Tag Archives: art gallery of ontario

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.


State of the Arts – Bacon Moore at the AGO

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

Bacon & Moore meet where the body gets desecrated

The human body is an extraordinary miracle. We are sentient but frail, slow compared to so many other species, delicately assembled and softly fleshy which is why we have had to build technologies to make us capable of the things we imagine. This is one way to look at things. Late British painter Francis Bacon however believed us to be a composite of our drives and thought we are sensual beings that devour and conquer our way through life.

The new exhibition at the AGO, Bacon Moore: Terror and Beauty is a succinct account of how two very different artists reacted and transcended the horrors of the 20th century. All the work in the exhibition is an examination of the human body and various assaults enacted upon it by modernity, technology and self revelation.

In Yorkshire, England Moore is an icon and hero. His work is recognized as putting Britain’s 20th century self into focus. He perhaps pushed a less defiant Britain into view; a nation battered by wars, struggling with that aftermath and unsure of a future as its economy seemed to get worse even after victory.

A few years ago I went to see Moore’s drawings of people sleeping in the London underground. I am from Toronto so you get really familiar with Moore’s sculpture at a young age, as they are in a lot of important places in the city. However I was never that familiar with his Britishness, or should I say Yorkhireness until I did my residency there. The drawings were in Leeds where the Moore Institute is. I became very emotional, something that surprised me because I had always regarded Moore’s work as cold. My partner’s mother lived in an air raid shelter while she was a little girl and to this day finds the night sky unsettling, that coupled with the fact that these works present the human form in the most wonderfully delicate and fragile way brought me to tears. They are simply some of the best war imagery that has ever been made by an artist.

Moore’s sleeping positions.

I had my doubts about how Moore’s work and these fragile little images would sit comfortably beside Bacon’s sexually violent carnival of imagery. Not only do they work perfectly with Bacon’s excruciating studies of the body under extremes but the works compliment each other in profound and inspiring ways. Its a rare event today that an art exhibition subtly blows your mind, most of the time you have to wade through bombast just to find meaning. This exhibition is a cautionary exploration of our frailty. Its relevance is undeniable as I thought about drones and the widening distance between technology and our fleshy selves.

Moore moved effortlessly from coal mining to drawing the air raid shelters, the world underground and its crumpled bodies. Bacon became ever more fixated with body parts that were violently tangled, teeth caught in screaming and portraits of people as chaotic masses of flesh. Both experienced the war and its ruinous impact in different ways, both transcended reactionary ideas. Together the works successfully blend a beautiful/horrible, non-verbal, anti-intellectual experience.

Bacon's Two Figures in a Room.
Bacon’s Two Figures in a Room.

I have spent a lot of time in the last few years yearning for an art exhibition that moves me. I see so many exhibitions that are about thinking, about ideas, about conceptual experiences. After living in the woods for fourteen years I no longer believe in my heart that we are the best of the Earth’s species, so I am not drawn to this exuberance artists have today about our inventions. I dunno, I haven’t totally thought it all through.  Seeing these men’s work in a context that holds compassion and horror as a focus struck me as revelatory. Who we are is a question for a philosopher but artists like Moore and Bacon show us what we do.

And what we do to each other is written on our bodies. It is through the violence of war, the violence of sex, the violence of working beneath the earth we find out how frail we are. Trapped by this frailty we search for power beyond our means because we are miracles that can also imagine a night sky filled with constellations not bombs, intimacy without pain and being able to stretch out our limbs and rest in peaceful eternity.

Bacon Moore: Terror and Beauty continues to July 20.