At the AGO

We renewed our membership at the AGO this year. I’m not sure J. was entirely convinced, but I kind of like the idea of supporting at least one local museum and you never know what interesting thing may show up to justify a visit to McCaul and Dundas. We paid a visit to the AGO one Sunday afternoon last year after it re-opened, but we didn’t see much aside from Frank (the new restaurant), the European art and artifacts in Thompson collection (most memorably, Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents), and the new Frank Gehry contemporary art space on the 3rd-5th floors. (We weren’t there for very long and I think we paid more attention to the space than the art therein.)

So I decided to use my Civic Holiday today to get a sense of what the new AGO is really like. I didn’t go back to the new Frank Gehry space, preferring to concentrate my efforts on the first two floors.

In general, the new space is clean, well-organized, and visitor-and-art-friendly. There’s a small but functional and reasonably welcoming cafeteria in the basement where I had a quick lunch (grilled club sandwich and coffee). If all you are looking for is a decent bite to eat, this is a much better bet than Frank — which is high-concept and expensive but not really memorable as a food experience. I later discovered the Members’ Lounge in Grange House which serves (I suspect) essentially the same food as the cafeteria in a more attractive setting.

As far the collections go, the AGO is in a rather strange situation. They are the lucky recipients of the Ken Thompson collection, which has incredible quality and depth in the kinds of art and artifacts that Thompson was interested in. There are rooms full of works by well known Canadian painters (from Krieghoff to Lauren Harris to David Milne), an enormous collection of of model ships, and a large display of Chinese snuff boxes. And much more. Not everything is to my taste but it is clearly the work of a serious collector applying intelligence and taste to the investment of a very considerable personal fortune. Apparently Thompson did not collect a lot of European painting, but what he did collect was and is memorable — notably, of course, that Rubens but also some early Flemish paintings. In the Canadian paintings rooms the curators have given up on finding wall space for labels, opting instead for a read-and-return Gallery catalogue for each room.

By contrast, the Gallery’s own main collection is a much more hodgepodge affair. Essentially, they have a few really good pieces from here there and everywhere, and a lot else that is not as memorable. They have dealt with this situation in a fashion that is interesting though only partially successful. Sensibly, they have eschewed a chronological approach, beginning their European Gallery with a room full of some of their best stuff — Dutch paintings by Rembrandt, Hals, Cuyp, etc. In other galleries they have adopted a more thematic approach, mixing old and new, European and decidedly non-European. Some of these galleries work better than others. There is an room full of paintings of women, which makes for an interesting reflection on how women have been portrayed in the arts through the ages. (There is also the suggestion, worded so cautiously as to say almost nothing, that men have portrayed women differently from women — a theme perhaps worth exploring further.) Not quite as successful but still worth considering is an attempt to group together a number of European paintings (and a contemporary shadow-puppet film) as exploring themes of multiculturalism and cultural conflict.

Some other attempts to make use of this approach are not nearly as compelling. Perhaps the most striking failure of curatorial imagination is the presentation of the older pieces in the Museum’s Canadian collection. The paintings are thrown hodgepodge (Pitti-Palace-style, as it were) on to a wall, without any kind of labelling or identification (to be fair, I think a number of them were also presented this way under the old regime). The one piece of curatorial text that is supposed to assist the viewer is the suggestion that we should look for the power relations expressed in these paintings. I’m not sure what this is supposed to mean. The best I can come up with is that the curators don’t think they’re very good paintings (some of them clearly are not), but they’ve been on the wall so long that people will complain if they take them down, so why not leave them up as an exercise in deconstruction for the viewer?

The curators have unfortunately done something similar, minus the hamfisted political overtones, for the gallery with their Impressionist and pre-Impressionist European paintings. The Impressionists (some nice Pissaros, but nothing spectacular) get their own space and actual labels; the unidentified (largely but not entirely?) pre-impressionist works on the other wall get the Pitti Palace treatment. I suppose it’s a statement of sorts (they point out that these methods of presentation are faithful to the respective approaches taken in the salons where these paintings would have been first shown), but frankly some of the paintings on the non-Impressionist wall are more interesting than those on the Impressionist wall and it would be nice to know more about them.

This kind of thing is really a failure of curatorial intelligence, and this is the most disappointing thing about the new AGO. We all know the AGO is not the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and they need to work with what they have. As some of the new galleries demonstrate, the thematic approach can be an effective way of presenting art that is arguably not of the the first rank but nevertheless not lacking in value and interest. Perhaps it’s just that this approach needs to be handled in a less hamfistedly political way.

Along the same lines, I started my day at the Gallery with the Drama and Desire special exhibition. There are a few really impressive pieces here, as well as some stuff that is at least worth seeing. (I suspect the unstated theme of the exhibit is to some extent “it’s what we could get our hands on”.) It’s mixed in with a lot of fairly ordinary French and English painting, especially in the earlier galleries of the exhibition. Like the other galleries, it’s a mix of really good, decent, and indifferent, which could be redeemed by some kind of context/history/whatever for the viewer. And there’s clearly a story here, but we’re not getting much of it from the curatorial notes on the wall.