The permanent collection at Toronto’s Gardiner Museum includes many fine examples of Chinese and Japanese export ware: Those pretty blue-and-white or polychrome pieces of porcelain, decorated with exotic landscapes or delicate figures, have delighted Europeans for centuries. You might have guessed that it was this pleasing style of ceramics with which the Victorian railway baron Sir William Van Horne would have filled his Montreal mansion. Instead, there’s a surprise awaiting visitors to the temporary exhibition space on the museum’s third floor.
At the core of Obsession: Sir William Van Horne’s Japanese Ceramics is a collection of more than 350 pieces of Japanese domestic stoneware, the monochromatic tea bowls and sake bottles created in much plainer styles and intended for everyday or ceremonial use inside Japan. A rectangular spiral of showcases begins and ends with a series of almost identical tea caddies, each one a brown pot little bigger than a pill bottle and topped with a fragile ivory lid. These small things are highly aesthetic, but determinedly unostentatious. The oldest examples back to the 16th century.
Sure, there are some colourful pieces in the more busy Chinese style, such as the gold-and-red vessel in the shape of a Buddhist gong, or the heavily decorated plate divided into sections of red and green. But the collection also demands you lean in close to listen hard for the subtle statements made by a pale green sake bottle with an elongated shape dating to the 17th century or an early 19th-century stoneware tea bowl dipped in a black glaze that leaves the white slip interior exposed. As it reached for modernism in the late 19th century, Western art was greatly influenced by Japanese aesthetics: These centuries-old vessels look strikingly contemporary.
Bringing this remarkable collection together at the Gardiner – it will also travel to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts next year – was a mighty curatorial task. Van Horne, the executive who oversaw the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, never visited Japan, but amassed about 1,200 pieces through contacts with Japanese dealers. Sold at auction after his death, most of that collection is now dispersed; curators Ron Graham and Akiko Takesue and the Gardiner team have brought together about 350 pieces that were donated by his heirs to the MMFA and to the Royal Ontario Museum (where Van Horne had already made one gift before his death).
Meanwhile, the Art Gallery of Ontario contributes the watercolours that Van Horne, a highly accomplished amateur artist, painted of each work in his collection, as well as making quicker sketches and detailed inventories. So, a large grey sake bottle with a distinctive design of kicking horses can sit alongside a watercolour sketch so precise you might think it was a photograph of the object. A bit of curatorial detective work has also brought together an incense burner in the shape of a cat with its watercolour, both loaned by Van Horne descendant Sally Hannon and known at the ROM and AGO only from two separate notebook sketches.
All this cataloguing was typical of Van Horne, who obsessively categorized the ceramics he bought and spent hours in his study contemplating pieces he considered more culturally authentic than the export ware others might favour. In their text panels, the curators note this was a kind of cultural imperialism, that insistent organizing of another culture into supposedly scientific categories. But, if you think of the way Indigenous culture was treated at the time, it’s a rather gentle example.
What is perhaps more disturbing is Van Horne’s history: An American who immigrated to Canada to take on the big job, he was the forceful executive who got the much delayed CPR project back on track. But thousands of Chinese labourers died along the way. Shown here in a photograph as a balding patriarch holding a cigar, it’s easy to imagine him as the protagonist of a peak-TV series where scenes of him fondling his ceramics and chomping on his stogie give way to ones of terrible construction accidents. The curators, who also note that the CPR displaced Indigenous people from their land, mention this context, but conclude it is beyond the scope of their exhibition. Certainly, the Gilded Age American collectors, whose hoards are the foundation of that country’s best art museums, often made their fortunes in ways contemporary business ethics wouldn’t condone: Art collecting can be a form of spiritual money laundering.
So, there’s a bitter irony in the thought that Van Horne so cherished the work of some Asian craftsmen while being so cavalier with the lives of others. It’s not, however, an irony that can make much dint in the many quietly enduring objects in this show. Perhaps the Van Horne collection is best topped off with a visit to the corner of Spadina Avenue and Blue Jays Way where the monument to the Chinese railway workers depicts Van Horne’s forgotten labourers hoisting trestles into place.
Obsession: Sir William Van Horne’s Japanese Ceramics continues at the Gardiner Museum until Jan. 20, 2019, and will open at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in November, 2019.