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Mystical Landscapes

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

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.

Edvard Munch's The Sun in Mystical Landscapes - as much a hyper life giving force as it is an apocalyptic vision.
Edvard Munch’s The Sun in Mystical Landscapes – as much a hyper life giving force as it is an apocalyptic vision.

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.


all things connected…

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

Having lived fairly remotely for well over a decade now I can attest to how it shapes one’s thinking about the world. Being in rural central Ontario is hardly far from civilization however there are many challenges and you wonder how on earth anyone lived here prior to the telephone being invented. Being connected is probably the most important issue for a rural artist. Connectivity comes in many forms, the internet being just one. Roads, the transport of goods and services, emergency services, health services, as well as the wired world are necessities that allow small rural places to work.

While urban dwellers revel in the renaissance of localization and desiring of all things made just steps form their door – us rural communities while also going through a great enlightenment about local fare and trade need more to sustain our small worlds. We need to also be a part of the arteries and corridors to which all of life travels. How else do we ever understand our world without the experience of being part of it if only as a parcel ordered online or a book from a Toronto library or a meal expertly made by someone trained in busier place?

I admit to being somewhat loathe to use the word connectivity as its buzz word status and TED talk cache makes it part of growing trend in our world of using marketing phrases instead of actually expressing the complexity of issues. Marketing has won the war of words and we now regularly describe things in a lexicon better suited to ‘wow factor’ settings and power point presentations than actually talking to each other. I do it too, all the time and in fact I can get distressingly confused when I use marketing phrases un-ironically only to find that in fact irony would have been a better thing to express.

But connectivity as a word works because we are connected now in a vast amount of ways. We connect through the internet, through travel, through consuming, through our food, through our politics, our beliefs, and almost every experience the world can offer. Just purchasing a household item at HomeSense can make you connected to Bangladesh, micro and macro economics, the shipping industry, trade barriers and transactions, fossil fuel, geopolitics, varied labour and retail practices and the fashion industry. When you live rurally this comes into focus very sharply; rural types adjust over time to essentially being uninterested in constantly consuming and begin to think about it as an unusual or intriguing activity not just a daily experience.

Harold & Maude, the 1971 cult movie I was raised on. Maude’s answer to her people person proclivity? “They’re my species.”

We thrive best when our little dirt roads and quiet hamlets are interrupted occasionally by the ‘outside’ world. We do not need to swim in its steady flow of information and events and prefer not to – inertia is balanced by disruptions in the form of new people, new technology and inevitable changes in the world. This pace is envied. Visitors always find that our lives here must be ‘peaceful’, ‘relaxing’ and ‘heavenly’. There are now several studies on this very idea: a UK government study which states that 1-4 people in that country suffer from depression and other mental illnesses to which ‘green’ activities such as farming seems to help and a Stanford University study that shows how the brain is relieved from stress through experiencing the natural world.

It’s hard to write about this kind of thing. Everyone has a deep and extraordinary experience of the world but when all I hear most of the time is birds, distant cars occasionally and wind the mind does in fact rest and things in there become more vivid. I don’t think I’m smarter because of it unfortunately and I am not certain whether it has benefited me or not. I am however full of joy more often than sorrow and that is an enormous difference than when I lived in the city.

Isolation however must be balanced in both a metaphysical sense and a real world sense. On one hand you need to be with your species as Maude would say (see image), you do, I can attest to this. Otherwise you get weird. You also need to know that the other exists and this is where technology has really helped (or hindered, depends on world view) – technology is an extension of our conscious desire to connect to the other. While fighting on Facebook with strangers may not seem like a very enlightened way forward, it is but the beginnings of a technological manifestation of how we connect; messy, fraught, tenderly, with compassion, with hatred and with humour. It could be our undoing; it could be our greatest moment. We don’t know.

For artists, we have always made our own technology in order to make what we make, this kind of hyper connectivity we live in now is challenging but not entirely destructive. We rural types know this because we HAD to evolve. You can’t live where I do without screens on your windows. One day, generations from now someone living in my log cabin will say, “how on Earth did those artists live here without ___________ ?”

Hopefully the birds, distant cars and the wind will still be the only sounds.

Photo from Google Images