Tag Archives: France

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

Victoria Ward

Is imitation sincere? Really?

The phrase ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ dates to the 18th century but the original phrase was actually ‘imitation is a kind of artless flattery’. However the original idea comes from a biography of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius who felt that humans should resemble or imitate Gods not flatter them.

Personally I just get annoyed if someone imitates me or borrows my ideas for their purposes. This is because I miss the point; it isn’t a declaration of ill will but perhaps a misguided, misunderstood form of honouring. In any case I admit to not being very evolved. When someone “rips me off” I don’t want to act mature about it. For the most part I want to go on FB and shame them. I don’t – I’ve had enough therapy to know that kind of action doesn’t help any situation.

I recently introduced the film Manufactured Landsapes by Edward Burtynsky. Originally I really liked this film mostly due to Peter Mettler’s cinematography. I’m not a Burtynsky fan, too decorative for me. But I love Mettler’s films and I think he is a wonderful visual artist. In any case this film has not held up well over time, time being just six years. The film talks about our responsibility in resource use. It is a global film however it mostly centers on China and their enormous economic growth over the last decade. So, as you can imagine, if you haven’t seen the film, there are loads of sad looking factory workers, people picking through gigantic piles of metal and sad old people taking their homes apart brick by brick to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. Watching it now it seems ever so slightly racist.

During the discussion after the film, much of which needed extensive prompting because ultimately the film is a huge downer, a woman wondered what we thought of this new architectural trend in China people are dubbing dupli-techture. Presently there are hundreds of developments going up or being finished of buildings and towns which are exact replicas of European architecture. There is a Chinese Venice, a Chinese Eiffel Tower, a Chinese Alpine village and a Chinese Milan plaza. According to author Bianca Bosker this trend is very real and very serious in China, taken up by only the best architects.

Venice? Nope, China.
Venice? Nope, China.

Luckily when this woman asked this question I was not only familiar with the trend but I had also listened to a podcast featuring Bosker on CBC’s Q. Regardless of how I stated it, that the Chinese see these buildings and towns as homage to the greatness of the west, people in this discussion were kind of freaked out by it. The immediate reaction to an Eiffel Tower on a Chinese boulevard is negative and shock. Why?

I was lucky enough this spring to spend a weekend in our nation’s Capital at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier. The first thing the ipad tour mentions is that it is built in the style of castles in the Loire valley in France. I can only think that French visitors in the early part of the 20th century felt slightly appalled at it when they first arrived. There is however no mention of this anywhere, in fact it was considered one of the more beautiful hotels in all of North America when it was built. That the owner went down with the Titanic and all the inside furnishings with him added greatly to its European ties.

So, why are some people irked by the Chinese copying European architecture with perhaps more zeal? There is an Eiffel Tower in Vegas and everyone loves that. Frankly the one in Vegas is far more vulgar, surrounded by behemoth millionaire hotels and fountains while the one in China is actually on a busy boulevard not unlike the real one.

Does imitation inspire a kind of disgust? As mentioned I can certainly relate. For some reason copying something and making it your own seems far more dignified than just direct copying. The Chinese architects spent years in Europe studying every brick that went into a bridge in Venice. Their imitation is almost obsessively attentive and meticulous. Is this the problem? Perhaps. Or are we all just a little bit racist like the film?

I find it hard to tell actually. Everyday I read about how China is buying up resources all over the world and that they are going to put a dam onto every single river in their country regardless of neighbouring country’s needs. That people in China are now vacationing in places with clean air as opposed to standard destinations like Paris-London-Rome. Every mention laced with a kind of fear usually reserved for extraterrestrial invasion from a B-movie. China’s economic growth is on such a scale that we all have a hard time comprehending what this will all mean for the rest of us. I’m not unsympathetic to people’s hesitation.

But I think this architectural mimicry is fascinating because China already has some of the world’s most impressive architecture. Everyone in the North America engages regularly in Chinese traditions and culture, from martial arts and food to math and pottery. I think this trend is foremost just that; it could dissipate as China adjusts to being modern and urban. Until then however the country seems to be imitating what is best about us in the west as perhaps a link to their newness. When you think about it, it isn’t unlike most of our architecture in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I kind of like it and you could see it as sharing – an act that usually helps with fear, and it could be more than flattery, it could be an honour.

Pic from The Atlantic website

State of the Arts returns May 30