‘100 Masters: Only in Canada’ by Stephen Borys, with Andrew Kear

Book Reviews

100 Masters coverBy Alison Gillmor

The Winnipeg Art Gallery has had quite a hundredth 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 fifty European and American works and fifty Canadian works taken from public Canadian collections, along with ten bonus works from the WAG itself. With reach and depth and some blockbustery names, this is a big, ambitious show.

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 [editor’s note: some of that’s also on exhibition web site here].

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 A Woman at Her ToiletThis 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. Postmodern thinkers tended to view cultural artifacts as the velvet lining of a steely status quo, helping to reinforce power hierarchies of race, gender and class. This view can seem reductionist, especially in the mysterious light of a luminous Lucius O’Brien landscape or the solemn, self-contained gaze of a child in a Henri Fantin-Latour portrait. But a bigger discussion of what “master” might mean in the twenty-first century could open things up from both sides.

But if there’s not much talk, there’s a lot of action. Borys makes a big, bold decision: he simply gives equal heft to Canadian art. The show’s dual structure, with its fifty Canadian and fifty American and European pieces, has two crucial effects. Canadian art, which is often shamefully overlooked, even on its home turf, is shown holding its own against the consecrated canon of Euro–culture. And some of the hushed reverence that is reflexively offered to old oil paintings in ornate frames is broken down, so that historical works can be approached with fresh eyes. The show’s smooshy late Renoir (Le concert, 1918-1919) is kind of ghastly, for example. (Hard not to think of Mary Cassatt’s crisp dismissal of Renoir’s final years: “He is painting pictures or rather studies of huge red women with very small heads which are the most awful imaginable.”)

Sounds Assembling

Bertram Booker’s 1928 painting, Sounds Assembling

The book moves chronologically, pairing full-page images with biographical background and visual analysis, all written in straightforward language. Some of the works have considerable marquee value—Van Gogh’s flowers, Warhol’s Mao, Bacon’s sinister, lipsticky pope, Tom Thomson’s blue shadows on snow. But we also see how less well known works fit into the sweep of cultural history. Take the case of Canadian modernism, which tends to move with careful but often intriguing restraint a decade or two behind Europe. In Edwin Holgate’s The Bathers (1937), the Canadian nude gets a tentative outing, as two women perch in an unwelcoming rocky landscape. (There’s none of that Mediterranean languor that you see in the Matisse on a nearby page.) Prudence Heward’s Sisters of Rural Quebec (1930) takes a traditional subject and treats it with an acute and angular psychological perception that feels very modern. Sounds Assembling (1928) by Bertram Brooker, a pioneer of Canadian abstraction, is spiritual and mathematical and trippy at the same time, looking for all the world like a prog rock album cover.

The Canadian content also means that as we move toward the contemporary period there is a much-needed infusion of work by First Nations, Inuit and Métis artists. (Women don’t fare as well, on the European or Canadian side.) Alex Janvier’s Lubicon (1988) combines gorgeous abstraction with angry political content—the title references a land claim controversy. In The Impending Nisga’a Deal. Last Stand. Chump Change. (1996), Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun “co-opts” Western art history, using surrealist forms and pop art colours to examine treaty issues.

The gallery exhibition of 100 Masters involves what Borys calls “a succession of distinct encounters” with individual works. The book, 100 Masters, can’t replicate that essentially private, idiosyncratic experience. It does offer a comprehensive, carefully researched overview of 500 years of art—and an enduring record of an extraordinary show.

Winnipeg Art Gallery | 276 pages |  $58.00 | cloth | ISBN # 978-0889150119

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Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor is a Winnipeg journalist who has written on art, architecture, film and books for The Walrus, The Globe & Mail, Border Crossings, Canada's History and CBC Arts Online. She's also a pop culture columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press.