Who knew these three paintings were originally meant to be a triptych? I certainly didn’t; but now that they’ve been arranged together for the first time (for the exhibition Mystic Landscapes at the Art Gallery of Ontario) since Paul Gauguin painted them , it sure makes sense. The primary colour scheme alone should have been my first clue. The otherworldly theme of the story of Christ’s life as envisioned in French Brittany runs through all three as well as the artist himself appears in all three with him taking the starring role of Christ in 2 out of three. I always found this to be very revealing about Gauguin, it takes some kind of hubris to paint yourself as a martyr. Maybe this is the reason they never made it to a church to serve as inspiration for the pious. Piety was kind of on the back-burner of Paul Gauguin’s life but I guess he did like to dip his toe in the mystic. He was definitely a seeker.
My hat’s off to the curators for pulling off this feat (along with another, I’ll get to in a minute). I was most excited to see Vision After the Sermon when it was announced it was coming to Toronto, but had no idea the other two were along for the ride. Now that I’ve seen them as a triptych it’s hard to see them any other way. This is exactly what good curation should do, shed new light on the familiar and re-contextualize art into new and exciting combinations and narratives. Having said that: my biggest criticism with the AGO is some of their exhibition themes can get really stretched and unnecessary. Please let the art speak for itself and don’t put words in its mouth.
The art not only speaks for itself in Mystic Landscapes but sings. Besides Gauguin you get heavy-hitters like Munch, Whistler and O’Keeffe and lesser known artists like Jansson and Dulac. There is a wonderful room devoted to the work of Claude Monet with fine representations of the various series he embraced over the years. His Waterlilies, Cathedrals, Poplars and Haystacks are all present. Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone is given a place of prominence near the end of the show. A personal highlight for me was this Egon Schiele,
but the biggest surprise of the show is the inclusion of our own nation’s artists. When it comes to landscapes, mystic or otherwise you have to admit Canada can hold its own. Lawren Harris, Emily Carr and Tom Thomson get to share the walls with Monet and O’Keeffe and rightly so. The curators have positioned our artists at the table with some of Art history’s biggest names and this is an exciting and revelatory prospect. It is one thing to propose this in our own backyard but another to shout to the hills, which will happen when this show ends its run in Toronto and moves to the Cathedral of Impressionism itself The Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Make your way to the Art Gallery of Ontario to see Mystic Landscapes. Come for the Van Gogh, stay for the Gauguin and revel in our National treasures before the secret gets out and standing in line becomes a way of life.