By John Geddes - Wednesday, March 20, 2013 - 0 Comments
The two finalists to design a War of 1812 monument on Parliament Hill, who showed off models of their plans to the public for the first time in Ottawa this afternoon, faced a perhaps impossible task: respecting the Hill’s grand tradition for memorial sculptures while, at the same time, unavoidably breaking with it.
The history of public monuments around the heart of Canadian democracy began movingly in 1873, when John A. Macdonald—so shaken by news of the death of George Etienne Cartier that he broke down in tears the House—proposed that a statue of his political partner be erected.
The international competition for that commission was won, fittingly given Cartier’s pivotal role in bringing Quebec into Confederation, by a young Quebec sculptor, Louis-Philippe Hébert. Hébert went on to a groundbreaking career in public art in Canada, prolific enough for a full-dress retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada in 2001.
By John Geddes - Monday, March 11, 2013 at 8:00 AM - 0 Comments
A Winnipeg gallery is betting heavily on Inuit art that goes beyond gift-shop clichés
Mention Inuit art and a smooth stone carving springs to mind, or a colourful Cape Dorset print, maybe Kenojuak Ashevak’s iconic owl. No Canadian art is more widely appreciated, or more susceptible to being reduced to gift-shop clichés. The Winnipeg Art Gallery’s ambitious current show, Creation and Transformation: Defining Moments in Inuit Art, offers pieces that will satisfy popular expectations, like Osuitok Ipeelee’s elegant marble polar bear from 1975, its torso torqued just so and nose raised to sniff a cold breeze. But much of the art—especially recent work like Ningeokuluk Teevee’s pencil-and-ink tattooed woman with a cigarette, or Andrew Qappik’s drypoint self-portrait in his printshop—veers far from the predictable. “I’m anxious to destroy the stereotypes with my shows,” says Darlene Coward Wight, the gallery’s longtime Inuit art curator.
She’s not alone. Curators in recent years have taken pains to avoid the old, condescending view of indigenous art as folkloric. It’s no longer segregated. For instance, the National Gallery of Canada’s recent biennial show of newly acquired Canadian art displayed Inuit pieces, such as Elisapee Ishulutaq’s mural-sized drawing of traditional life in Nunavut, alongside works created in the hipper neighbourhoods of southern cities. Still, the Ottawa institution’s ambitious summer 2013 show, called Sakahan—“to light a fire” in Algonquin—will invite gallery-goers to see contemporary indigenous art as a distinct category, by grouping work by Aboriginal artists from Canada with their indigenous peers from around the world.
The question of how to collect and exhibit indigenous art has vexed major Canadian art institutions for decades. As the focus shifted from anthropology museums to fine-art galleries, aesthetic judgments pushed aside the old emphasis on cultural context—but never entirely. Nowhere is finding the right balance a more urgent preoccupation than the Winnipeg Art Gallery, where more than 12,000 Inuit pieces form the backbone of the permanent collection. “There’s a social side to [Inuit art], historical, anthropological, religious and spiritual—and now art for the sake of art,” says WAG executive director Stephen Borys. “It has evolved at times very differently than other art, and we have to look at it differently.”
By Paul Wells - Friday, November 30, 2012 at 12:25 AM - 0 Comments
On the weekend Marc Mayer, the director of the National Gallery of Canada, was gracious enough to show me and several friends through the gallery’s second Canadian Biennial, which goes by the name of Builders. It was the second time he’s shown us around. If we’re lucky it will become a tradition.
It was already the second time I was seeing this exhibition, which began Nov. 2 and will run through Jan. 20. I’m fascinated by the whole premise of these biennials. As Colleague Geddes has written, Mayer is properly preoccupied with drawing big crowds to the gallery and drawing new sources of philanthropic funding to go with his taxpayer-funded acquisition budget. But in late autumn, with the summer blockbuster shows behind him, he has begun doing these biennials.
They feature the best art by living Canadian artists that the gallery has acquired in the last two years. So the gallery actually puts its (that is, yours, audiences’ and donors’) money into what it displays. To me this means it’s the art the gallery’s curators are really serious about, although Mayer told us that he is sometimes told by art-world colleagues that hauling out your recent acquisitions isn’t “a real biennial.”
Whatever. Geddes has already written about visiting the show’s press preview with the eminent Michael Snow, so I won’t go into great detail about what’s in it. I’ll note only that I was particularly struck by a madly audacious new sculpture from David Altmejd; that I enjoyed contemplating the debate over whether this towering Evan Penny nude is a big deal or just a big naked statue; that this Marcel Dzama video was hilarious, weirdly touching and captured about a century’s worth of cultural allusions; and that this painting by 30-year-old Ottawan Melanie Authier suggests there’s still something fresh to be done with pure abstraction.
What’s most striking is that the 2012 biennial is so different in intent and structure from its 2010 predecessor. Continue…
By John Geddes - Monday, October 29, 2012 at 8:35 PM - 0 Comments
The National Gallery of Canada is set to open a show later this week of recent acquisitions, called “Builders: Canadian Biennial 2012,” and the exhibition’s most prominent piece might be a large outdoor sculpture by the mid-career Montreal artist Michel de Broin. It’s hard to resist, given its shape, touting Majestic as the star of the show.
De Broin created its exploding-star form by taking a mixed bag of New Orleans street lamps that were damaged and uprooted by Hurricane Katrina and attaching them to a hub. There’s playfulness in the outsized Tinkertoy-like result, but knowing how the parts were salvaged from disaster and turned into something beautiful lends it, at least to my eye, a feeling of drama and optimism.
It was created to be installed temporarily last year in downtown New Orleans and was only recently moved to a lawn beside the National Gallery, where Parliament Hill rises in the background. I went to look at it just last weekend in a fall drizzle. I haven’t seen it after dusk with its lights on yet, except in photographs, and I expect that to be a whole different experience.
De Broin plans to be in Ottawa for the official unveiling on Wednesday, which by a strange coincidence, given Majestic’s origins, will come in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. He’ll be arriving fresh from Changwon, South Korea, where he had travelled for an exhibition, and it was from there that he answered some questions for me by email.
By John Geddes - Thursday, May 24, 2012 at 3:11 PM - 0 Comments
It’s hard to look at a Vincent Van Gogh painting, especially certain great paintings, without thinking about his life. A café under a night sky is where the crazy genius stopped for a drink. A yellow house is where he lived a bit of his unhappy life. A room with a single bed must be where his troubled dreams arrived.
To try to wrench the art away from the artist’s endlessly mythologized biography would be futile, of course, but the new show, Van Gogh: Up Close, which opens at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa this week for what’s bound to be a popular summer run, offers the best chance yet to take in the paintings without summoning Vincent’s story at every turn.
By Michael Petrou - Wednesday, May 9, 2012 at 3:41 PM - 0 Comments
I hope readers will forgive a post that is definitely narcissistic and possibly an overreaction. Here it goes:
Israeli President Shimon Peres was in town last night. There was a reception at the National Gallery of Canada. I was invited.
While approaching the gallery, I took a call on my cell phone. There was a light rain, so I stopped and stood beneath a statue about 50 metres from the gallery’s front doors. There were several police in the area but no visible security perimeter. Other pedestrians walked by. It’s a moderately busy corner.
After a few minutes, a police officer approached and asked when I would be ending my call. I put my phone away. He asked what I was doing and why I was there. I replied —politely, I think — that I was on public land didn’t have to explain myself to him. Continue…
By John Geddes - Tuesday, May 8, 2012 at 10:06 AM - 0 Comments
Marc Mayer goes with a safe bet in mounting Van Gogh: Up Close
Marc Mayer, director of the National Gallery of Canada, isn’t exactly a Vincent Van Gogh guy. Growing up in Sudbury, Ont., in the 1970s, Mayer decorated his bedroom with poster prints of abstractions by Kandinsky and Mondrian. He speaks gleefully about how, over his career as a curator and administrator at major public galleries in Canada and the U.S., he has persuaded skeptical boards of directors to buy and display “hundreds of pounds of barbed wire to hang from the ceiling, an actual airplane crushed by a boulder, a giant colour photograph of a toxic dump, a stained rag stapled to a broken stick and glued to a piece of old Styrofoam.” He gets more worked up championing contemporary art than 19th-century oil paintings of flowers that look cheerful on the coasters and calendars that sell briskly in a gallery’s gift shop.
Yet Mayer’s life is bound up, for the next few months at least, with Van Gogh’s reliable ability to draw big crowds. The exhibition, Van Gogh: Up Close, slated to run at the Ottawa gallery from May 25 to Sept. 3, is its most surefire crowd-pleaser in years, which is saying something after last summer’s Caravaggio show, a critical success and popular hit. If Mayer’s tone is exuberant when he talks about living artists, he’s more matter-of-fact on the Van Gogh stakes. “The summer is when you need the big numbers,” he says. “What you want is to make sure that you’re delivering programming that is relevant to the largest number of people who are interested in art. But you also want to bring them around so they have broader tastes and broader interests. That’s kind of tricky.”
Pulling off that trick has long been the central challenge at the National Gallery. Tens of thousands turn out for exhibitions of dead masters, many taking a detour to see, say, the permanent collection’s Group of Seven paintings. New work is more likely to trigger “You call that art?” reactions. But that didn’t stop Mayer’s predecessors from buying, for instance, an Andy Warhol sculpture of Brillo soap boxes in 1967, Barnett Newman’s infamous three-striped Voice of Fire in 1989, and the giant bronze spider called Maman, by sculptor Louise Bourgeois, in 2004.
By John Geddes - Tuesday, September 6, 2011 at 4:15 PM - 1 Comment
At first blush, the two big art shows in Canada this summer—the National Gallery’s Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome, which runs to Sept. 11 in Ottawa, and the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Abstract Expressionist New York, which closed Sept. 4 in Toronto—didn’t seem to have much in common.
But it turned out they shared at least two compelling elements. Both were about the most cosmopolitan art scenes their eras, and both drew our attention to the reliably engrossing legends of artists who mixed a revolutionary way of painting with a self-destructive way of living.
By John Geddes - Wednesday, June 15, 2011 at 2:05 PM - 6 Comments
In the first room of the big summer show Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, which opens on June 17 at the National Gallery of Canada, hangs the famous painting The Musicians, on loan from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
There’s no more arresting example of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s uncanny ability to create drama by capturing natural expressions and informal poses. The young musicians—two gazing out at us, two with downcast eyes—are seated closely together, and yet each is achingly alone.
By John Geddes - Monday, November 8, 2010 at 2:58 PM - 6 Comments
The National Gallery of Canada has just opened a show of recent Canadian acquisitions, filling exhibition space last occupied by the summer blockbuster Pop Life, the Tate Modern’s survey of how the art of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, to list the big names, plays off celebrity and consumerism—in other words, sex and money.
As I made my way through It Is What It Is, a selection of 82 works by 57 Canadian artists bought by the Ottawa gallery over the past two years, Pop Life kept popping back into my mind. It’s not that I saw much evidence of direct influence. On the contrary, what struck me was the absence in the new work of anything that looks beholden to those global art brands.
By John Geddes - Thursday, August 12, 2010 at 12:47 PM - 0 Comments
Obituaries for Shirley Thomson, the former director of the National Gallery of Canada, inevitably make much of her role in buying and defending Voice of Fire, the controversial acquisition that marked her most public moment as one of the most influential figures on Canada’s fine arts scene. (Here‘s one from the Ottawa Citizen.)
By John Geddes - Sunday, May 9, 2010 at 8:48 AM - 20 Comments
A massive renovation project shows the ugly side of Ottawa
The tulips were in fine form on Parliament Hill this week, blooms of red and white matching the flag snapping in the breeze atop the Peace Tower. Spring weather brought out a healthy crop of tour buses, too, marking the start of the busy season along what might be called the country’s main street. It’s no wonder the visitors flock: with its iconic copper-roofed architecture, bronze statues and monuments, Ottawa’s picturesque Wellington Street delivers a palpable sense of history in a stroll of only a few blocks.
But tourists are finding they must frame their snapshots carefully to avoid construction hoarding, scaffolding and shuttered buildings. It’s more than just inevitable upkeep in a historic precinct. Some of the unsightliness results from drawn-out political indecision over what to do with sensitive real estate. Some is the outward sign of tension over renovations among various branches of the government. That confusion recently drew sharp criticism from federal Auditor General Sheila Fraser. “We need to fix this,” she said, “and the longer it waits, the more the deterioration and the more it will cost.”
By Mitchel Raphael - Thursday, January 28, 2010 at 12:50 PM - 0 Comments
Bowling for Haiti
IT gets hot, hot, hot when you’re all wearing sealskin
“A Taste of the Arctic,” held at the National Gallery of Canada, kicked off 2010 as the Year of the Inuit. The room, packed with people wearing sealskin outfits, got so hot doors needed to be opened to let in the winter air. Inuit leader Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, was in a new head-to-toe sealskin ensemble complete with caribou antler buttons, made by Victoria Okpik of Nunavik Creations. It was the ofﬁcial debut of the outfit Simon plans to wear for the opening of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games. Food at the Taste of the Arctic included dried caribou jerky, agnolotti with muskox tomato sauce, and a shepherd’s pie made with ground seal meat. On the tables were rocks that looked like ice, covered in flowers. At ﬁrst glance the decorations resembled giant spiders, causing more than a few alarmed double takes. Among the guests at the event were Nunavut’s government leader Eva Aariak and federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, the MP for Nunavut. Laureen Harper, invited by Simon, also attended. Noted Mrs. Harper: “Mary said there would be Arctic char and I love Arctic char.” Over the Christmas break, the Harpers, including the PM, made a snow fort at Harrington Lake; at the event, Mrs. Harper asked the Inuit leader if she could help her make an authentic igloo. “We have lots of snow there,” Mrs. Harper said. “I’m not sure it’s the right kind.” Another guest was former Nunavut MP Nancy Karetak-Lindell. She recently saw the birth of her sixth granddaughter and told Capital Diary she loves spending time with the girls after raising four sons. CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge was honoured at the event with an award for his coverage of the Arctic. It was also announced that several Inuit groups would be donating nearly $100,000 to help Haiti.
SHE’S HELPING Haitians stranded in quebec
The earthquake in Haiti has politicians dealing with a variety of issues. Bloc MP Nicole Demers says her office is working with Haitians who were visiting Quebec and are now stranded here because their homes have been reduced to rubble. Montreal Liberal MP Marlene Jennings says two nuns from the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Anne in her riding are still looking for two missionaries missing in Haiti. Former Bloc MP and current vice-president of the Bloc Québécois, Vivian Barbot, who was born in Haiti, managed to get texts and cellphone photos of the devastation from people. Sadly, while Barbot’s cousin managed to survive, his wife and her entire family were killed. Fortunately, the son of Barbot’s cousin is in Canada studying. Barbot says the Bloc is calling for a Marshall Plan for Haiti.
Bowling for Haiti
Last week, Ottawa NDP MP Paul Dewar had planned to hold a Bowling for Paul fundraiser for his riding association. He changed it to Bowling for Haiti. More than $1,000 was raised for the Humanitarian Coalition (Oxfam, CARE and Save the Children). On Jan. 25 there is a nonpartisan event called Hill Helps Haiti, being organized by the government relations ﬁrm Summa Strategies.
Former MP Belinda Stronach’s Belinda Stronach Foundation is planning a special women’s summit in Toronto to coincide with the upcoming G20 Summit. Twenty groups are involved, including the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and UNICEF. It’s being billed as Girls20.
By John Geddes - Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 9:40 AM - 21 Comments
Twenty years ago a painting by Barnett Newman ignited a firestorm in Canada
In the winter of 1967, working in his studio in Lower Manhattan, Barnett Newman covered a huge canvas, 5.4 m by 2.4 m, with just two colours of acrylic paint—twin vertical stripes of ultramarine blue flanking a middle one of cadmium red. Come spring, the American artist shipped the painting, which he called Voice of Fire, to Montreal for the International and Universal Exhibition, better known as Expo 67. It hung in Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, the hugely popular U.S. pavilion that also showcased an Apollo space capsule.
In Montreal that storied summer, Voice didn’t cause any stir. But then, Expo offered plenty of bright, bold objects to gape at, and, anyway, the fair was all about open-hearted optimism and looking at things anew. By 1990, though, when the National Gallery of Canada announced it had bought the painting the previous year—without saying so publicly at the time—the country was sliding into recession and the popular mood was markedly less groovy. Two decades later, the $1.8-million price might sound modest, but it seemed extravagant then. Public umbrage boiled over.
Yet most of those who were called upon to justify the purchase for weeks on end in the spring of ’90 seem to think back on the uproar fondly. After all, art has never since commanded such a prominent place in the national conversation. Diana Nemiroff, who was then the National Gallery’s contemporary art curator and is now director of Carleton University’s art gallery, laughs at her memory of dressing up as Voice to defend the painting on CBC Newsworld, which had been launched only the previous year, bringing to Canada the insatiable appetite for controversy that comes with 24-hour TV news. “I wore a blue blazer with a red T-shirt underneath,” Nemiroff says. “It took a while before someone noticed.”
By John Geddes - Thursday, June 18, 2009 at 4:20 PM - 3 Comments
In a show about 100 years in the artistic life of Rome, one master prevails over all others
Walking into the first room of a big art show, the gallery-goer naturally looks around for the block of text on the wall that introduces the artist or group of artists, and sets the stage for their moment in art history. But that’s not how the National Gallery of Canada’s big summer draw, From Raphael to Carracci: The Art of Papal Rome, is organized. Each room is devoted, not to an artist, but to a different 16th-century pope. The first belongs to Julius II, who commissioned Saint Peter’s Basilica and whose patronage began the work of making Rome glorious in the Renaissance and beyond. At least, the text stencilled neatly on the wall says it’s his room. Anyone who looks at the art, though, will come away divided as to whether it’s really ruled by Michelangelo or Raphael. These rivals are gloriously represented in Julius II’s room, and experiencing the competitive tension between them at close quarters is one of the great pleasures of this engrossingly varied exhibition, which runs in Ottawa until Sept. 7.
In a recent stroll through his show, David Franklin, the gallery’s chief curator, declared Raphael the hands-down winner. Franklin lingered over a Michelangelo drawing in red chalk—a famous study for the Sistine Chapel of an improbably brawny female—and declared it a singularly beautiful dead end. “The flex and torsion are just extraordinary; I’m not sure they had the bodybuilding apparatus in 1510 to get that musculature,” he says, then adds: “This is sort of a cul-de-sac in art history, because nobody can really learn from this, in the sense that nobody can match it.” Where Michelangelo’s drawing is impossible, Raphael’s portrait of Bindo Altoviti, casting a melting gaze from across the room, is imploring. “The elegance of it,” Franklin says, “is a stylistic moment that Raphael is bringing to Rome.”
By John Geddes - Monday, June 15, 2009 at 7:43 PM - 4 Comments
I fear this post might expose me to a world of passionate argument that I am neither equipped nor inclined to enter. But here goes. I apologize to any readers of this week’s issue of Maclean’s who were offended by my use of the phrase “New Testament prostitute” to describe the subject of Titian’s painting “St. Mary Magdalene in Penitence.”
By John Geddes - Tuesday, December 2, 2008 at 2:38 PM - 1 Comment
After staring with growing interest into the faces of, by my rough count, four popes and seven cardinals, two monsignors, a dwarf and a king, I emerged from the National Gallery of Canada’s new show “Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture” thinking only about women.