The masterpiece designation has been under fire for decades, and not just because its practitioners tend to be Dead White European Males.
Calling something a masterpiece elevates the work, but in doing so can make it remote and unassailable. Is it even possible to see--I mean, really see--the Mona Lisa anymore?
100 Masters: Only in Canada manages to walk the masterpiece line. It balances big-name knockouts and completely unexpected pleasures in a grand tour of some of the best work currently held in Canadian galleries.
Monet, Waterloo Bridge, 1903 (WAG)
As a celebration of the Winnipeg Art Gallery's centenary year, WAG director Stephen Borys crisscrossed the country (with a side trip to Minneapolis, which is kind of an honorary prairie town) and gathered together 50 European and American pieces, 50 Canadian pieces and, as a bonus, 10 artworks from the gallery's own collection.
There are a lot of superstars from the standard canon jostling for our attention here, including Rembrandt, van Gogh, the Group of Seven, Picasso, Bacon and Warhol. But the exhibit constructs a coherent narrative, with a chronological order that divides into big sweeps of history and related artistic periods.
Getting close to Rodin's The Kiss (Matt TenBruggencate)
Some of the works grab us because they are immediately recognizable: a quintessentially melancholy Blue Period Picasso (The Crouching Beggar
from 1902), a standout Emily Carr (Big Raven
from 1931), a Warhol Mao
, a small bronze version of The Kiss
(c. 1898), one of Rodin's iconic sculptures.
Others compel us by offering something new. The van Gogh (Vase with Zinnias and Geraniums
, 1886) is a relatively early work, though the thick impasto paint and intense colour give a strong sense of where his art will go. The Monet is a moody, tonal painting of London (Waterloo Bridge
, 1903), where the painter clearly finds the wet grey fog as captivating as the French sunshine. The Krieghoff (An Officer's Room in Montreal
, 1846) is an interior, revealing a military man's room hilariously packed with taxidermy, art objects, sporting equipment, curiosities and --in a self-referencing flourish--Krieghoff's own painting hung high above a fireplace.
Some pieces even shake up received ideas. Henri Fantin-Latour was friends with several of the French Impressionists but in his own work hewed to a more conservative style, which might be why he's often overlooked in the art history surveys. Le jeune Fitz-James
(1869), Fantin-Latour's small, simple portrait of a grave, self-contained child, is absolutely striking and modern.
Lucius O'Brien's Sunrise on the Saguenay, Cape Trinity (1880) (WAG)
Against the blockbuster names, the Canadian component holds its own, from Lucius O'Brien's luminous Sunrise on the Saguenay, Cape Trinity
(1880) to an autumnal landscape (Autumn, Bon Echo
, 1923) by Arthur Lismer--often the last guy mentioned when one is listing off the Group of Seven--to a psychologically acute portrait of two girls (Sisters of Rural Quebec
, 1930) from Prudence Heward. (Yes, there are a few women among the "masters.")
And much of the Canadian work, importantly, comes from indigenous artists. Alex Janvier's trippily gorgeous abstract painting (Lubicon
, 1988) packs a political punch--the title references a land claim dispute. Marion Tuu'luq combines traditional subject matter with flattened abstract patterning in her textile piece Thirty Faces
Renoir's Le Concert (WAG)
There are letdowns. Warhol's Mao
(1973) feels forlorn, since one Warhol hung by itself means almost nothing--you need repetition, you need wallpaper! But even the disappointments are important, if only to break down the hushed reverence some viewers feel is compulsory in the presence of pedigreed historical work.
It's probably good that the Renoir (Le concert
, 1918-1919) is ghastly, one of his late paintings in which lush paint and even lusher flesh are overblown to the point of kitsch.
Other paintings remind us that we need to engage with historical art the same way we do with contemporary work. In Paul Peel's The Modest Model
(1889), a small buck-naked boy who's supposed to be posing for an academic painting hides shyly behind an easel. This image might have seemed adorably whimsical in the 1880s, but to a 21st-century eye it has an undeniably icky vibe.
Concentrating 400 years of art history into one show, 100 Masters
combines education and pleasure. The early rooms are saturated in Farrow & Ball-style historical colours, and traditional mouldings and lintels have been fitted to the doors.
The later rooms become more neutral. Probably the show's most contemporary aspect comes at the end, where the viewer can "exit through the gift shop" and pick up a Tom Thomson coffee mug or some Impressionist stationery. Old Masters meet merchandising--now that's modern. 100 Masters: Only in Canada runs at the Winnipeg Art Gallery May 11-August 18, 2013
Related:WAG celebrates 100 years with 100 Masters.