Vulnerability, Suffering, and Strength

Originally published on Torontoist on April 3, 2014.

“The greatest art always returns you to the vulnerabilities of the human situation.” – Francis Bacon

“In the human figure one can express more completely one’s feelings about the world than in any other way.” – Henry Moore

These quotations, which welcome visitors to “Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty,” immediately establish the exhibition’s tone and focus. Each artist’s distortions of the human figure, shaped by their wartime experiences, capture the vulnerability of our mortal forms.

While the AGO has showcased Moore’s sculptures for the past 40 years, this exhibit marks the first major Canadian presentation of Bacon’s glass-encased works. “My painting is not violent,” Bacon once noted. “It’s life itself that’s violent.” His work is the stuff of nightmares—spines threaten to escape bodies; toothy mouths appear on appendages; popes become screaming figures with blurred faces reminiscent of the face-melting climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Based on a show originally presented at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the exhibit pairs works from each artist to highlight similar themes and subject matter (there is, for example, a section devoted to crucifixion). According to the exhibit’s introduction, these pairings “create a dialogue showing their shared awareness of human suffering and mortality that is a testament to human strength and resilience.” The show emphasizes the impact the Second World War, especially the London Blitz, had on their art—Bacon was a civil defence volunteer, and Moore a government artist. Wartime photographs by Bill Brandt (who functions almost as a third featured artist) ground the art, especially Moore’s haunting sketches of people sheltering in the London Underground.

At yesterday’s media preview, Oxford emeritus fellow Dr. Francis Warner suggested that Bacon and Moore are two sides of the same coin: although they did not influence one another—and Moore’s work is more passive than Bacon’s—behind the distorted, violent surfaces, Warner finds a “never give up” humanistic spirit in their works that reflects Britain’s wartime striving for victory.

Exhibiting Lawren Harris

Originally published on Torontoist on June 29, 2016.


Lawren Harris, North Shore, Lake Superior, 1926. Oil on canvas. 102.2 x 127.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada. Purchased 1930. © 2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Lawren Harris has long drawn attention to the Art Gallery of Ontario. While The Idea of North exhibition that opens this weekend may claim as much interest for Steve Martin’s curatorial role as the works themselves, back in 1948 the gallery (then known as the Art Gallery of Toronto) deemed Harris worthy of being the first living artist to be honoured with a career-spanning retrospective.

The gallery looked for a recognized artist whose work influenced the development of Canadian fine art. The exhibition program described how Harris fit these criteria:

“In shaping the course of Canadian art by his goodwill and enthusiasm he has encouraged and given practical assistance to many other artists. He does not believe that artists should lead obscure and humble lives, but rather it is a reproach to a country to show no concern for its artists. With Dr. [Frederick] Banting, he believed ‘that no country can afford to neglect its creative minds.’

“He made a valiant effort to impress on the government the need of cultural centres in Canada. He paints, he plans, writes, broadcasts, and lectures. He is always the happy warrior who strives in a worthy cause.”


Cover of the guide to the 1948 exhibition of Lawren Harris’s work.

The works presented covered Harris’s entire career to that point, including key works displayed in The Idea of North like North Shore, Lake Superior. Unlike the current show (apart from samples such as one that almost foreshadows the design of Toronto City Hall), the 1948 exhibition included the abstract style he favoured from the mid-1930s onward. Harris’s reason for painting abstractions was that they offered “more imaginative scope in this way of seeing and painting and a more exacting discipline,” and as a vehicle for expressing ideas which wouldn’t work in representative forms.” Harris refused to title his abstract works, as names were “likely to interfere with the onlooker’s direct response.”

The exhibition’s opening on October 15, 1948 was preceded by an honorary dinner at the Arts and Letters Club for Harris, who came to Toronto from his then-base in Vancouver. Surviving members of the Group of Seven, including A.Y. Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, and Frederick Varley, attended. “There was a comradely gaiety,” observed Globe and Mail fine arts correspondent Pearl McCarthy, “and we were all such good-natured human beings in that bond of art!” Jackson toasted Harris, followed by reminiscences from Lismer.


Globe and Mail, October 16, 1948.

After dinner, the dignitaries headed to the gallery to view the five rooms dedicated to Harris’s work. The exhibit began with sketches Harris did for Harper’s magazine in 1909, which the artist insisted were among the world’s worst illustrations. It then moved into his depictions of The Ward neighbourhood, in which the Telegram saw “authentic charm and dignity, a secret sort of beauty in the literal early canvasses of old Toronto street scenes.”

Following through the rest of the exhibition, McCarthy noticed that Harris “always had a kind of spiritual resplendency which has transcended little questions of good taste and theoretic niceties.” The Telegram compared his 1920s landscapes to Chinese painters who sought “to distill the essence of landscape rather than to record it literally.” Literary critic Northrop Frye felt that Harris was “the type of painter who grows through states of metamorphosis, breaking his life into periods of experiment: the type represented by Turner and Picasso. This is the revolutionary type, and Harris is Canada’s only revolutionary artist.”

Harris rejected claims that contemporary Canadian art was experiencing a slump, feeling that the overall work had grown better, especially among Les Automatistes in Montreal. He believed the experience of the Group of Seven could not be duplicated, “for nothing originates in terms of the time, the place, and the people, in conjunction with values in art from the world generally.”


 The Telegram, October 16, 1948.

The exhibition ran for a month. The gallery has presented several major Harris shows since then, including a focus his pre-1930 work in 1978 and a retrospective of his later pieces in 1985. For The Idea of North, the AGO is expanding the exhibition shown in Boston and Los Angeles by adding archival photos and contextual content related to Harris’s depictions of The Ward, as well as a series of contemporary commissions based on themes related to the show.

Additional material from Lawren Harris Paintings 1910-1948 (Toronto: Art Gallery of Toronto, 1948); the October 16, 1948 and January 1, 1949 editions of the Globe and Mail; the January 14, 1978 edition of the Toronto Star; and the October 16, 1948 edition of the Telegram.

Picturing the Americas at the AGO

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.

The AGO Expands Its Horizons With New First Nations Exhibit

Originally published on Torontoist on July 23, 2014.


Patrick DesJarlait, Maple Sugar Time, 1946. Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Toronto has increasingly strived to honour the region’s First Nations—whether by acknowledging the historical presence of the Mississaugas of the New Credit on current City land or commemorating pre-European communities and trade routes. Now the Art Gallery of Ontario is following suit, staging an exhibition that highlights Anishinaabe artists from the Great Lakes region and making a greater effort to include indigenous art in its Canadian galleries.

“Before and After the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes” is a collaborative effort of the AGO and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, in New York City, where the exhibition recently wrapped up after a one-year run. The displays are organized by themes relating to Anishinaabe concepts of place and spirituality, and how they interact with the outside world. One of the most intriguing themes is “cottager colonialism,” which suggests that the colonization of indigenous land continues by way of vacationing tourists. Political statements are scattered throughout the exhibition, from Nadia Myre’s bead-covered pages of the Indian Act to the use of historical indigenous status documents in Robert Houle’s “Premises” series. Floral beaded bags and leggings, meanwhile, provide inspiration for the contemporary paintings of Christi Belcourt, an Ontario Arts Council Aboriginal Arts Award recipient.

For AGO curator Andrew Hunter, “Before and After the Horizon” serves as a “bold catalyst for rethinking parts of our permanent collection space.” The gallery is focused on acquiring and commissioning more First Nations art, contextualizing that art with displays of First Nations artifacts, and labelling Anishinaabe works throughout the institution with a thunderbird symbol. Hunter says these moves will encourage “thinking about how a certain history is represented, how certain communities are present within an institution whose history is largely a Western European model.”

Regular visitors can see the effects of these changes in the Canadian galleries. In the 19th-century salon room, a display of bandolier bags and a Chester Brown drawing of Louis Riel are nods to First Nations history. Norval Morrisseau’s six-piece Man Changing into Thunderbird has moved from a hallway to a prominent space across from Group of Seven works. Another Morrisseau work, the colourful Psychic Space, may be the first to catch your eye when walking into “Before and After the Horizon”—or perhaps it will be Michael Belmore’s Shorelines, a map of North America hammered out in copper, a metal sacred to the Anishinaabe.


Robert Houle, Parfleche for Norval Morrisseau, 1999. National Museum of the American Indian. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario

The Toronto incarnation of “Before and After the Horizon” features artists active in the city. Among them is photographer Keesic Douglas, who contributed his work Lifestyles, a quartet of photos depicting a contemporary urban First Nations couple living in a hipsterish apartment filled with stereotypical cultural artifacts. Interested in concepts of indigenous identity and representation, Douglas used historical paintings for reference when composing the shots.

Douglas was on hand for yesterday’s press preview, as was Bonnie Devine, who contributed two works to the exhibition. Inspired by the Canadian Shield landscape where she grew up as part of the Serpent River First Nation near Blind River, Devine’s contributions mix photos of rocks with “letters” drawing on the era of the Robinson Treaties of 1850, documents that turned her ancestors’ land over to the British.

Devine also contributed a piece installed in a regular gallery—one of several First Nations works that will continue to be displayed after the exhibition closes. For this piece, she took a wall map of Upper and Lower Canada, and transformed it into Battle for the Woodlands, where the Great Lakes are represented by animals, the St. Lawrence River runs red, and treaty boundaries are outlined. Accompanying the map is Treaty Robe for Tecumseh, a tribute to the War of 1812 hero.

Meanwhile, in the Walker Court, Robert Houle’s Seven Grandfathers transforms the roundels that encircle the space into ceremonial drums. This installation will provide the backdrop for the exhibition’s official public opening on July 30.

One Hundred Years of Art at the Grange

Originally published on Torontoist on June 4, 2013.


Portraits of Harriette Boulton Smith and William Henry Boulton, two of the few pieces shown in 1913 that are still exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Images courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

“Toronto some day may have an art gallery equal to Tate’s or the National in London, that is, if the plans of the Art Museum should materialize,” the Worldo bserved on June 5, 1913. The paper, along with most of Toronto’s media, was confident that the art exhibition that opened that day in the Grange was the seed from which a great institution would grow.

Grow it did. Tomorrow marks a century since the first exhibition was held on the site that became the Art Gallery of Ontario. It wasn’t the institution’s first display, though. Founded in 1900 as the Art Museum of Toronto (AMT), the gallery held shows in various locations before settling into a temporary space in the original Toronto Reference Library, at College and St. George streets (now the Koffler Student Service Centre).

In 1902, AMT president Sir Edmund Walker convinced Grange owner Harriette Boulton Smith to will her historic home to the institution. Following her death in 1909 and the passing of her second husband—journalist and intellectual Goldwin Smith—in 1910, the house was renovated and wired with electricity to prepare it for its new role. AMT officials saw the Grange as a starting point for building a larger gallery, and began acquiring land to the north along Dundas Street (then known as St. Patrick Street) for future expansion.

The space’s first exhibition centred on the Smiths’ art collection, some of which was acquired by Harriette’s first husband, William Henry Boulton. The chair he used during multiple terms as Toronto’s mayor during the mid-19th century was one of the main attractions. Goldwin Smith’s additions included copies of European paintings like Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, a series of watercolours depicting Reading, England (his childhood home) and portraits he commissioned of dour 17th-century Puritans.


Toronto Star, June 6, 1913.

Around 550 visitors passed through the Grange on opening day between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Works were displayed in the hallway, dining room, drawing room, and a space on the second floor converted into a print room. Dignitaries on hand included Mayor Horatio Hocken, AMT Vice President Sir Edmund Osler, and Ontario Lieutenant Governor Sir John Gibson. Hocken hoped the home’s name would be retained as the museum’s. As the World declared: “Other cities can have art museums, but only Toronto can have ‘The Grange.’”

Newspapers predicted great things for the gallery. The Telegram felt it would be one of “the most interesting show places in the city.” The Globe saw its location as “a bulwark against the upward sweep of business” from the south. The Worldforesaw a time when it would be regarded as “a national treasure house.”

To mark the centennial of its first on-site exhibition, the AGO will display and provide guided commentary on three of that show’s paintings tomorrow near Walker Court. Restoration efforts on a Klaes Molenaer work from the 17th century will be shown in the Grange (which still exists as an exhibit space). Throughout the month, the gallery will offer tours that will celebrate the growth of the AGO’s collection and offer visitors glimpses at the work of artists who were active in 1913. Hungry visitors can buy cookies made from a recipe taken from 1913’s most popular cookbook, the Five Roses Flour Cookbook.

Additional material from the June 6, 1913 edition of the Globe, the June 5, 1913 edition of the Telegram, and the June 5, 1913 and June 6, 1913 editions of the World.



Goldwin Smith with dog in front of the Grange, 1905. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

A slice of life photograph at the Grange in the years between the house was willed to the Art Museum of Toronto (as the AGO was originally known) by Harriette Boulton Smith in 1902 and the opening of its first onsite exhibition.

As for the man in the photo, here’s a sketch John Lownsbrough wrote for his history of the home, The Privileged Few (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1980):

From outward appearances, Harriette chose as her second husband a man quite dissimilar from her first. William Boulton had been outgoing, somewhat brash, essentially non-intellectual. Goldwin Smith, on the other hand, possessed qualities that stamped him aloof and austere. He was also avowedly cerebral. It is entirely possible that outward appearances magnified actual differences between the two men. Then again, it is possible they did not. In any event, a library soon replaced the grapery that had been added to the west wing of the Grange. From here, Goldwin Smith would devote himself to turning out reams of opinion on crucial concerns of the day. Not least among the subjects which attracted his attention was the political and social development of his adopted country. As a transplanted Englishman of strong liberal bias, suddenly relocated at the very epicentre of Tory Toronto, Smith perceived only too readily the deficiencies of the new Confederation. The remnants of a colonial heritage appeared to belie the proclaimed nationhood and gave offence to his philosopher’s sense of neatness. As much as the citizens of Toronto enjoyed basking in reflected glory while world notables in politics and letters came to pay their respects to the Sage of The Grange, not a few took umbrage at his suggestion that Canada’s destiny lay in continental union with the United States.


The Globe, June 6, 1913.

Newspaper coverage of the opening of the Grange as an art gallery was good, if repetitive, among the city’s dailies. Unless it was mentioned in a late edition that wasn’t microfilmed, the Mail and Empire was the only paper to ignore the event. Editorials ran the day after the exhibition began in the Globe (above) and the World (below).

The St. Patrick Street mentioned in the Globe editorial is present-day Dundas Street, as is Anderson Street.  Both were among the many small streets stitched together to extend Dundas east from Ossington a few years after the gallery opened (originally Dundas followed Ossington south to Queen Street). Both Lownsbrough and AGO Historic Site Coordinator Jenny Rieger (who was interviewed for the Torontoist article) can’t find any good reasons why Harriette Boulton Smith sold the land adjoining the Grange along St. Patrick Street, given that she and Goldwin Smith were already wealthy, and that they would gain new, close neighbours.


Toronto World, June 6, 1913.

news 13-06-06 art gallery opening

The News, June 6, 1913.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Great Art Has No Price…Or It Didn’t In 1972

Originally published on Torontoist on January 12, 2007. This was the first post I wrote for the site.

There are many ways to chart a city’s history. One can dig into the city archives, flip through photographs or listen to its citizens tell their stories about its daily life. The evolution of a city can also be traced through a vehicle that drives people crazy when it originally appears, but forms a valuable record when seen with distance: advertising.

Old ads are a valuable tool in looking at elements such as neighbourhood socio-economic changes and passing trends. Absurd concepts, outdated ideas and presentation often bring laughs, but if you’re not careful, you might learn something about past prejudices and wrong turns made in local development.

Vintage Ad #84 - Great Art has no Price, Give Us A Building!
Source: Toronto Life, February 1972

Often, trolling through old ads reveals parallels with current activities in Toronto. Exhibit A: the expansion of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The Frank Gehry-designed remodeling that is the most obvious sign of Transformation AGO is not the first time the gallery has undergone a major redesign. Back in 1972, the AGO geared up for its first expansion in nearly 40 years. The gallery made a record number of acquisitions in the late 1960s, culminating in a large donation of work by Henry Moore. As Ken Thomson’s donations helped spur the current construction, the volume of acquired work meant that new space was needed quickly to display a fraction of these pieces.

Plans developed in 1968 envisioned the expansion of the AGO in three stages. This ad spotlights Stage I, where the beautiful things done with donor money included the Zacks Wing and the Henry Moore Sculpture Court.

Note the percentage of the project paid for by the Ontario government. For Stage I, the province kicked in two-thirds of the $18 million cost. When the province announced its portion for Transformation AGO in 2002, it kicked in less than a tenth of the current $254 million fundraising goal.

The Stage I campaign soon reached its goal, as construction began shortly after this ad appeared. Stage I was opened to the public in 1974, with Stage II (the Canadian historical galleries) following in 1977. Economic problems delayed the completion of Stage III (the Tanenbaum Atrium) until 1993 – ironically the section now being torn away for the Gehry addition.

So much for those coupons.


The following notes on the genesis of the “Vintage Toronto Ads” column were taken from its fifth anniversary edition, originally published on January 13, 2012.

In the beginning, there was a box of back issues of Sports Illustrated in my Mom’s shed.

As a kid, I loved flipping through SI when it arrived in the mail. The articles didn’t always grab my attention, but the ads did. When the time came to clear out two decades’ worth of magazines, I clipped the ads for future use on my blog. Once I started writing about them, I found myself scouring bins at bookstores and thrift shops for magazines yielding treasure galore.

When Torontoist posted a submission call around Christmas 2006, I figured a Toronto-centric version of the ad posts might fit the site. There was plenty of initial material to choose from: a resident on my street had recently left two boxes of 1970s issues of Maclean’s and Saturday Night by the curb, while a research trip to Guelph had unearthed unbound copies of the first decade of Toronto Life that I had photocopied. The editors gave the green light and the rest is history.

As I pointed out in my first column, advertising provides a valuable view of the time it was created. You can follow the development of Toronto through ads for homes and businesses, or discover what fashion sense people did or didn’t possess. The impacts of wars and other world events on Toronto are revealed, as are period prejudices and social concerns. The rise and fall of local landmarks and political careers can be traced. Sometimes ads are the only information remaining about a long-lost business, failed development, or quack cure-all. These ads have also provided a flexible vehicle for writing everything from short historical sketches to fictional tales built around an ad man’s earnest pitch.

While the column has featured many bizarre ads, the craziest was created by perennial 1950s fringe political candidate George Rolland, a man unfamiliar with the concept of modesty. It requires immense ego or extreme self-delusion to declare to voters that you are “the Greatest Canadian of All Times.” Researching Rolland cast a darker light on the ad when I discovered his racist views, along with tales of his carrying athletic medals everywhere and making claims that he was the only musical composer who mattered over the past 500 years.