Sure, the newly renovated Art Gallery of Ontario is all about the architecture, expertly done by Frank Gehry in a way that makes up for the ROM debacle, but what about the art?
As we wandered the lower floor galleries, we were continually surprised, mostly in a positive way.
Lord Thomson’s donations have been given pride of place. His collection of model ships in the basement are extraordinary, and worth the price of admission alone.
Upstairs on the second floor, there is the Galleria Italiana, which overlooks Dundas Street and is gorgeous. The galleries open with Michael Snow’s Walking Woman sculptures before leading to gallery after gallery of Group of Seven works. Luckily, they hold their own and the small sketches, hung closely packed together, often read like stills in a role of film. The effect is to bring the visitor face to face with the great white north. The Clarence Gagnon’s oil sketches on board were particularly stunning for their use of colour as was the entire wall of Lawren Harris canvases. Several small galleries were entirely devoted to David Milne, prints, drawings and paintings.
This curatorial strategy wouldn’t work everywhere, but in Canada where many visitors won’t be overly familiar with these artists, it’s an instant lesson in art and cultural history.
Michael Snow, Four grey panels and four figures, series “Walking Woman”, 1963. Image: mmfa.qc.ca
Unfortunately, it seemed as if every single one of Ken Thomson’s 145 paintings by Cornelius Kreighoff were on display. The walls can’t carry all those works, many of which were repetitions of the same scene. Kreighoff, while historically important, lacks the modernity or the majesty of the Group of Seven works.
No one really needs to see that many Kreighoffs.
It was wonderful to see the (too small) gallery that contrasted traditional Inuit prints and sculpture with the new. It’s essential to showcase the sea change that is still happening in contemporary Inuit Art.
Clarence Gagnon, A Laurentian Homestead, 1924. Image: canadianartforsale.com
Back down on the main floor, the curatorial strategy seemed to get rather muddled. Some galleries were themed according to Identity, Woman as Muse and Creator and Nuclear Holocaust, which brought together historical and contemporary works. This is an current idea that allows viewers to see work in new ways, but it should be carried through several galleries at once. Instead, these were placed on either side of a long gallery featuring 17th century Italian works, at the centre of which was one highlight of the entire gallery, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Corpus. It seemed a little lost.
Moving from the Italian gallery, the curators revived the juxtapositions, placing Shary Boyle‘s gothic porcelain figurines next to bronzes by Giovanni Battista Foggini.
Shary Boyle, Ouroboros, 2006. Image: sharyboyle.com
Another long gallery was hung, along one wall, in the overcrowded Salon style, faced by a number of Impressionist works. The impressionist works were undoubtedly stronger, but were overpowered by the enormity of the installation opposite.
The David Altmejd piece from last year’s Venice Biennale fills an atrium between the building and the historical Grange building. While it is wonderful that a Toronto collector donated the work to the AGO, it’s not Altmejd’s best piece. His towering giants that were featured in the Quebec Triennale were far stronger.
Presumably that’s the fate of an institution on a limited budget that must rely heavily on donations, historical works from the collection and recent purchases. It must have been a huge challenge for the curators. The resulting mix of strong and weak, historical and avant garde says much about Canada’s art historical past and the place (and power) of the art institution in the country today.
Albrecht Durer, The Sea Monster, 1498. Image: ww7.com
Nonetheless, we made some wonderful discoveries, like Sea Monster, a stunning print by Albrecht Durer in one of the European galleries. From outstanding European works to the Group of Seven, Inuit works, Contemporary work from Toronto and wonderful photographs including a stunning Gustav le Gray, there’s no doubt that the AGO has revitalized itself. And that’s a very good thing.
Visit the AGO website HERE.