Living in the woods has a lot of advantages, like experiencing how the indifference of nature puts things in perspective. I grew up thinking that this indifference was horrifying – something so many philosophers and poets have hung their hat on; that the natural world is full of death. But what I realize now is that first, we are part of the natural world and secondly, our attempts at dominating it have failed so miserably that we are now in danger of our own extinction. So, you could say humans are all about death, and perhaps our culture is dystopian because of this switch. If you actually think human endeavour has any significance at all just watch a documentary about solar flares. In 1989 the entire province of Quebec lost power for nine hours due to one. And they’re getting worse.
I have been of late suffering from posting fatigue. I am deeply sympathetic with my American neighbours but one of the reasons I live where I do is so that I can turn things off and go skiing. Like a church was to my ancestors, the woods are where I find meaning and where I feel free. So the AGO exhibition Mystical Landscapes should really be in my wheel house however I had very little interest in what looked like a flake fest about the natural world.
I admit to being really turned off right away by a title like Mystical Landscapes since my artistic life is a Sisyphean journey; being a landscape painter marks you immediately as someone who is either an amateur, ancient or a flake. That the AGO, a gallery with a fairly sketchy reputation (awful block buster exhibitions mixed with overtly politically correct tones and generally not greatly organized so that you are always six deep with people in front of certain art works) has an exhibition with the word mystical in the title – well it makes me really, really wary. But, I saw that there were some cool paintings in it I have never seen before and we have a membership so… we went.
Nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming emotional trip that Mystical Landscapes is. First off there is a ton of work in the exhibition you would never see unless you actually went to Stockholm or Norway or France. And some of the painting is divine. All of it landscape based. All of it wonderful, not a dud in the exhibition, well except for one or two silly pieces at the end regarding the cosmos but actually by the time I got there I found them charming. The strongest aspect of the exhibition is the curating. That is a line I almost never write.
Organized by the AGO in partnership with the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, the exhibition’s intention is pretty clear and honestly still didn’t make me necessarily want to go: “The years between 1880 and 1930 were marked by rampant materialism and rapid urbanization. Disillusioned with traditional religious institutions, many European, Scandinavian and North American artists searched for an unmediated spiritual path through mystical experiences.” But this is exactly what the exhibition is about and the curators did very little to interfere with this very clear intent. Many of the artists in the exhibition may not have had straight forward mystical experiences (can you have a straight forward mystical experience?) but as in the case of Emily Carr who used gasoline to thin her oils, they may have had one unintentionally whether they were trying to or not.
I admit to feeling some nationalist pride at seeing the work of Canadian artists alongside titans of early twentieth century painting. But much more than that were the many ideas about landscape: urban dystopia, carnage of the land during war, depictions of sparkling cities with night skies, places of worship and work embedded in the ‘wilderness’, ominous and wondrous vistas, places of meaning, forests that are/were ineffable and sublime, and visions of the cosmos which until this period were only seen through telescopes by the naked eye. Brought together, the famous and the not so famous work told an eschatological story without cliché.
One painting by Group of Seven painter Frederick Varley created during the last year of the First World War , Gas Chamber at Seaford I had seen before, perhaps at the War Museum. Here though it told a different story. As the men emerged from being gassed in a trench the surrounding hills and sky, seemingly untouched, competed directly for our attention. The split focus made you recognize that the earth is also a victim of our tragedies but also a resilient entity which we have no real power over. So timely was this piece that it had as many people surrounding it as both Van Goghs. One viewer, a war vet and artist told us that the thing about war is that you end up in these unfathomably beautiful places, in his case Afghanistan, and it creates a deep existential crisis. Three young women in head scarves listened in and nodded their heads.
These people, perhaps in another incarnation in their lives might have existed together in a war torn place, ravaged by a world gone mad. But here we all were, present in an art gallery together. We were there to see how landscapes can be mystical and must be mystical if they are needed to be.
Mystical Landscapes has been extended to Feb. 12
Please read the Toronto Star Murray White’s excellent review as well.