While out of town last week I read Gabrielle Zevin’s novel The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. An entertaining read that surrounds the redemptive power of books and writing, I think it would appeal to anyone who is drawn to pass a leisurely hour or so exploring the shelves of an independent bookstore. Among other themes, it delves into the way certain books seem to speak directly to our deepest selves at a particular time in our life. Yet, when revisiting those passages years later, we marvel that they ever resonated so strongly, instead finding significance in completely different sections that garnered no notice on the first pass. It’s an inspiring affirmation of the way personal life experience is reflected back to us through art.
Uniform Measure/Stack Stephen Cruise, 1997 Toronto
We were in Canada, and as I go over the photos I took in Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, I’m realizing in hindsight (and probably because I’ve been mulling over Zevin’s book) why the work of particular artists grabbed me. Whether through a shared affinity for composition, color, shadows, subject, or a sketch-like approach, many of the works were remarkably accessible and struck a parallel with issues I am challenging myself to develop within my own work.
Rooftops A. J. Casson, 1924
My education, for the most part, covered European, Asian and American art; I don’t remember any discussion about the work of Canadians. How can that be? So the time spent at the AGO opened my eyes to some spectacular work while broadening my exposure to the scope of Canadian art history.
Gehry Staircase in the Walker Court, Art Gallery of Ontario
First, let me say that the AGO is a gem of a museum, impressively renovated by Toronto native Frank Gehry. The galleries are warmly infused with light and provide seating (also designed by Gehry) that is unusual for its design and comfort — definitely not your average museum bench!
Gehry designed gallery seating
I was swept away by the work of Clarence Gagnon (1881-1942). Many small oils (approx. 8″ x 10″) filled one of the galleries, intimate in scale yet monumental in brushwork and descriptive power — many portraying rural Quebec landscapes, mostly in winter. His subjects surround every day occurrences, providing a contemporary feel despite depicting scenes of close to 100 years ago. Their small size captures the intimacy one finds flipping through a sketchbook, including a sense of immediacy that can be lost in a larger, more considered painting.
Horse-Racing in Winter,Quebec Clarence Gagnon, 1927, oil on wood, 22.2 x 28.2cm The Thomson Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario
Lawren Harris‘ (1885-1970) early pieces also caught my eye with their lyrical study of color, light, and snow. I was intrigued by and drawn to his treatment of shadows as subject, not merely support.
Houses on Gerrard Street, Lawren Harris, circa 1918, oil on board , 10 5/8″ x 13″
My favorite piece of the day was Chickens on Lace by David Milne (1882-1953). This composition, with the objects arranged toward the perimeter of the piece, struck a particularly strong chord. I would have happily included it in this past post about my own inclination to use that device. His work is firmly rooted in the world around him as you can see and hear in this short video, prefaced by his no-nonsense statement “I paint what I see…at any hour of any day”.
Chickens on Lace, David B. Milne, 1940, oil on canvas, 50.4 x 65.8cm The Thomson Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario
So, while I usually enjoy any chance to see unfamiliar art because new lines of thinking and inspiration are often opened, this visit was special. In the same way that life circumstances draw us to certain passages within our reading, I think I connected with the work of these and some of the other Canadian artists on view at the AGO because it helped spur a greater understanding of the directions I am currently pursuing. But I wonder, would this work have resonated so strongly 5 years ago? And in another five years, will it hold the same sway? I’m not sure that it matters; what is important is the connection experienced now.
The Audience, Michael Snow, 1989 Toronto’s Rogers Centre
Beyond the walls of the museum, I was truly impressed by the amount and quality of public sculpture in both Ottawa and Toronto — prominent reminders of the respect and importance with which Canadians hold their history, their environment, and the Arts. Coincidentally, Hyperallergic posted this article last week covering the Canadian government’s pledge “to invest nearly CAD 1.9 billion (~USD 1.4 billion) in the nation’s arts and culture over the next five years to promote Canadian creativity both at home and abroad”. That’s close to twice as much as the $148 million the US Federal budget has earmarked for the NEA in 2016! What I really love is their understanding that “Investing in the Canadian cultural sector helps to create jobs, strengthens the economy and ensures that the unique Canadian perspective is shared with the world.”
The Famous Five, (detail) Barbara Paterson, installed 2000 on Parliment Hill, Ottawa Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards, two of five women celebrated in this statue for petitioning in 1927 to have women legally considered persons so women could be appointed to the Senate.