There’s something about the second floor (*) of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) that brings peace to the soul. Well…my soul, anyway. I walk up the central stairs, and the first thing that faces me when I step onto the second floor is a view of the Lawren Harris gallery, waiting in the distance. And at that moment, it’s like all the stress I’ve ever felt sluices away, and peace descends upon me.
It’s always Lawren Harris I visit first at the AGO. From the first moment I ever saw any Group of Seven paintings, Harris’s paintings have drawn me like a magnet. Though more “stylized” than the work of other Group of Seven artists (or, for that matter, than Harris’s own early work), paintings like “Mountains in Snow” or “Baffin Island Mountains” express the reality of those scenes with precision and accuracy. In particular, the blue tones he uses are so serene and clear that this is what drains the tension right out of me (**). I think I could sleep very well indeed in a room with nothing but Harris’s blue northern paintings on every wall.
I spend a lot of time in the Harris gallery–a lot. And as I wander the second floor, I keep returning to it. But even so, there are other painters on that floor whom I also love. I had never heard of Cornelius Krieghoff till I went to the AGO. But now I am always eager to visit his paintings too.
Krieghoff did literally hundreds of paintings of mid-nineteenth century life in Quebec. He painted everything from domestic scenes in homes to communities interacting outside in the snow to stunning autumn forest scenes to wonderfully dark, mysterious night scenes with traders in their canoes on the rivers. And amidst all his small, accurate details, you find humorous notes as well: there is one family that appears in community snow scenes rather a lot, and the sleigh in which they are riding home is almost always capsized in a snowdrift.
But before I visit any other paintings, it’s always Krieghoff’s scenes of deepest darkness that I find first. All I can think, gazing into the dark night in the Quebec wilderness, with a distant moon barely peeking through a break in the trees, is, “This must be just what the night looked like to those travellers, with none of today’s city lights and only the sharp stars directly above.” I think I could meditate for hours, gazing at these paintings.
But again, there are other painters here. And the third one I visit with great eagerness and regularity is William Kurelek. I always think of him as my “odd one,” because I’ve always viewed his style as rather awkward. And yet I can’t take my eyes off his paintings. He, too, painted everyday scenes and landscapes not just in Quebec but across Canada, but he painted twentieth-century scenes. So I often stop before a painting of a small prairie town with a couple of old, wooden grain elevators along the railway tracks, which reminds me of the towns where I used to visit my Alberta cousins. (Few of those elevators exist any longer, which is a terrible shame.) Or I stop and meditate before a night-time prairie scene with cold, stiff snow stretching in all directions and a glittering, icy moon making the scene almost as bright as day. I, too, have seen snow like that, dry and crisp, so crisp that you can walk along the crusty top of a pile four feet high.
But I always end with the same funny, amazingly detailed painting–my favourite Kurelek painting of all. It’s a kitchen scene, in a very small apartment or house, that is so full of objects and accurate little details that you could explore the painting for an hour and still not have discovered everything.
By the time I’ve visited all the Kurelek paintings, I am usually done. I end with one more meditation in the Lawren Harris gallery, leaning against a corner of one of the wide doorways, just…gazing. And finally, realizing that I can’t actually live there and that I must get back to my life, I reluctantly pull away.
Whatever stress I brought with me to the AGO is, by now, long gone. I have visited my favourite Canadian painter and other favourites as well, and the serenity of their work, especially Harris’s, has seeped into my soul. There is no more room for stress, at least for a little while.
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(*) The second floor is where you’ll find the Canadian Collection, most of it gifted to the gallery by the late Canadian businessman, Ken Thomson, the wealthiest person in Canada at the time of his death in 2006. Mr. Thompson collected many works by Tom Thomson and members of the Group of Seven, a lot of paintings by nineteenth-century painter Cornelius Krieghoff, and other paintings by Canadian artists.
(**) Note that any lack of clarity, brightness, or, you know, straightness in the above photos is entirely due to my inexpensive camera. This was the first time I’ve ever been allowed to take photos of anything in the AGO’s collection, but one’s photos are only as good as one’s camera.