Canadians at the AGO Provide Ease for the Soul

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.

Baffin Island Mountains - Painting by Lawren Harris, c. 1931

Baffin Island Mountains

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.

Mountains in Snow - Rocky Mountain Paintings VII - by Lawren Harris, c. 1929

Mountains in Snow

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.

Painting by Cornelius Krieghoff

Krieghoff’s stunning autumn colours in the wilderness

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.

Painting by Cornelius Krieghoff of the forest darkness in old Quebec

Tiny campfire and distant moon–in the wilderness of old Quebec

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.

I've seen prairie nights like this

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.

My favourite Kurelek painting ever

Has there ever been a more realistic little room?

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.

* * * * * * *

(*) 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.

This Just in: World Doesn’t End in 2012 (or, the ROM and the Maya)

El Castillo

There's more to Mayan culture than this! (Photo courtesy Flickr user Herkie)

All right, the Maya special exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum is not about the supposed Mayan prophecy that the world will come to an end on December 23, 2012. But even in a serious exhibition, you know they had to address the question. Yet the discussion of the Mayan calendar was just the icing on the cake of a fascinating and absorbing look at the Classical period of this culture (which existed roughly from 250 to 900 AD).

Even people who love Egyptian ruins don’t always know much about actual Egyptian history or culture. With the Mayans, people are probably even less well informed, recognizing only famous pyramids like the one at Chichen Itza, but knowing little beyond that. That’s not really anyone’s “fault,” though; the Mayan logographic writing system has been deciphered only slowly, with the majority of the work being done just since the mid-twentieth century. So the tale of Mayan culture has only recently begun to be told.

Palenque

The Tower in the Palace at Palenque (Photo courtesy Flickr user Sachavir)

The exhibition at the ROM doesn’t provide king lists or battle histories, but it focuses primarily on one city: Palenque. Through films and models, stone carvings and building panels, utensils and bowls, jewellery, and even a few small weapons, we learn a great deal about the everyday lives of nobles and citizens alike. You’ve heard about that ball game played by warriors, where sometimes the penalty for losing was death? We see one of the actual balls they used — fashioned, it seems inevitably, in the shape of a skull. We see the tall, intricately carved incense burners that stood guarding the doorways of temples. And view the portrayals of gods and kings and their doings, on vases and walls.

One thing that fascinated me was the many similarities between what seemed to be the Mayan view of the world’s structure and the Norse view. Each believed in a tripartite world, each had a world tree ascending through all three levels (underworld, earthly world, and heavenly world), and each had a divine bird sitting at the top of that tree. There were other minor similarities too, but I had to be careful not to carry this too far: I overheard one young, enthusiastic gentleman telling his friend how certain he was that Mayan culture was mostly created by Egyptians who found their way to the region. There seems to be a popular need to deny that complex cultures (before our own) could ever be created by “primitive” people; they always seem to have to have needed help from outside, whether those outsiders were Egyptians or space aliens.

But human ingenuity is far greater than that, and always has been. The Maya of this period had no wheeled vehicles, for example, yet they found ways to trade goods from city to city (often caravans of messengers carrying goods in pouches on their backs). They also had other ways of transporting the stone and mud bricks they used to create their intricate buildings. They were excellent farmers and hunters. And they built cities, temples, and palaces of immense sophistication. Magnificent Palenque, even after a couple of centuries of investigation, still probably has at least a thousand buildings covered by jungle, yet to be explored.

Coba stele

Stele at Coba; part of the Mayan calendar? (Photo courtesy Flickr user snackfight)

The Mayan exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum covers everything, from geography to gods and worship to home life, play, death — and of course, time. The calendar this culture used was another indicator of their sophistication. It involved several different cycles, based on the moon, the solar year, and other astronomical observations. It’s true that the Mayans believed in the destruction and recreation of the world at certain periods (their beliefs resemble Hinduism in that respect), but it’s not true that they believed the next period of destruction would be December of 2012.

That is simply when their latest Long Count of years will come to an end. The Maya viewed it more like we view the end of a century, though on a larger scale. And after all — it was going to be about 1000 years in their future. Were they really going to start carving out the next calendar for the next Long Count, that far ahead of time? (That would be something like our making a calendar, right now, for 2111 A.D. We just don’t need it yet.) They might have started creating the new cycle’s calendar in recent years — except, of course, the Mayan culture as it then was has been gone for about 1060 years. But as it turns out, some of their inscriptions do mention things they expected to happen well after December of 2012. So it simply isn’t the case that they “prophesied” the end of the world at that time.

For anyone who wants to know what Mayan culture was really about, this exhibition is a thorough and fascinating introduction.

The Terra Cotta Army at the ROM

The Royal Ontario Museum’s latest big exhibition, The Warrior Emperor and China’s Terra Cotta Army, builds you up to an odd sort of crescendo, one of quiet, almost reverent contemplation and more than a little awe.

The exhibit is located in the Garfield Weston space in the lower level of the recent Crystal renovation at the museum. I’ve praised this space before, with its strange shape and angled beams, as being perfect for unusual and creative displays. And it shines again as the setting for this journey through Chinese history.

Visitors start at the beginning, before the Qin (or sometimes called Chin) dynasty even began, in the third century BCE. I’m always surprised at how much can be known about a civilization that existed so long ago. But we are able to trace changes in the art and pottery associated with the Qin, for example, as opposed to the Zhou dynasty that preceded it. And much of that fine work applies particularly to things like the bridles or other accessories of horses. The Qin were a military-oriented state.

In fact, progressing through the exhibit, we watch the ruling family of the Qin state start out controlling just a small area in the eastern region of what we know as China today. But we see the holdings of this state grow. And grow. And grow. Until it creeps north, east, and south, swallowing everything in its path. At the height of its power, twenty percent of the Qin citizenry were military.

Once the exhibit establishes the background and context, we finally meet the First Emperor, Qin Shihuang Di, in 221 BCE. Not only did he geographically unify most of what we now think of as China, but he extended that unity into everything: currency, a national road system, and a sometimes cruelly enforced national belief system as well. It was also during this period that the first stretches of the Great Wall were laid, as the Qin consolidated and protected the lands they had won.

By this point, we are almost two thirds of the way through the exhibit, and have not yet seen what, supposedly, we have come to see. But the signs are building, as we now examine the building of Shihuang Di’s tomb. His giant, grass-covered pyramid and its attendant funerary centre is the most massive tomb complex in the world. Yet the full extent of the other buildings, rooms, and even planned gardens buried in the acres around the pyramid is still not fully known.

But in 1974, for the first time in almost 3000 years, we learned about the gigantic terra cotta army Shihuang Di created as guardians of the tomb and of his political administration in the afterlife. Comprising about 8000 warriors, 130 chariots, and more than 500 horses, the army was discovered by accident, as some local farmers tried to dig a water well.

And ten of these figures are here.

We come upon them probably as suddenly as those well-diggers did: rounding the slanting beams angling from ceiling to floor, and entering a large area of the hall that has been draped in black, with white figures of Chinese writing projected onto the drapery. And placed all through this space are – at last – some of these ancient warriors.

Each one stands on his own pedestal, surrounded by low barriers and illuminated with his own special lighting. You can walk completely around any figure and see the details: the tread on the sole of an uplifted boot, the thin scales of armour that some of them wear, the curl of a moustache, or the unusual hats, made of large, elaborate bows and tied under the chin, that only the high-ranking officers could wear.

Terra cotta archer

It is darker in this space, and the isolation and separate illumination of the figures creates an almost reverential atmosphere. Here you stand and contemplate the weight of history. This tall, stern general with his hands folded as though resting on a sword with its point on the ground was buried for 3000 years, yet still he stands silent guard. That horse, with its flared nostrils, braided tail, and charioteer close by, looks almost ready to charge.

All that buildup of history, information, and context, fascinating as it was, was just a prelude to this. This space was truly the crescendo toward which we’d been working. The sensitive and creative arrangements made by the ROM curators enhanced the majesty and power of the terra cotta figures themselves. And the final result, an almost sacred space, served to draw us and the people in the Qin Dynasty’s time closer together for a profound and fleeting moment.