'The world needs Canadian art. I'm going to give it to them,' says new head of McMichael gallery

After mounting two hit exhibitions of Canadian art in London, U.K., Ian Dejardin will try to get Canadians and the rest of the world just as interested as he takes over the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

British curator Ian Dejardin brings his passion for our homegrown art to this side of the pond

Ian Dejardin selected 150 works from the 6500 works in the McMichael Canadian Art Collection's vault in order to "get to know the collection quiickly and well." (Stephanie vanKampen/CBC News)

"It's time Canada started saying what great art it's got," says Canadian art's unofficial cheerleader-in-chief, who also is also the recently appointed director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

Decades ago, British art curator Ian Dejardin stumbled upon a book of Canadian art at a library in London, U.K. He quickly fell in love with the range of colour and the vastness of the landscapes painted by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. He was amazed that these artists were virtually unknown outside Canada, and he vowed to change that.

Flash forward to earlier this decade: Edinburgh-born​ Dejardin was running the famed Dulwich Picture Gallery in London and made good on his promise, mounting two exhibitions of Canadian art: Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven in 2011 and From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia in 2014.

Both shows were big hits, garnering rave reviews and lineups around the block. Dejardin, through his expertise and enthusiasm, did what no Canadian had managed before: getting the Brits to appreciate our artists.

So for his next trick Dejardin brought his passion for Canadian art to — where else? — Canada. He took over running the McMichael collection in Kleinburg, Ont., earlier this year.

Franklin Carmichael's October Gold, 1922 (McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

Like a kid in a candy shop

He realized there was no better way for him to get to know the collection than to plan and put on an exhibition. 

So Dejardin is staging his first curated exhibition:The Art of Canada: Director's Cut. It takes 150 works out of the vault from the more than 6,500 items stored there, some of which haven't been seen in years.

Exploring the vast McMichael collection for the first time, Dejardin confessed he felt like a kid in a candy shop.

"I couldn't believe it," he said. "I knew they had great, great collections, I knew there was a lot of Group of Seven, I knew there was a lot of very good Indigenous art and Inuit art, but I hadn't expected the breadth and depth of the collection."

The show has works by familiar names such as Thomson and Carr, Norval Morrisseau, David Milne and Alex Colville, but it also includes many lesser-known artists.

Norval Morrisseau's Thunderbird with Inner Spirit, 1978. Ian Dejardin, impressed by the 'shamanistic principle of transformation' in this huge painting, wrote in his exhibition notes that Morrisseau's Anishinabe name 'translates as Copper Thunderbird, so in some way this may count as a self-portrait.' (McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

Out of the vault

One such work Dejardin gushed over at the preview was a 1937 painting titled Pomona which shows a woman peeling apples. Dejardin included this and several other works in the exhibition by L.A.C. (Lawrence) Panton (1894-1954), an artist who'd been known in his day but whose reputation has since faded.

The executive director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection describes a favourite find from the gallery's archives. 1:15

Escape from England

"Canada is the place to be at the moment," Dejardin told CBC News.

"Basically everyone in England wishes they were here, and I got here first so they can't. I literally got my contract the day after Brexit. Just saying: timing is everything."

Recently appointed executive director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection Ian Dejardin examines a painting that is being restored to hang in a new exhibition entitled The Art of Canada: Director's Cut (Stephanie vanKampen/CBC News)

The world needs more Canadian art

"My ambition is to make this the place to come and find out about the art of Canada in the whole of Canada and, indeed, the world," he said. 

And if we are too modest to do that, no worries. He's got us covered.

"The rest of the world needs Canadian art. I'm going to give it to them."

Alex Colville's Milk Truck, 1959 (McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

An immersion course for being Canadian

As a curator in London, Dejardin did more than perhaps anyone to promote Canadian art. And while he plans to use his experience getting foreigners turned on to Canadian art, he also hopes to draw more Canadian visitors. 

The McMichael is less than an hour's drive from downtown Toronto, and it's nestled in a vast area of picturesque walking trails. Dejardin says those in the surrounding area could make a trip to the McMichael a full day's outing by looking at art, enjoying nature and stopping for lunch in the nearby village of Kleinburg or at the gallery's own restaurant.

"I think for Canadians this place represents Canada," he said.

"It's like an immersion course for what being a Canadian is, what the Canadian spirit is." 

Christiane Pflug's Interior at Night, 1964-1965 (McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

It's time for Canadian art

If passion and enthusiasm is all it takes, Dejardin will have the enormous McMichael packed with art lovers in no time. 

"Canadian art is sensational, and it's sensational all the way along the line," he said. "And it's got thousands of years of history behind it, as well."

The Art of Canada: Director's Cut is on display at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection until Nov. 18, 2018.

L.L. FitzGerald's Williamson’s House, 1933 (McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

With files from Stephanie vanKampen