Culture: Discover Canada Through its Art
by Guylaine Spencer
You can learn a lot about a country through its art. That’s why so many people visit the great art galleries of the world when they travel. However, we often overlook the art made in our own backyard. Ontario boasts many galleries showcasing Canadian art. Here are a few of the best. The National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in Ottawa is home to the largest and most important collection of Canadian art in the world. Here you’ll find a broad range of work. The gallery’s holdings of works by Inuit and First Nations artists include some of the oldest Canadian art (decorated ritual objects) as well as modern pieces such as prints by Kenojuak Ashevak, soapstone sculptures by John Tiktak and paintings by Norval Morrisseau. Quebec’s artists, including Jean-Paul Riopelle, are well represented, as are the paintings of Ontario’s Tom Thomson, British Columbia’s Emily Carr and Alberta-born William Kurelek.
In the 18th and 19th century Europeaninfluenced art, you’ll notice many works with religious themes, which reflect the large role the Christian Church played in the daily lives of everyday Canadians and as buyers of art. Landscape paintings show the diverse geography and scenery of this huge country: the prairies of Saskatchewan, the forests of Northern Ontario, the ice fields of the Arctic. You’ll feel like an “arm-chair traveller” when you tour the landscape collections. For a uniquely Canadian approach to presenting nature, look for paintings by the Group of Seven. By studying antique portraits, paintings of famous events and sketches of city scenes, you’ll gain a sense of how Canadians lived in the past.
In addition to its permanent collection, the NGC mounts several temporary exhibits each year. Often these focus on an individual artist, such as this year’s exhibit devoted to Joe Fafard, a modern sculptor from Saskatchewan. The gallery offers guided tours for all ages, as well as special activities for children.
In Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is closed for major renovations but will re-open in the fall of 2008. This gallery owns more than 68,000 works and about 40 percent of the pieces in its collection were produced by Canadians, including famous artists like Cornelius Krieghoff, James Wilson Morrice, Tom Thomson, the Group of Seven, David Milne, Emily Carr and Paul-Emile Borduas.
Also worth exploring is the Museum of Inuit Art which opened in 2007 in the Queen’s Quay Building at Harbourfront. The collection includes more than 300 pieces of sculpture, wall-hangings and prints. There are works from the 1940s, when Inuit art first took off as a commercial enterprise, along with more recent pieces. You’ll also find rare examples of tiny carvings by unknown artists from hundreds of years ago.
The Toronto Dominion Gallery of Inuit Art is a fascinating and little-known cultural treasure. Many people probably discover it by accident. It’s tucked away in the lobby of an office tower of the Toronto- Dominion Centre at 79 Wellington Street West, Toronto. Look behind the elevators and you’ll find the huge glass cases. The collection includes works in stone, bone and ivory, and some prints and drawings. There’s no guide in attendance but a pamphlet about
the collection is available. Admission is free.
The McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, 44 km north of Toronto, is famous for its Inuit and First Nations art and its work by the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson. The gallery, set among maple, fir and oak trees on 100 acres of conservation land, is a special treat for nature-lovers. On the property, you’ll find Tom Thomson’s former painting studio, which was moved here from Toronto. Watch for it as you walk from the parking lot to the museum. Inside the gallery, the high-ceilinged hall housing the West Coast totem pole is an eye-popper. A recent temporary exhibit of works by Robert Bateman, the well-loved wildlife artist, drew 48,000 visitors – a huge crowd for a relatively small gallery.
The McMichael has an interesting past. It was founded by two art lovers, Robert and Signe McMichael, who built and made their home in the fieldstone and wood structure that now shelters the collection. They started collecting in the 1950s and were friends with many Canadian artists. One member of the Group of Seven, A.Y. Jackson, even lived in the home with them for the last six years of his life and is now buried in a cemetery on the property.
If you’re in the Niagara Region, stop by the RiverBrink Art Museum at Queenston, located along the scenic Niagara Parkway. Like the McMichael, this building used to be a private home. The gallery’s treasures include works by Cornelius Krieghoff, Paul Kane, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. It’s celebrating its 25th anniversary with two new special exhibits, one featuring historic pictures of the nearby Niagara Falls.
Once you start exploring Canadian art, you’ll discover it everywhere you go. Local public art galleries are another good source. Kitchener is home to the Homer Watson House and Gallery. Watson, a 19th century artist, was one of the first Canadians to gain international recognition in the arts after Queen Victoria bought one of his paintings. In Owen Sound, the Tom Thomson Gallery features work by not just Thomson but by today’s artists as well. Many commercial art galleries show local work; you don’t need to buy anything if you just want to look. In the summer, cities often feature art shows in the park. During the fall, regional studio tours offer art lovers a chance to meet local artists. At powwows, including the large annual one in Toronto’s stadium, you’ll often find booths featuring work by First Nations artists.
The world of Canadian art is as vast as this land and just as ripe for discovery.