A Walk Through the National Gallery

Inspired by a prompt from last week sometime, I wanted to write about how art makes me feel.

I often think about writing and music, but I don’t often take the time to consider visual art. Strange, since I was raised by two artists and often went with them to galleries, large and small, at home and abroad.

I aimed to go to our National Gallery on Monday. Well, I did go then, actually, but it was closed. I finally made it back yesterday.

I always go directly to the Canadian exhibit and yesterday, I wanted to visit some old friends, the ones I always think of when I think of the gallery.

I have written my impressions as they came to me, as I wandered from room to room.

Cornelius Krieghoff, White Horse Inn by Moonlight

Cornelius Krieghoff, White Horse Inn by Moonlight courtesy of allpaintings.org

I am there, standing in the moonlight. I can smell the pines and feel the cold tingling in my nose. The snow crunches underfoot as I shift my weight. I can feel the dampness seeping through my shoes.

I stand in the shadows. He doesn’t see me, the man with the horses. Perhaps they can see me, or my scent carries to them on the night air. All is still, other than the horses, the steam coming from their nostrils as they paw the ground, bells tinkling faintly.

I feel calm as I watch the scene. The clouds move across the full moon and now I see the other horses and the other men. A dog barks. The front door of the small inn, just a cabin really, opens and voices flow out. I can see three faces in the fire lit front room.

Closer to me, a man is filling a pot with pond water through a hole in the ice. I almost missed him.

At last, I turn and follow the moonlit path off to the left, through the trees.

In art, as in life, I am drawn to nature, to scenes that would capture me out in the real world. Standing before paintings such as this one, I feel myself becoming part of the scene. I feel as though I am right there, pulled into the painting, all my senses engaged.

With Krieghoff’s paintings, and those of William Raphael, John A. Fraser, Homer Watson, I can hear the water, smell the leaves, feel the rain.

I am drawn to the Canadian-ness of the nature, too; these are places I’ve been, or feel as though I could have been. They are familiar. And they are places I would like to stand, to look out across, and to breathe in deeply.

I also love studies of houses in landscapes. A touch of humanity in the midst of nature. I especially like houses in the snow. What is it about this that I find enthralling? Nature, Canadiana again, for sure.

Maybe, too, memories of childhood. Or more ancient, deeper ancestral memories?

Maurice Cullen, Ice Breaking. It captures nature, Canadiana, a moment in time, a house in a snowy landscape. It feels like home.

Maurice Cullen, Ice Breaking, L’Assomption, courtesy of wikimedia.org

Views of daily life touch me, too. Moments in time, special in an ordinary way.

Franklin Brownell’s Lamplight, is an intimate picture of a mother and small child sitting at a table by lamp light. Helen McNicoll’s painting, Buttercups, is similar in theme. They make me smile and they touch my heart. They are scenes from a century ago, yet, aside from the clothing, they could just as easily have taken place today.

William Brymner’s A Walk In the Orchard is another touching glimpse of a long-ago moment shared between two people.

Robert Harris, Meeting of the School Trustees

Harris, A Meeting of the School Trustees, courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada (gallery.ca)

This has always been a favourite.

I think it is the story behind the painting that captures me.

The way she stands is uncompromising as she explains her perspective. The tired, dubious looks on the men’s faces are captured subtly yet clearly.

Some of her frustration is transmitted to the onlooker. Look at the man whose face says “no”. He is leaning against the back wall. He is unconvinced and will always be.

If I look at them for long enough, I begin, I think, to see a touch of childish defiance as their eyes flick back and forth, looking at her from under heavy, obstinate eyelids. She must recognize this look from the ones her students, the trustees’ children, give her in class. And maybe she’s looking at the one man to her right because she thinks she may be getting to him.

And then I arrive at my favourites: James Wilson Morrice, David Milne and, in the next room, Tom Thompson and the Group of Seven.

Beginning with James Wilson Morrice, I contemplate The Sugar Bush; Blanche Baume; the Ferry, Quebec; Landscape Tangiers; Girl Reading – I love all of them.

Morrice, The Sugar Bush

Morrice, Girl Reading

As with the landscapes earlier in the exhibit, I want to be in these pictures, I feel I have been to these places, and I identify with the people captured. I’m drawn in even though these works of art are different from the realism of the previous landscapes.

Milne is another favourite: Trees in Spring, Billboards, Alcove, Window, Kitchen Chimney.

Milne, Trees in Spring, courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada (gallery.ca)

Milne, Billboards, courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada (gallery.ca)

Milne, Kitchen Chimney, courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada (gallery.ca)

This last reminds me of writing and drawing as a young girl – I used to gaze out the second and third floor windows of our house at roofs upon roofs upon roofs. I loved this scene, and remember trying to capture it with camera, pencil and word. Interesting that I wasn’t the only one to be inspired by such a view.

Jack Humphrey, too, captured the roofs in Window on Orange Street, and LL Fitzgerald in From and Upstairs Window, and Sam Borenstein in Rooftops. And there are others, many others. The pattern of peaks is simply pleasing, quiet, calm.

I can never simply pass through the Tom Thompson room. It feels perfect. Calm. I want to pause, linger a while.

I imagine as he sat in Canada’s great north that he found in himself a quiet, focused mind, at least while he was painting. I find this same feeling settle over me as I sit and contemplate his masterpieces.

Is it that I am familiar with his art and his subjects? That I have canoed his beloved Canoe Lake myself and seen the places he painted with my own eyes? Perhaps it is his love of Canada’s north, transmitted through his subjects, that speaks to me.

I grew up in Toronto and as a child, my family had a cottage up north. These were his subjects, his homes – and they formed my childhood. He painted what would become my own life, my own beginnings. Autumn’s Garland and The Guide’s Home and Returning from Church.

I think that it is nostalgia that I feel as I look at them.

Tom Thompson, Autumn’s Garland, courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada (gallery.ca)

Tom Thompson, The Guide’s Home, Algonquin, courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada (gallery.ca)

Tom Thompson, Returning From Church, courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada (gallery.ca)

The other Group of Seven members pull me in too, especially A.Y. Jackson, and J.E.H. MacDonald.

Having completed the Group of Seven portion of the exhibit, I think that I am just about done for the day.

I begin to pass by Pegi Nicol MacLeod’s A Descent of Lilies. I haven’t noticed this one before and at first it does not speak to me. But then, as hidden objects begin to emerge, I am intrigued, engaged. I stop. A horse, a hand, a second figure…

The artist reaches out, beckoning me to search further, longer.

Pegi McNicol MacLeod, A Descent of Lilies, courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada (gallery.ca)

Finally, near the end, the abstract painters.

As a child, I didn’t so much mind art galleries as I minded pausing forever at each picture. I had finite patience. Whereas my mother would disappear into a piece for what felt like hours. My dad and I used to roll our eyes and say she was taking each piece apart and putting it back together again with her eyes.

Now, two hours into the exhibit, I find myself lost, mesmerized, disappearing into Jean Paul Riopelle’s Pavane, Untitled, Composition.

Paul Riopelle, Pavane, courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada (gallery.ca)

Riopelle, Paul Emile Borduas, Marcelle Ferron – is it the colours? The movement? Perhaps it is the abstract essence itself. I am lost in it because I don’t know what inspired it and I don’t need to. I can almost imagine the inspiration the painters felt as they painted…I imagine it is something akin to how I feel when I’m writing. Primal. Unknowable. Devoid of name or label.

Paul Emile Borduas, 3 + 4 + 1, courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada (gallery.ca)

Borduas’ 3 + 4 + 1 is compelling in its movement. It doesn’t need to be anything in particular. As you watch, the black shapes float, and then deepen, becoming the blackness beyond the white. This is fascinating. It plays with your senses, not in the same way as the earlier paintings, which engage your senses, but in a deeper way. It calls upon a new sense, perhaps the sixth sense.

Claude Tousignant, Asparagus, courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada (gallery.ca)

Claude Tousignant’s Asparagus could be anything. Does it matter that it is asparagus? No. It is interesting to know, but not crucial to the enjoyment of the piece.

Moving on, I come across Tom Hodgson’s Enduro Take Off. I love the colours, referred to as “acidic” in the information provided, the energy, the use of raw canvas, thick paint and everything in between. There is a familiarity here too. Did I see this as a child?

Tom Hodgson, Enduro Take Off, courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada (gallery.ca)

Finally, Alex Janvier, Untitled 1986.

Unfortunately, I can’t find a picture of it on any website. Not that any of these pictures can really be appreciated electronically.

Instead, here is a similar work, August Sunrise.

Alex Janvier, The August Sunrise, courtesy of mackenzieartgallery.ca

Untitled 1986 is vast. A white canvas stretching across the wall. I sit on a chair to let its full effect wash over me. The magical colours balance the whiteness. Sparse yet bursting with colour, colours that have been placed side by side with care, thought, driven by spirit.

The dance of the spirits. That is what comes to mind. Small fairies, radiating from bigger, more powerful spirits in the centre. Shimmering like the northern lights. Colours disappearing into the universe’s white hole of nothingness, which is also everythingness.

And that’s it.

I emerge from the gallery into the blinding sun. Disoriented yet balanced. Quiet and calm.

I must remember to return again soon.

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3 thoughts on “A Walk Through the National Gallery

  1. Absolutely lovely: moving, informative and beautifully written. Thank you for sharing such treasures of eyes and mind. xxx

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