Abstract:

Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) has juxtaposed its Art for a Nation exhibit of early 20th century paintings created by the so-called Group of Seven with a display of contemporary work by the graffiti artists Latino Crew. The exhibits are part of the AGO’s Oh!Canada Project.

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The city authorities show no appreciation for Latino Crew’s artistic expression. Almost as soon as the Toronto street gang decorates a public building with graffiti, work crews paint right over it. But the youths’ handiwork has gained a new legitimacy in one of Canada’s oldest and most conservative art institutions. Their illicit urban graphics form part of the Oh!Canada Project, a huge interactive art event now under way at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. And, for added impact, Latino Crew’s irreverent graffiti are installed not far from the stunningly beautiful paintings in Art for a Nation, the 75th anniversary retrospective of the Group of Seven, the heart of the Oh!Canada Project. The provocation is deliberate. Gallery curators say they want to jolt visitors out of their complacency about the Group of Seven, Canadian art and, perhaps, even Canada. “In their day, the Group of Seven were radical,” says Cathy Jonasson, co-ordinator of the Oh!-Canada Project.

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“Now, when you say, ‘Group of Seven,’ people say,’Yeah, we know who they are but we’ve been there, seen that.'”

In fact, most Canadians have not seen these Group of Seven paintings-many of the 177 works in Art for a Nation, which has already appeared in Ottawa and travels to Vancouver and Montreal later this year, are privately owned and have not been shown for 75 years. Oh!Canada is a homecoming celebration for the legendary artists. Their works are displayed almost as they were in their original eight exhibits at what was called the Toronto Art Gallery in the 1920s-right down to the deeply colored walls and old-fashioned mouldings. But the nostalgia ends as viewers leave the Group of Seven galleries. What follows is the traditionally staid ago’s largest and most innovative show ever. A giant 1935 sculpture of a hockey goalie, by Toronto artist Frances Loring, leads to a series of exhibitions that examine-and challenge-notions about the land and national identity that were central to the Group of Seven’s art. The explorations range from the 1930s to the present, from the conventional to the cheeky.

Some of the paintings are from the AGO’s permanent collection and were created by prominent Canadian artists, including William Kurelek, Jack Chambers and Joyce Wieland. But Oh!Canada also includes a photo documentary by Montreal photojournalist Serge Clement of the period leading up to last October’s referendum. These paintings from AGO belongs to “reality style”, that honestly describe things familiar to normal life (topics like technology: favorite mobiles, most-loved operation system, boost in Apple’s sale …, war: Iraq war, , electronics: home improvement & cleaning tools, spin mop reviews, gardening,…) And the gallery also invited schoolchildren and six community groups-including Latino Crew-to create and display their own visions of Canada.

Oh!Canada offers numerous interactive exhibits, a rarity for an art institution. Visitors are invited to log on to the AGO’s new Web site, send a fax or make a video for Bravo!, the cable arts channel. Those less technologically inclined can write their thoughts in chalk on a giant blackboard on which one visitor has scribbled Pierre Berton’s famous quip that “a Canadian is somebody who knows how to make love in a canoe.

No longer does it mean finding solace in the land, according to five environmentalist artists from Hamilton known as The Hammer Collective. In the group’s disturbing installation, titled The Post-Industrial Family Takes a Bath in Lake Ontario, long lists of toxic pollutants are mounted on a chain-link fence in front of photos depicting a nightmarish industrial wasteland dominated by smokestacks. “The landscape that the Group of Seven saw was pristine, almost perfect,” says Scott Marsden, curator of the installation. “That is not how it is, especially in Steel Town, surrounded by industry, the air is stinky and the water is polluted.” A more romantic vision is offered in paintings by the Lok Tok Art Studio. Using traditional Chinese brushwork on rice paper, the father-and-son team from Toronto gives cliched scenes of the Rockies and Niagara Falls a startling freshness.

But the Group of Seven is a tough act to follow, and not all the responses in Oh!Canada are up to the challenge. A project by students at The Jones Avenue Adult New Canadian Centre-who decorated wooden palettes with colorful symbols-offers little insight. And a few creators, including some First Nations artists from the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ont., were not even sure they could relate to the Group of Seven. “Two of our artists said, ‘This is crazy, here were white men going up north to capture the spirit of the land-they didn’t even know what it was all about,’ ” says Tom Hill, curator of the group’s low-key installation symbolizing an Iroquois ritual of oneness with the land.

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But the AGO does deliver on its promise of “fun” in the Oh!Canada Project. And the public-both at the gallery and over the Internet-has displayed considerable interest in the interactive exhibit’s first Question of the Week: “How would you describe your Canada?” A gallery spokesman reports that roughly 4,000 people have visited the Web site in the first 10 days, with 100 of them responding to the question. It appears that the novelty of Oh!Canada may succeed in drawing a new audience to the gallery. Now maybe the AGO could even dare to pose the question: “What do you think of the paintings?

>>> View more: Maybe it would be best if we lost this battle

How things change! Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), in his angst-stricken life, managed to sell only one painting.

Now the sale of a van Gogh painting becomes an international event, as selling prices soar into the multi-millions of dollar. A museum named for him in Amsterdam shows his work exclusively. In 2005 more than 1,417,000 visitors came to this Van Gogh Museum. A bare 45 miles away, another museum, the KroellerMoeller in Otterloo, proudly shows more of his masterpieces, as do some 250 museums across the globe.

What brought this transformation about? To answer the question, let’s backtrack a little and look at van Gogh’s life, because knowing his background is essential to appreciating van Gogh’s unique appeal.

Fortunately much is known about the life and thought of Vincent van Gogh. Our most intimate knowledge comes from letters he wrote throughout much of his life to his brother, Theo, a successful art dealer in Paris, who supported van Gogh throughout his tempestuous life. He also wrote revealing letters to other family members and to his fellow artists. Public fascination with Vincent van Gogh was piqued when details of his life were recorded in the book “Lust for Life,” written by Irving Stone and made into a movie starring Kirk Douglas (as van Gogh) and Anthony Quinn (as the artist Paul Gaugin).

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The Rural Influence

Vincent van Gogh’s father was a minister in the Brabant region of Belgium, a poor rural province peopled by stolid peasants. Because three of his uncles were involved in the art trade it seemed a given for the young van Gogh to enter that field, as well. But his often erratic manner alienated people, and his employment in the art business came to an end. The ministry had always attracted him, but his foray in that direction proved equally unsuccessful.

In 1880 at the age of 27, Vincent van Gogh decided to become an artist. By doing so he helped change the face of modern art. He had enjoyed drawing since childhood, and now he decided to begin serious art studies in Brussels concentrating on anatomy and perspective. Five years later we find him in Antwerp where he worked extensively with chalk, switching later to pen and ink. These drawings and prints foresaw the kind of swirls, dots and dashes that would characterize his later paintings.

However, it was during this period that he did a painting in oil that was to become one of his best loved works: “The Potato Eaters.” Van Gogh’s connection to and respect for peasant life are evident in the painting, and we clearly sense the close relationship of the peasants to the countryside and the fruit of their labors. Van Gogh spent a number of evenings with the family pictured, in order to arrive at every nuance of presentation. In a letter to Theo he strongly defends the way in which the picture is painted. “He who prefers to see the peasants in their Sunday best may do as he likes. I personally am convinced I get better results by painting them in their roughness than by giving them conventional charm.”

“The Potato Eaters’ is currently on view in a new exhibition Van Gogh and the Colors of Night (until January 2009) at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). A sketch of the “Potato Eaters” appears in the text of his letter to Theo. The theme of MoMA’s exhibit is van Gogh’s handling of night scenes, his fascination with atmosphere, color and the emotional effect of light. In “The Potato Eaters,” an early work from 1885, we already see this fascination — the brilliance of the overhead light reading the scene in all its intensity with sympathy and awe. This painting had not been shown in New York for more than 50 years, but it is still delivering its emotional punch.

New Directions

Van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886, moving in with his brother Theo. A new phase of his education began. Now he worked frequently with oil paint. He met and made friends with the early impressionists: Paul Gauguin, Paul Signac, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and George Seurat. He spent two years in Paris where his spiritualism faded under the influence of a freer lifestyle. During this period he was deeply inspired by Japanese prints which had recently become available in France and had become the rage of the French capital. The intricacy of colors, fully experienced for the first time, intoxicated him. “Instead of trying to reproduce what I have in front of my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily so as to express myself more forcefully,” he wrote.

In all his dealings with people his personality proved a big hindrance. He was aware of this failing. In a letter to his brother as early as 1880 he had admitted, “I am a passionate man, capable and likely to do more or less foolish things which I regret. It happens that I speak a little too quickly.” Although Theo understood this and had welcomed his brother to live with him, eventually Theo felt that it was better for them to live their separate lives.

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The Arles Period

Van Gogh left Paris for the warmth and color of Provence and settled in Arles where he lived out the remainder of his life from 1888 on, and where he produced as many as 200 canvases in just 15 months.

Partly because of his rural childhood, and in part because of his ministerial calling, his subjects had up until then been the humble peasants of the Belgian countryside and the poor citizens of Parisian hovels. Now under the brighter sky of Northern France he turned to portraits and still-life just as his fellow impressionists were doing.

Psychologists have often examined van Gogh’s masterpieces in order to understand his passion for certain colors especially for ochre which glows eerily in many of the Arles paintings. Van Gogh also thought that the colors red and green “expressed the passions of the soul.”

In Arles, yet another transformation was to take place in the direction of van Gogh’s work. This was hinted at in a letter he wrote to his brother in August 1888: “I have seen a magnificent and strange effect this afternoon. A very large boat laden with coal on the Rhone, tied up to the wharf. Seen from high above, it was all shining and damp from the squall; the water was yellowish white and cloudy pearl grey; the sky lilac with an orangey band in the west; the city violet, offloading the cargo. It was pure Hokusai.” (Hokusai was an influential Japanese printmaker.) In another note he explains to his brother, “The view changes, one sees with a more Japanese eye … the colors in a different light.”

Van Gogh’s rendition of this scene is entitled “Stevedores at Arles” and is now permanently installed at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. This painting, on loan, is featured prominently at the current MoMA exhibit, a small show of only 23 paintings and 10 works on paper covering the artist’s entire career.

Another of the show’s treasures is the painting “The Dance Hall in Arles.” The scene was painted during the time Paul Gauguin was staying with van Gogh and reflects Gauguin’s influence in the vibrancy of the brush strokes, the brashness of the design. We are also reminded of the dance hall pictures of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and the apparent Japanese influence in the treatment of the dancer’s hair. The diagonal direction of the picture plane presented here is repeated in a number of the Arles canvases.

In another letter van Gogh forecasts a new painting to Theo. “Today I am probably going to begin on the interior of the cafe where I have a room … It is what they call here a ‘cafe de nuit’ … they stay open all night. Night prowlers can take refuge there when they have no money to pay for lodging, or are too drunk to be taken in.” In September 1888 van Gogh stayed up three nights to paint his “The Night Cafe” a haunting, glaring, disturbing painting. Vincent categorized it as “one of the ugliest I have ever done.” Yet such is its appeal that anyone interested in the paintings of the last 150 years would recognize it instantly. Repelled or attracted, the viewer can sympathize with the forlorn characters that inhabit the room with its enormous billiard table. The painting is one of the treasures of the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut.

But perhaps the diamonds in the tiara of the MoMA show are two paintings created a year apart, in which Vincent van Gogh reaches the pinnacle of his craft. The earlier one is entitled “Starry Night over the Rhone” (1888). It is on loan from Musee d’Orsay in Paris. The later one is “The Starry Night” which resides permanently at MoMA. “But when shall I paint my starry sky,” Vincent wrote to Emile Bernard, a friend and fellow painter, “that picture that occupies me continuously? The most beautiful pictures are those one dreams about … but which one will never paint. One must attack them nevertheless, however incompetent one may feel before the unspeakable perfection, the glorious splendor of nature.”

According to astronomers the Rhone painting shows the stars in their more or less exact positions. There is a romantic emphasis here as the stars are mirrored in the river mingling with the lights of the houses along the shore. An elderly couple is pictured clearly. They seem immersed in their own world oblivious to what is taking place. But the viewer can attest to the ‘wholeness of the scene’ its brilliant coloration and the calm almost festive feeling the picture represents. We know that van Gogh painted this scene outdoors. His colors have a firm alert feeling: ochre, deep green and blue.

The “Starry Night” of the following year was painted in the asylum at St. Remy and is more reflective of van Gogh’s psychic makeup. The rolling, roiling quality of the sky is a clear indication of the turmoil in his thinking, his struggle with perception and his analysis of reality. Nevertheless he is able to picture the village of Saint-Remy. The cypress along the edge of the painting reminds us clearly of the burning bush in the Old Testament. Cypress trees were also typically planted in cemeteries in that region, and their riveting appearance on the canvas might have been van Gogh’s prediction of his own impending tragic demise.

What could Vincent van Gogh have accomplished had he lived a full life span? We cannot know, of course, we can only be grateful for van Gogh’s contributions during his all-too-brief 37 years.

Fred Stern is an art writer and poet based in New Jersey. His recent collection of poetry, Corridors of Light is available from Booklink.com and on the web.

I think my favourite 60 Minutes segment ever was the time, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, that they sent a liberal Russian journalist to interview the surviving members of the Moscow-based Institute of the Brain. The institute, as its name does not quite imply, was set up after Lenin’s death in 1924 for the purpose of analyzing just what it was about the great man’s brain that made him superior to other men. Lenin’s body, of course, was embalmed, and kept on public view in Red Square. But the brain they’d cut up into thousands of micro-thin slices, the better to perform various tests on it. Which they’d been doing ever since.

What made the piece work was, in part, how deadpan it was. The correspondent never cracked a smile as he interviewed these people who had spent their lives in such a sublimely pointless pursuit. But what really made it soar was the detail. I can tell you about the Institute for the Study of Lenin’s Brain. But unless you saw it close up–unless you watched those poor, lunatic pseudo-scientists describe their work, at length and with evident pride–you would not capture the full absurdity of it.

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I feel much the same way now, after two days spent in a downtown Vancouver courtroom watching the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal’s hearings into the case of Mohamed Elmasry et al. versus Mark Steyn and Maclean’s. I have tried to convey some of the sense of what I have seen in my posts to the magazine’s website. But I fear that unless you were actually in that tiny, suffocating room, you could not fully grasp just how utterly deranged the proceedings were.

You will perhaps be familiar with the case. It concerns an excerpt from Mark Steyn’s book, America Alone, published in Maclean’s a year and a half ago. You will recall that a group of students under Elmasry’s influence approached the magazine some months after publication, demanding it publish an article of equal length (5,000 words!), unedited, together with cover art of their choosing. I do not know of any magazine anywhere that has ever consented to such demands.

So instead we are in court–or rather, not court, but some mad parody of a court, whose contours seem to bend and stretch like some psychedelic vision circa Yellow Submarine. Things are not quite as bad in B.C. as in Ontario, where the province’s human rights commission felt able to issue a judgment without the cost and inconvenience of a hearing. But it’s a near thing.

Section 7.1 of the B.C. Human Rights Code prohibits “any statement, publication, notice, [etc.] that … is likely to expose a person or a group or class of persons to hatred or contempt.” Not that it actually exposes them to anything, note: just that it’s likely to. Nor does Section 7.1 make any allowance for the usual defences that apply where the law intrudes upon free speech rights. There is no defence of fair comment, for example, or of the public interest, or of good faith. Most notoriously, even truth is not a defence.

The “remedies” at the tribunal’s command are equally breathtaking. Should, I don’t know, a magazine be found to have contravened the code, the tribunal must, at a minimum, order that unnamed magazine to “cease the contravention“–ie. to stop publishing whatever sort of material it was that the tribunal deemed unpublishable. But the tribunal can also force it to publish something, or make it pay compensation to whoever launched the complaint against it.

But it’s in the actual process of hearing cases that the going gets truly weird. As was evident this week, it isn’t just that the tribunals have lower standards than regular courts when it comes to rules of evidence, protections for the accused and so on–it’s that they have no standards. Practices that would earn prosecutors a stern rebuke, if not summary dismissal, in any proper court–failure to disclose, hearsay, you know, all that Perry Mason stuff–were here the subject of furrowed brows and frequent huddles among the three panellists. They truly appeared to be making it up as they went along.

In consequence, our high-priced legal help, fine lawyers that they are, found themselves boxing with shadows: all but forbidden to mount a defence, raising objections to evidence without the first clue of what rules, if any, the tribunal would apply, plowing methodically through whatever odd bits of flotsam and jetsam the complainants could think to throw at them–not just their own subjective reactions to Steyn’s piece, but polls, blog posts, reports on Islamophobia in other countries, the works.

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Is it any wonder that I concluded, even before the hearing began, that our best strategy was to lose? Win the case, and all we do is legitimize the process. See, its defenders would argue–the system works, correctly distinguishing between an occasionally over-the-top polemicist like Steyn and a real, honest-to-God hate-monger. And so we would simply be teeing up the next complainant, and the next. For what they seek is not, as they pretend, the right of reply. Their purpose is rather to prevent the offending material from being published in the first place.

No, the only answer is to lose, and challenge the law on appeal, on constitutional grounds-and if that doesn’t work, to embarrass the politicians into repealing it. I’m guessing the tribunal can see the threat to their livelihoods if they convict Maclean’s, and will do all they can to acquit us. But I have every confidence our lawyers can outwit them.

ON THE WEB: For more Andrew Coyne, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/andrewcoyne