Originally published on Torontoist on June 17, 2015.
Wall dedicated to the Toronto Purchase.
The press kit for “Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic” is filled with numbers. In the 118 works on display, created by 85 artists and collected from 51 institutions in 11 countries, sharp-eyed viewers will note 116 birds and 105 horses lurking within the frames.
Scheduled to coincide with the Pan American and Parapan American Games, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s latest major exhibition spotlights painted interpretations of the landscapes of the Americas, covering a timeline from the dawn of the United States in the late 18th century through the Second World War. These pieces show, according to the AGO’s Associate Curator of Canadian Art Georgiana Uhlyarik, how the artists were “trying to understand how the environment shapes them, how they find themselves in this new place, and how ultimately they end up shaping the environment and understanding that they have to find a new way of belonging to this place.” Or, as Uruguayan artist Pedro Figari put it in 1924, “until we have shaken off the stupor that befogs us, we will not be able to perceive the beauties of our own earth and sky, nor the poetry of our own traditions, nor the greatness of our mission…[to] create the work of America.”
The exhibition’s 13 themes touch on topics ranging from landscape-painting techniques developed to capture landscapes unknown to those of European origin, to the depiction of railways as part of the environment. There’s an underlying narrative about how these works were used for deceptive or exploitative purposes, such as romanticizing the land to promote immigration or depicting the wealth of natural resources ready for investors to capitalize on.
That sense of exploitation carries over into the last, Toronto-centric portion of the exhibition: a wall dedicated to the Toronto Purchase, the treaty where the Mississaugas signed over much of the land the city currently sits on. There are no paintings of landscapes accompanying the deal, just cold hard maps and signatures. The Toronto Purchase can stand in for the many treaties (or outright land grabs) made with indigenous cultures by colonial officials across the Americas over the period covered by the exhibition.
Of the artists represented, the most familiar will be those from North America. Canadians on display include Emily Carr, Cornelius Krieghoff, Paul Kane, and members of the Group of Seven, while from south of the border come pieces by Thomas Hart Benton, Georgia O’Keefe, and Grant Wood. Works from Latin America provide some of the exhibition’s most revelatory works, from José María Velasco’s depiction of indigenous Mexicans walking in front of ruins in Oaxaca, to Brazilian Tarsila do Amaral’s playful postcard-style depiction of monkeys in a tree.
Following its Toronto engagement, the exhibition will continue to follow major sporting events in the Americas. After a stop at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, these works will be displayed at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo on the eve of Brazil’s hosting of the 2016 Summer Olympics.