Michelangelo and Alex Colville at the AGO
The work of Michelangelo doesn’t like to get out much. There are a few exceptions: France won the lottery with the acquisition of his Slaves that now reside at the Louvre and even The National Gallery in London has a few unfinished paintings, but the majority of his work hasn’t left Italy. Its keepers tend to keep it close to home. There are no major works of his in North America, even the great Met in New York only has a scant few sketches. So I have to admit I got a little excited when I heard that the Art Gallery of Ontario was going to have a show of his drawings; the Casa Buornarroti in Florence had graciously lent the people of Toronto 29 of their drawings from Michelangelo’s personal holdings.
The curators of the exhibition had the misguided task of taking a little and trying to turn it into a lot. The mistake they made was: they had a lot and they turned it in to a little. They tried to fill the plate by adding artworks that represented his influence on other artists specifically the work of Auguste Rodin. No disrespect to the Frenchman but, when Michelangelo’s name is on the marquee, nothing else matters. The exhibit needed to focus, be more intimate and let the drawings speak for themselves. Michelangelo famously took a museum’s worth of drawings and set them ablaze near the end of his life, so to say they are rare is an understatement and to have them on our doorstep is a privilege. Having said all that- Studies for the Head of Leda is worth the trip alone.
Along with Michelangelo, the AGO has a major retrospective of one of Canada’s most revered artists Alex Colville (1920-2013) on at the moment. All the greatest hits are here and it’s a must see. Colville is a master of atmosphere; he can take the mundane and turn it into mystery and intrigue. Sometimes his figures float in their backgrounds casting no shadows like ghosts, and sometimes they stare out of the picture plane directly confronting the viewer. He routinely and deliberately obscures the focal point by turning the protagonist away from us or putting something directly in front them. He has a way of capturing the exact moment between banality and conflict with the precision of a master storyteller.
Alex Colville started his artistic career as an artist for the Canadian Armed Forces. He used his brush to document the reality of war, sometimes with horrifying affect. He had the devastating job of chronicling the nightmare that was Auschwitz. After the war he returned to Canada and became an instructor at Mount Allison University in Nova Scotia. He taught into the 1960’s and then focused his full attention to painting for the remainder of his years.
I had the pleasure of meeting him a few years back. I was taking a group of school children to see an exhibition of his at the Art Gallery of London in London Ontario. We had arrived early and we were making our way through the show. We turned the corner and found a lone solitary man sitting in one of the galleries. I couldn’t believe my eyes: it was Alex Colville. He was gracious enough to talk to us and I shook his hand. One of the students asked him if that was his dog in one of the paintings and he smiled and said “Yes it was.” Alex Colville had an intimate relationship with everything in his works. His wife figures prominently, along with his children, pets and surroundings.
The survey of his work is tremendous, but just like the Michelangelo show the curators felt the need to add a little more: this time in the guise of pop culture references to his work. They were trying to make the weak argument that somehow Colville’s work influenced scenes from films by Wes Anderson, The Coen Brothers and Stanley Kubrick. Colville’s paintings do in fact appear in The Shining, but the other two are a stretch at best. For a show this strong, it was an unneeded add on.
Dear AGO, you’re putting together a great schedule and the number of wonderful shows in recent years has been inspiring, but for the future: could you drop the up-sell and just let the work speak for itself.