Picturing the Americas: AGO goes Hemispheric

Tarsila do Amaral. Cart„o-Postal. 1929. ”leo sobre tela. 127,5 x 142,5 cm. ColeÁ„o Particular. Rio de Janeiro, RJ Foto: Romulo Fialdini Cat·logo RaisonnÈ Tarsila do Amaral v. I p.186 P112 ReproduÁ„o: 300 dpi 22,1 x 30 cm

Tarsila do Amaral. Cart„o-Postal. 1929. ”leo sobre tela. 127,5 x 142,5 cm. ColeÁ„o Particular. Rio de Janeiro, RJ
Foto: Romulo Fialdini
Cat·logo RaisonnÈ Tarsila do Amaral v. I p.186 P112
ReproduÁ„o: 300 dpi 22,1 x 30 cm

As a swan song “Picturing the Americas” might be Matthew Teitelbaum’s finest hour.  The show is in some ways a triumph of diplomacy, an impossibly congenial meeting between museums and cultures sure to be a feather in his cap, as he says goodbye to Toronto and the Art Gallery of Ontario in the next few days, departing for his new post with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Co-curated by Peter John Brownlee, Curator of the Terra Foundation; Valéria Piccoli, Chief Curator of the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo; and Georgiana Uhlyarik, the AGO’s Associate Curator of Canadian Art, Picturing the Americas will be on view at the AGO until Sept. 20, 2015, in a summer of Pan American celebrations inspired by the athletic games that are coming a few short weeks from now.

As an insecure Canadian, this show moves me in all the right ways.  In the first room you get to see Cornelius Krieghoff alongside paintings from abroad: and you see him and his work in a new light, as if you were suddenly watching Celine Dion in Vegas or Robert Lepage directing an opera in NY.  Yes, Canadians are so much more than our provincial nervousness might allow, as we sometimes beat up on anything in our own backyard, that might bravely celebrate Canada to the unbiased eyes of those who see our art for the first time.  And in the last room you get Lawren Harris alongside Georgia O’Keeffe, both alongside so many others from the broader world.

None of that is the point of the show, of course.

It started out as a kind of fantasy in the mind of one of the curatorial team.  Brazil talked to USA, and then went looking for a third gallery, choosing the AGO.  Our Pan Am games this year are the convenient pretence for Toronto getting the first version of a show that will go on to Arkansas and eventually Sao Paolo, as part of Brazil’s Olympic celebration in 2016.  The fantasy? What if landscapes of all these diverse countries that make up the Americas were displayed side by side. What would it look like?  What might we learn?
And in my first blushing glimpses I have to say, wow it’s profound.  There is such depth to this show that it can’t really be grasped on a first view.  I will be back.  I stayed longer than I thought I would, one of the stragglers going through, wishing I had even more time.
A good show is like time-travel, and this one especially so because it is presented with such subtlety.  We are dealing less with artistic personalities & quirks, and mostly with their subject matter.  Because of the way the works are organized you can’t help the meta-think, the frames placed around the works, the sense of shifting contexts.

We begin with painters as visitors to a remote land, tourists painting picturesque landscapes. And we get the kind of anthropology you saw in the 18th and 19th century, where painters were natural historians, eye-witness explorers of a new world.   Even when we get into 20th century, we are looking at the ideas and content rather than art and technique and isms.  As such it’s unlike any show I have ever seen: and I mean that in a good way.  The curatorial element is underplayed. The sublime is most certainly here, but instead of analysis, instead of looking at technique, I believe we’re invited to that place art took us when we were children: pure wonderment and delight.  For such an intellectual exercise, I felt free to just look and feel without being buried in theory.

We are often looking at people, especially indigenous peoples.  That is one of the most important parts of this show, and is properly acknowledged as we emerge with images of the contracts between the Mississauga and the English King (or his representative) enlarged on the wall.  I have to think long and hard about this because it’s one element I will be staring at next time, namely the place of the people in these pictures.  Is America utopia? It can be if you’re coming from Eastern Europe as my family did. But that’s only one way of seeing the land.

I will be back.

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4 Responses to Picturing the Americas: AGO goes Hemispheric

  1. Stephen Weir says:

    Loved the show. Will go back. BUT….
    I was disappointed in the selection of some of the Canadian paintings — at least in the artists that I am familiar with. There were only two Group of Seven works in the show — Harris and Varley and the two paintings on display are minor works. No A.Y Jackson’s rolling hills of Quebec, no blazing forest scenes by Carmichael, or what about an iconic northern light painting by Johnson. Varley’s painting on display is a Harris homage, lots of Lauren blues and not much else. The Harris painting in the show is smallish and is a knock-off of his own series of paintings of Icebergs (not sure icebergs are landscapes but what do I know?).
    Leaving the media preview I saw far better and more suitable Harris and Varley works just down the hall in the AGO’s permanent collection. So to was I disappointed in the Emily Carr work that is in the show – much better Carr works in the currently running AGO Carr exhibition.
    I did do PR for an O’Keefe, Kallo and Carr exhibition many years ago. To my mind the O’Keefe landscape that is travelling with the show is not noteworthy.
    I can’t comment on the South American works because my knowledge is so limited. I was extremely impressed and want to find out more. Have toured galleries in Peru and Ecuador, but, now a trip to Brazil is on my art bucket list.
    One final comment. In terms of the artists painting North American landscape, almost all them were white and most were men. Are the curators saying that in the 500 years no none-white has painted a worthy American or Canadian landscape? In the opening remarks the word European artists was used a lot – guess that is code for white.
    btw – Pan Am Games include the Caribbean Islands as part of the Americas. Only one painting in whole show painted in the Caribbean – a British take on Jamaica.

  2. barczablog says:

    I think i share many of your sentiments but as someone whose alter-ego is “Pollyanna”, a critic who aims to stick to positives, I didn’t really go there, but would elaborate in future visits.

    Yes i hear you about the Georgia O’Keeffe, but i suppose we’re looking at the land, and so they were seeking something that’s part of the same “conversation”. Sometimes it makes for contrast (as in the juxtaposition of the Niagara Falls with that more lurid/impressionistic waterfall by Viale of Iguazu Falls, right beside it), sometimes i think there are subtle distinctions buried in the work (as in how the people are situated in the foreground, whether they’re in a colonial attitude, whether there’s any attempt to be more than scientific in showing aboriginals). I don’t know that there was any way to really unpack the implications of a colonialist attitude, given that some people –and some countries– are more post-colonial than others. One of the dangers I see in cross-over and inter-disciplinarity is the tendency to dumb down and oversimplify. And so we get a show where the content is foregrounded without tons of critical overlay, and so we might be left wondering what informs the choices of the curatorial team.

    I didn’t mention it –but will next time– that just down the hall we have Tom Thomson & Emily Carr, which makes the show far richer than it might appear at first glance, and certainly (sadly) richer for a visitor to the show in Toronto, than it will be in USA or Brazil. I see this in some ways as an early statement in a conversation that is barely started. AND i suspect that next time i go, i will be concentrating on the people in the pictures, especially the white and non-white.

    Thank you for the comments!

  3. Henrietta says:

    You ought to take part in a contest for one of the most useful blogs on the internet.

    I am going to recommend this blog!

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