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Still Life, 1976-1980.Leonard Cohen Family Trust

In a 1966 television interview, a young Adrienne Clarkson asked the rising Canadian poet Leonard Cohen about the experience of reading out a poem he had written some years before and forgotten. He replied the meaning was all in the voice and eyes; you could just as well read the instructions on a can of shoe polish. Then what was the point of writing a poem, she asked.

Forced to justify his glib self-deprecation, he cleverly turned his answer into a metaphor. You need well-written instructions to shine your shoes, he said. If you want to polish other parts of the self, you need a poem.

Still, Cohen’s initial response is revealing, showing a recognition that performance was central to artistic success and foreshadowing what he was about to become: The following year, he launched his musical career. In the Art Gallery of Ontario’s new exhibition Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows, that transition from poet and novelist to songwriter and musician – and eventually superstar stage performer – emerges forcibly from the artist’s own archives.

Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Montreal in 1934, Cohen was always convinced of his own importance, polishing his public identity while plumbing his private depths. Using photo booths, a Polaroid camera or pencil and paper, he created numerous self-portraits over the years, as well preserving all his notebooks, drafts and drawings for posterity. As early as 1964, when he was merely a 30-year-old Canadian poet, his agent sold some of his papers to the University of Toronto. However, most material remained in his possession and, working with the Leonard Cohen Family Trust, the AGO has produced what is the first major public exhibition from his large archive.

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Hallelujah Notebook, 1983-1984.Leonard Cohen Family Trust

The result, organized by AGO chief curator Julian Cox, is a chronological look at this visual and textual evidence of Cohen’s life and artistic process, an archival exhibition rather than an art show. It is not to be confused with the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2017 exhibition (and 2021 online version) A Crack in Everything, which commissioned artists to respond to Cohen’s work.

However, two video pieces from that exhibition are included here. The first is Kara Blake’s The Offerings, a compilation of interviews and recordings which creates a solid artistic introduction for viewers; the second is George Fok’s more abstract Passing Through which uses concert and interview footage to evoke memories of Cohen, mixing the decades as it goes.

The AGO exhibition itself is a chronological walk through the archive, from Cohen’s childhood letter home from camp, early poetry books and a letter to his lover Marianne Ihlen to the poster advertising his 1972 European tour and his many drawings from the 1980s to the 2000s. The drawings greatly enrich a text-heavy show: The poet and singer-songwriter had no pretensions to be a visual artist but he was an excellent draughtsman in a variety of styles that include humorous self-portraits, expressive images of the human figure executed with a flowing line, and finely detailed observations of everyday objects such as a candlestick or his daughter’s baby cup.

The most striking visual elements here, however, are the many photographs of Cohen. Some are by other photographers, including those memorable images by Canadian photojournalist Lynn Ball of Cohen in Montreal walking the Main in a leather coat – but many are self-portraits. In a section dedicated to the Polaroids dating to Cohen’s brief sojourn in Nashville in 1968, the selfies are revealed as a daily practice, a diary of sorts, tracking his mood and place through his appearance. For one image, he scattered all these photos on a hotel room bed and shot what he titled Forlorn Harvest of Self Portraits.

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Untitled (Watercolour Notebook), 1980-1985.Leonard Cohen Family Trust

Cohen had originally intended to move straight to Nashville to sing country but, impressed by the way Bob Dylan was making an impact through pop culture, he stopped first in New York where he would met his partner Suzanne Elrod and worked with singers Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell. The latter, we are told here, dismissed his writing as the work of “a boudoir poet.”

The AGO show is good at following these developments as Cohen built his career, but it is not a straight biography. It passes gently over his womanizing, and makes no mention of the disastrous financial losses of the 2000s which sent him back on the road in his 70s. Ironically, it was that enforced touring that vaulted his reputation into the stratosphere, and this show’s strongest suit is an examination of the private man fashioning his public identity. Still, after that remarkable late-life comeback, it’s an approach that can turn mawkish: The show ends with a display of Cohen’s cap, fedora and even a pair of shoes.

What this is not is a musical biography and there is little material here to explain how a casual guitarist with no professional musical training went about composing. The one hint, alongside an electric Gibson guitar from 1985, is the information that, in his 20s, Cohen took some guitar lessons where he developed a flamenco chord progression that became the basis of his music. The exhibition argues Cohen did not give himself enough credit as a musician but a 1980s photo of him playing a desktop Casio synthesizer, which could give you a polka, foxtrot, rock or reggae rhythm at the touch of button, gives another hint about the composition of those irresistible tunes.

It’s a frustrating gap; you can half glimpse a three-way dissection of Cohen that would examine biography, writing and composition to parse his art. Despite some sharp insights into his lyrics – Cox notes how the enduring Hallelujah is typical of the songwriter’s ability to juxtapose the sacred and the profane – there is a sense this show is attempting the impossible, trying to capture the feeling of a song with bits of paper.

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Self Portrait, Angry at 11pm, 1991.Leonard Cohen Family Trust

Cohen estimated that he wrote 80 verses for Hallelujah over a period of five years. Speaking of that process of revising and discarding, he once said of his oeuvre that the archive was the mountain and the published work the volcano. Still, as visitors gather around the concert footage in this show, you sense that many of us just want to bathe in the lava again.

Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto to April 10.