Tag Archives: Van Gogh

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 – is art a sociological phenomena?

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

The sociological phenomena of funding the arts

It’s grant season! So, if you know an artist then they are probably working on getting a grant written or procrastinating on writing a grant or wondering if they will ever get a grant or deliberately ignoring a grant deadline. I am struggling with writing a grant right now and perhaps taking time out to write this blog isn’t the most productive thing I could do but there you go and here I am writing, just not a grant.

I was painting last night and realized that it is kind of impossible to explain how art works. But this is what you need to do when you write a grant. You need to tell the jury what you are doing, why it is so important to you and how is it helping your career. I’ve been told over the years that the descriptions are not as important as the imagery you send. I would believe this if the grant I received came with great imagery, it did not. In fact it was one of the weaker assortments I had ever sent.

I used to take a look at what art projects received grants when I didn’t get one. Now I forget about it by the next day because I can’t be bothered any more to care or I’ve become too busy to care, either way, getting turned down hardly registers to me any more. But I still apply because you can’t win one without applying right?

I would prefer not to ever apply but I live with someone who does get them and they can make your life easier if you get one. Isn’t that what they are for? Maybe not. Years ago an arts officer told me that they were not a social organization which is why they don’t ask artists for income statements. Without asking whether artists actually need the grant because they don’t have the money to make their work creates a system where people who are millionaires can get a grant. Yes, they can. There have been several. But these organizations are not social organizations so they don’t ask.

Undergrowth with two figures, 1890. Painted by Van Gogh in the last year of his life.  Mystical, frank, and ominous, his painting makes landscape a thing of the mind.
Van Gogh, the most famous artist in the world, referenced all the time. Everyone knows at least two things about him, he painted and he was poor. Income is an essential part of how we define ourselves.

What is a social organization? I guess it is one that helps people. People without money. But not artists. An artist’s merit is what determines whether they get help. Your merit is based on your imagery from past or current work and once again that description of what you do. Here’s what is really hard about this description, in only a few hundred words you need to explain your art, your philosophy, your project and why the funding is imperative without telling them how much you really need the money. Telling the jury you are poor doesn’t fit under merit.

To me it’s like that Stephen Harper quote about the ongoing violence against Aboriginal women in our country is just a bunch of crimes not sociological phenomena. You can get a cramp twisting your thoughts into such an idea. What this says to me is that Harper believes that the ongoing, unsolved disappearance and violent deaths of over 1000 Native women doesn’t reflect anything but that a lot of bad stuff happened to them. It takes anything remotely nuanced, patterned, institutional and systematic out of the mix completely. I know this is a rather grand and perhaps seemingly absurd comparison but hang in there.

Telling artists that their incomes are not part of the equation when dealing with their merit and that funding for the arts isn’t a social obligation removes the chance for a larger view of how artists are coping with changes in the culture. Asking for a person’s income regardless of the art they make actually puts their intent and commitment on the table and illuminates to the larger public how artists actually get by. These organizations would then have statistics on how much income the artists in our country are making in real terms, and eventually this could turn into an understanding about how we subsidize the culture not the other way around. If people only know how little artists and arts organizations made while creating all the stuff they do they would be floored, and I think the conversation about art might change dramatically.

The way you gauge anything with human beings is to understand sociological processes and phenomena. We need these long views so that we can see patterns among us and safe guard against all sorts of things like having our basic rights compromised. Artist’s incomes are necessary to any discussion about the future of art and culture otherwise we continue on this boring treadmill of having to make a case why art matters every couple of years.

Speaking of treadmills, it’s grant season and I have got to get back to that description!!