During a recent phone conversation, Charles (Charlie) Hill described himself on at least two occasions as "a cog in history." Each time he did so, my mind latched onto that famous wartime speech Winston Churchill gave in late 1941 to the Canadian Parliament, the one where the British Prime Minister recalled a French general telling him that a Nazi invasion of his sceptered isle was imminent and "in three weeks England [would] have its neck wrung like a chicken."
"Some chicken. Some neck" was, of course, the retort Churchill offered to Canadian parliamentarians. "Some cog. Some history," is what I thought when the 68-year-old Hill – 69 on Oct. 25 – mentioned being a cog in history. If cog he's been, he's been a most valuable one, with an illustrious history at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa stretching back almost 42 years if you count just his curatorships there, even farther if you include the 1967-68 stint he worked in the NGC library.
This is Hill's last week at the NGC, where he's been curator of Canadian art since 1980, serving under at least six directors. The departure seems entirely of his own volition but understandably "bittersweet"' and "very emotional." Of course, it means he's going to miss Canada's sesquicentennial in 2017 when the NGC intends to reinstall its Canadian galleries and mount a really big show. But "I just don't feel that I've got three years in me, that I want to do that. It's better for somebody else … with new eyes, a new perception of the collection."
The curatorship has been a brute of a job – there's been administrative responsibility for pretty much all the historic Canadian art in the NGC up to the 1970s, plus curatorial responsibility for the same from the mid-19th century to 1950 as well as oversight of acquisitions and collections care and exhibition co-ordination – so "it's really been my life." By all accounts, he's handled the file with unrelenting dedication, passion, intelligence and diligent scholarship, ensuring the integrity and enhancing the vitality of what a colleague calls "the country's cornerstone collection," even as Hill repeatedly declares how "immensely lucky" he's been.
Certainly Canada's cultural heritage is the richer for Hill's contributions, recognition of which came in 2000 when he was named a member of the Order of Canada. "Charlie's a big thinker. … There's a comprehensiveness to what he does," observes friend, sometime collaborator and former boss Dennis Reid, 71. It was Reid who, in 1972, as NGC curator of Post-Confederation Art, took Hill under his wing as an assistant curator. Within three years Hill, a BA graduate in art history and French literature from McGill with a master's in art history in 1970 from the University of Toronto, was both mounting his first big NGC exhibition, Canadian Painting in the Thirties, and preparing its exhibition catalogue. Today Reid, who left the NGC in 1979 for what would be a lengthy and distinguished tenure at the Art Gallery of Ontario, ranks that show as one of Hill's strongest. Another Hill peak, he says, was his 1995 exhibition, The Group of Seven: Art for a Nation, simultaneously a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Group's founding and a rehabilitation of Lawren Harris and company as sophisticated, vibrant, even radical creators. For a third career high, Reid singles out Hill's most recent NGC exhibition (and catalogue), a five-year labour of love called Artists, Architects and Artisans: Canadian Art 1890-1918 that closed a three-month run in early February. "Certainly that was the most complex show I ever worked on," Hill agreed, and the one he wanted to birth and berth before he even considered retirement.
Did he ever think in, say, 1974 or 1975 when his haberdashery inclined to the hippie-esque, the beard was a full Garth Hudson and his hair long and frequently in ponytail or pigtails, that he was within striking distance of being named the NGC's grand fromage of Canadian art? The question elicited hearty laughter. "Oh God no! I had no ambitions for that whatsoever. I just had a job and I just wanted to get back to Canadian art." Hill had immersed himself in Canadian art during his earlier stay at the NGC and knew he wanted to work in that area. "Everything, it seemed, was open," he said. But "I sort of got side-tracked in 1969 when I became the first president of the University of Toronto Homophile Association and got into social activism around body politics."
Born in Ottawa, raised in the wealthy Rockcliffe Park enclave, Hill had come out to his parents at 17, a revelation that prompted his mother to send him to a psychiatrist. Hill, however, was comfortable with his sexuality. What did worry him, he told an interviewer in 2011, was the possibility of getting busted at a time when even consensual homosexual acts were illegal; indeed, in 1966 while attending McGill, he was arrested as he danced in a gay club in Montreal. Five years later, Hill would be one of the organizers of and participants in We Demand, the first ever large-scale gay-rights demonstration in Canada, held on Parliament Hill. In 1972 he became president of Gays of Ottawa. "Then," he said, "I realized that wasn't where I wanted to be for the rest of my life."
Today there's little hair on his head and what there is is white, wispy and cropped. The beard remains a feature, white, of course, and not as thick as 40 years ago. Still, if you're looking for emblems of radicalism, past or present (perhaps), the ears have them – 15 earrings in total, loops and studs arranged "unintentionally" in clusters of five, four, three, two and one. "I started decorating myself in the later 1970s, and it just spread. … I figure my shrunken head can become an education toy for kindergarten after I die," he joked.
If there's been an ethos to Hill's tenure at the National Gallery, it's been informed, he believes, by three threads, principles or themes. The first is that "the approach to art history … has to be documented and proven." It's not just a matter of opinion and taste; there has to be research, scrupulosity, informed interpretation – a penchant derived both from his university training and from the example of Dennis Reid who, for his own highly regarded Group of Seven NGC show in 1970 marking the Group's 50th anniversary, produced what Hill calls "the first really academically footnoted and documented exhibition catalogue in Canadian art."
Another Hill motif has been a fondness for exploring the relationship between art and society – "how art is a reflection of contemporary values or tries to change contemporary values." Perhaps the most exemplary demonstration of this occurred in 2006 with Art and Society: Three Generations of Canadian Art. Here Hill compared and contrasted the "national identity" project of the Group with the "politically engaged art"of the 1930s and the rise, in the late 1940s, of Quebec's Automatistes with "their rejection of the political for a social/imaginative/radical transformation of society." Finally, there's been Hill's enduring interest in the relationship between the fine arts and the applied arts, the apotheosis of which was achieved, of course, with the epic, epochal Artists, Architects and Artisans survey and its 340-page, full-colour, 2.3-kilogram catalogue.
Hill's seen his share of great acquisitions over the decades but he's quick to note how their arrival at the NGC often has been less the result of a curator's assiduous cultivation of a particular collector than a mixture of "happenstance and opportunity and the generosity of donors." Certainly this was the case in 2001 when singer-photographer Bryan Adams decided "out of the blue – and thank heaven [he] did" – to gift Emily Carr's The Welcome Man. That 1913 oil on cardboard, of a potlatch figure, is considered the most important painting in Carr's early career. More recently, Hill's taken great pleasure in receiving, from Natural Resources Canada, a huge oil on canvas by Charles Comfort called The Romance of Nickel, commissioned for installation at Canada's pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exposition.
Said Hill: "I always see my work as part of a process and I'm building on the collections acquired by past curators. Every acquisition I make is in reference to what we have, and has to add to that."
Fittingly, Hill intends to have a robust retirement. Knowing that it can take two to five years for an exhibition to come to fruition, I asked if there might be another show for the NGC in the pipeline. "Well, wait and see," was about all he would say, save to remark with a chuckle: "Would I want to do a Group of Seven show again? No, not soon. I don't think I have anything new to say at this point." In the meantime, there's a stay this winter in Dublin where his long-time co-vivant, Brian Foss, director of Carleton University's School for Studies in Arts and Culture, is on administrative leave. Part of Hill's time there will be spent researching and writing a much-anticipated biography of the legendary Montreal art dealer Max Stern (1904-87). Hill knew Stern, who fled Nazi Germany in 1937, in the 1970s and early 80s – "He always impressed me" – and was commissioned by the Concordia University-based Max Stern Art Restitution Project 10 years ago to write the history.
"Maybe I'll even learn German. Which will be very useful. I think I took introductory German twice in university," he said with a laugh. "I was," he added, "very privileged when I started the Stern project to have three volunteers who translated a lot of stuff for me." Now, though, it may be Hill's time to carry that weight.