Monday, February 16, 2009

Art and life

On Thursday a friend and I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) to see the Canadian collection. We went before Christmas and only made it through the European collection on the ground floor, so it was our intention to go back in the new year to see the rest. As usual these things take time to organize, so we only made it back in mid-February.

We started with Krieghoff, an artist born in Europe who came to Canada in the early 19th century and painted what he saw. There were a lot of winter scenes, mostly set in the Quebec countryside, of people engaged in various winter activities, a lot of which seemed to involve getting drunk and tipping over horse-drawn sleighs full of laughing people flying into the snowbanks. It was interesting to see the clothing, some wore furs with the fur side out, others wore them with the fur side in, like the Inuit do. The long red stocking caps that many wore immediately identified these people as Quebec habitants.

In many of the paintings there is a structure that I have seen in Nova Scotia, related to the early Acadians. It is a roadside cross, standing maybe 12 or 16 feet high, with a metal ring at the cross pieces, and an angled cross on the metal ring made of two arrows. I'm not sure what it is supposed to signify, but it appeared in many of his paintings. I've seen it in one Alex Colville painting as well. Apparently it was significant to both Acadians and Quebecois.

There were other 19th century paintings that try to convey the landscape and the native people, but tinged with a European perspective. There were mountains in the background, and native people and tipis in the foreground, but something about the way the scenes were painted conveyed a very European countryside feeling. Stately trees, very European peasant-like native people. Some portraits of First Nations people looked for all the world like dark-skinned Europeans. A portrait of Joseph Brant showed a gentleman who looked very European except for the Mohawk hairstyle.

The AGO has a great collection of Group of Seven paintings. There are whole rooms devoted to each artist in the group, and it really gave you a sense of their differences and similarities. One room split in half contained paintings by two of the Group of Seven (one was MacDonald, I don't remember who the other one was) and the paintings were mostly produced in the late teens early '20s up in the Algoma region of Ontario. So the subject matter was pretty much the same but the sense of the landscapes soo-o-o-o different! MacDonald showed the forest just boiling with life, a riot of trees, water, undergrowth, rocks. The other artist showed the forest as a place of deep stillness, the sky was not simply a background as in MacDonald's paintings but a living part of the whole landscape. Amazing how two artists can see the same landscape so differently.

Along the front of the AGO on the second level is the Galleria Italia, with one wall and the roof being a single curved expanse of glass. On the facing wall are huge upright planks bolted to the wall, each one maybe 14" wide and 8" or 10" deep. They appear to have cutaways with trees inserted into them, but what they really are is the plank has been carved in such a way as to reveal the heartwood as a tree trunk within the plank, complete with branches sticking out and back into the plank. So what it looks like is a tree within a plank. On the floor are similar planks on legs like benches, except they all have "Do Not Touch" signs on them so you can't sit down. They've been similarly cut, only the heartwood is now hollowed out and filled with something that looks like golden sap (since you're not allowed to touch I don't know if it is really liquid or some kind of plastic resin made to look like a liquid). So instead of seeing the tree inside the plank, you see the empty space left by removing the tree from the plank.

Interesting idea, but I don't think they should put something that looks awfully like a bench out and then cover it with "Do Not Touch" signs!

We went for lunch in the basement cafeteria. My friend told me about the art therapy program she is taking, she's in the second year of a three year program. This term her class is doing Veil Painting. She said that they focussed on their own lives in seven year stages, and did one painting representing each stage. Using various exercises they try to get in touch with the major elements of each period for them, so for example my friend said that what she got in touch with in her first seven years was pure joy. The next seven years she said was all about legs and arms and elbows and knees. For her third period she was quite shocked by the revelation of her sense of failure, of being a failure.

In class she related the events that led up to her failing a grade in school then, after having been one of the better performing students in school. But one of her classmates pointed out that she did not "fail", she deliberately sabotaged herself by refusing to study or do homework. She set herself up to fail. She said this was a big revelation for her and it completely changed her view of herself in realizing this. All these years she has worked and lived under the cloud of being a failure, traced back to this single event in her teen years, and she wasn't a failure at all, she just set it up to look like that. She said that it felt like a huge weight lifted from her shoulders, a new beginning. This only happened recently, so she wonders if the feeling will stick or is going to be shortlived, but she thinks it is a major turning point in her view of herself, she thinks it will stick.

Amazing how our beliefs about ourselves can be formed based on interpretations of past events, that could just as easily be interpreted in another way.


20th Century Woman said...

This is a really thought provoking post. I hope you don't mind if I sort of copy your idea and do an "Art and Life" of my own sometime. Failure is an emotion charged subject, and you wove it beautifully into the subject of art through your friend's course.

Zabetha said...

Thank you, and I don't mind at all! I look forward to reading what you write about that.

Anonymous said...

How very interesting, Anne, The many interesting pieces of art and various perspectives sound fascinating.

It's so true that things we hear and believe about ourselves in childhood do stay in our heads almost forever, don't they? When I was 9 my 14 year old boy cousin said I had big feet and even wearing size 6 (36 euro), I always believed my feet were too big. Go figure!

I hope that day was a freeing revelation for your friend!