottages: The Automotive Transformation of Ontario’s Summer Home Tradition,” Ontario History 100, no. 1 (2008): 33-36,

[4] Stevens, “Cars and Cottages,” 38.

[5] Stevens, “Cars and Cottages,” 38.

[6] Stevens, “Cars and Cottages,” 44.

[7] "September 28, 1940 (Page 18 of 49),” The Windsor Daily Star (1935-1959), Sep 28, 1940,

[8] A. J. (Alfred Joseph), A. J. Casson: My Favourite Watercolours, 1919-1957 (Toronto: Cerebrus/Prentice-Hall, 1982), n.p.

[9] "September 28, 1940 (Page 18 of 49),” The Windsor Daily Star.

[10] See National Asset, Native Design, formatted by A.J. Casson (Canadian Pulp and Paper Association, 1956).

[11] Rosemary Donegan, “Modernism and the Industrial Imagination: Copper Cliff and Sudbury Basin,” in Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art, ed. John O’Brian and Peter White (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017), 145.

[12] Margaret Blair Gray, Margaret Rand, Lois Steen, and A. J. (Alfred Joseph) Casson, A.J. Casson [by] Margaret Gray, Margaret Rand, Lois Steen (Agincourt, Ont: Gage Pub., 1976), 23. 

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