It takes readers behind the scenes, to get a sense of the hard slogging, endless mileage and tricky negotiations that go into a museum mega-show.
—Alison Gillmor, reviewer
The Winnipeg Art Gallery has had quite a 100th birthday, celebrating its centenary with a roundup of contemporary Winnipeg artists (Winnipeg Now), a major showcase of its Inuit collection (Creation & Transformation: Defining Moments in Inuit Art), and, most recently, 100 Masters: Only in Canada.
Covering over 500 years of art, 100 Masters features 50 European and American works and 50 Canadian works taken from public Canadian collections, along with 10 bonus works from the WAG itself. With reach and depth and some blockbustery names, this is a big, ambitious show.
Vincent van Gogh, Dutch, 1853-1890, Vase with Zinnias and Geraniums, 1886. Oil on canvas, 61 x 45.9 cm. Purchased 1950; 5045. Lent by: National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (WAG)
The book--by WAG director Stephen Borys, with contributing writer Andrew Kear, the gallery's curator of historical Canadian art--is likewise big and ambitious. It is also slightly and poignantly at odds with itself, since 100 Masters
, even more than most art shows, is a celebration of the live experience of art.
Taking a Rembrandt from a reproduction on a page to a wall on the WAG has an immediate and astonishing impact. The core of 100 Masters
comes down to these artworks being brought together in one place so that Winnipeggers can encounter them physically, up close and face to face.
Of course, that's a rare and fleeting opportunity, and after it's gone, the visuals in this good-looking book will stand as documentation. Meanwhile, the text has a lot to say about what came before the show.
Borys, a born-and-bred Winnipegger who studied and worked across Canada and the United States before coming home to head the WAG, writes about the process of visiting twenty-eight institutions in Canadian cities (plus two in Minneapolis, since there is a historical connection between the WAG and that honorary prairie town). His essay isn't about scholarly details but about the experiential and personal dimensions of the exhibition: this is art history as road trip.
Partly, Borys's essay functions as an extended thank you note to the galleries that lent art for the exhibition. It takes readers behind the scenes, to get a sense of the hard slogging, endless mileage and tricky negotiations that go into a museum mega-show. It also becomes an acknowledgement of the subjectivity of Borys's final list, since his initial choices often changed, due to timing, luck and sheer serendipity.
The qualities that constitute a masterwork become questions rather than matters of certainty, as Borys becomes involved in conversations about "what was outstanding, unique, or important about a work."
Rembrandt van Rijn, Dutch, 1606-1669, A Woman at her Toilet (Heroine from the Old Testament), 1632-1633. Oil on canvas, 109.2 x 94.4 cm. Purchased 1953; 6089. Photo © NGC. Lent by: National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (WAG)
This is crucial, since the idea of the masterpiece is contested these days. Media coverage of the show has been drawn to the big names, "Rembrandt, Renoir and Rodin" being recited with a kind of incantatory power. It is, in fact, a huge privilege and a deep pleasure to see a Rembrandt (A Woman at her Toilet
, 1632-1633) "in the flesh," because this seventeenth-century Dutch painter makes it so clear that paintings do possess a kind of flesh.
So many things that don't come through in reproductions--the scale, the scrumbled texture of the paint, the sense that faces are lit from within, the pearlescent skin that's so lovely and yet so vulnerable--are revealed in the painting's physical presence, suddenly and completely.
Still, the exhibition's weighted title, 100 Masters
, warrants a larger discussion in the book. The old implications of the term "master"--the approved list of masterpieces, the neat timeline, the idea of lofty singular genius--were aggressively challenged by the waves of art theory that came out of the 1970s and '80s. Read more of this review here. It was excerpted courtesy of The Winnipeg Review.