That '60s Show

The National Gallery embraces the flower power decade

By Liz Hodgson
Reason Over Passion by Joyce Wieland. Courtesy National Gallery of Canada.
Reason over Passion by Joyce Wieland. Courtesy National Gallery of Canada.

The 1960s are sweeping Canadian art galleries and museums, with several major institutions now exploring the cultural transformations that took place during the era of space travel, the Beatles and flower power. There’s Cool ’60s Design on display at the Canadian Museum of Civilization; The Sixties: Photography in Question at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography; and The 60s: Montreal Thinks Big at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. The National Gallery’s contribution is The Sixties in Canada (on until April 24, 2005), an 83-piece collection of paintings, photographs, sculptures and installations that National Gallery curator Denise Leclerc says “best express what was going on politically at the time.”

Art-wise, the ’60s were all about moving in bold new directions. Artists in North America and Europe were abandoning the conventions of the past; instead of classical, figurative paintings depicting things like bowls of fruit and bucolic farmers’ fields, the new emphasis was on mostly non-figurative works that took unprecedented licence with media and materials. It was an artistic movement that paralleled the social and political revolutions of the time (women’s liberation, civil rights, the antiwar movement). It was also a period hallmarked by a sense of permissiveness – especially when it came to drugs and sex. Leclerc, a short, primly dressed Québécoise with a neat red bob and conservative glasses, doesn’t strike you as the kind of person who was experimenting with acid and free sex four decades ago. “I wasn’t,” she says, laughing. “But I’ve always been drawn to this kind of art. I’m someone who is drawn to what’s new.” The National Gallery’s “The Sixties in Canada” provides an opportunity to experience a who’s who of mid-century Canadian artists working in this genre. That said, Leclerc has added some clever touches. At the entrance to the exhibit is a vestibule draped in purplish-silver sheeting, an “environment mixed media” reconstructed and adapted from a 1968 Les Levine work from the Art Gallery of Ontario. The final installation, meanwhile, is an audio loop that samples the decade’s top 100 pop songs. For those who can’t make the journey to Ottawa, here, in words and pictures, is a sampling.

Joyce Wieland (1931-1998)
Reason over Passion
Quilted cotton

Leclerc set out to capture Canada’s political mood at the time, and hit the mother lode with Reason over Passion, Joyce Wieland’s quilted cotton wall hanging. Recalling Robert Rauschenberg's Bed (1955) – the paint-splattered sleeping bag now hanging in New York’s Museum of Modern Art – Wieland’s piece reflects an appreciation for the artistic potential of everyday objects. The text, of course, was Pierre Trudeau’s motto, a proverb he picked up during his Jesuit education. “After seeing his speech at the 1968 Liberal convention,” Leclerc explains, “Wieland found her inspiration.” As well as being a paean to Trudeau, the work reflects the second-wave feminism that was washing over a generation. Wieland took the process of quilting, a craft traditionally the domain of women – and something at which they had toiled in obscurity for so many years – and raised it to the lofty status of art. To Leclerc, the most interesting interpretation of the piece lies in its essential paradox: “Here you’re saying ‘reason over passion,’ but this is a bed we’re talking about.”

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