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Paintings

New Montreal museum pavilion aims 'to seduce the visitor'

The construction of a new $25-million European pavilion at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts opened Saturday to display a gift of over 100 Old Master paintings

The Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace at The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

The Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace at The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Marc Cramer

The gift of a painting to a museum may get you a tax receipt and a small measure of civic glory. A gift of many paintings can cause a seismic effect, as happened when Michal and Renata Hornstein gave about 100 Old Master paintings to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

The Hornstein gift, and the approaching 375th anniversary of Montreal, moved the provincial government to cover three-quarters of the cost of a new $25-million pavilion for European art. The Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace, which opened Saturday, is the second major addition in five years to Canada's most expansive art institution. It is also, for the next two months, Montreal's best cheap date: admission is free until Jan. 15.

The new building nestles behind the Moshe Safdie-designed Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion on Sherbrooke Street West. In keeping with the fashion of the times, Atelier TAG and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte Architectes have massed two big light boxes on top of each other along Bishop Street. An exterior metal veil makes the building appear more opaque during the day, but fades from view at night to reveal the glowing exterior and its open staircases.

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Inside that box is another, with solid walls. This is the real container for the art, which no curator would expose to a flood of natural light. Within that box, at the centre of each level, there is yet another box, dedicated to a surprising concept or combination of works that illuminates the display in the larger gallery around it. The installation over all is roughly chronological, moving forward in time as you descend from the medieval penthouse level, but chief curator and museum director Nathalie Bondil says she had no desire to sacrifice her new pavilion to a purely sequential plod through art history.

"You have to seduce the visitor," she says. That imperative helps explain the otherwise surprising fact that although the MMFA owns thousands more objects than it can display, 75 of the 750 pieces in the new building were borrowed, to fill gaps and tell stories. These works include an 18th-century painting by Jacques-Louis David of St. Jerome, rearing back from his desk as the divine presence penetrates his spirit. The posture of his ecstasy is strikingly similar to that of the agony suffered by the man being eaten by a lion in an adjacent oil sketch by David's contemporary Charles Meynier. These two pieces together force you to think about the role of figurative tropes, as you might not while looking at either on its own.

The new pavilion abounds in piquant juxtapositions of that kind. It also accentuates the social history underlying the art, as several recent MMFA exhibitions have done. A wall of 18th-century English portraits by the likes of Gainsborough and Reynolds stands near an oval enclave of items related to Napoleon, including portraits, ceramics and personal items belonging to the emperor. The ensemble vividly evokes its period. It also gives new point to the museum's English portraits, which haven't often been shown, and to Napoleonic items from the Weider family, which carried a whiff of hero worship in their previous MMFA installation.

The Hornsteins, who unfortunately both died weeks before the pavilion's completion, were big collectors of Golden Age Dutch painting, which dominates the third level. Like many spaces in the pavilion, this one feels like a salon or parlour, with works installed in thematic clusters.

The interior box on this floor is a cabinet of curiosities, in which hyper-realistic still lifes are surrounded by lit-wall vitrines filled with related ceramics, metalwares and items of taxidermy. Again, the display points to the wider intellectual climate of the period, when science and imperialistic trade were exploding.

The pavilion's enormous first level is the most adventurous in concept and layout. The curators had to create the main entrance to the galleries in a transitional space leading from the Desmarais pavilion, while making a coherent transit through Romanticism to contemporary art. The spine of their display is an idiosyncratic sculpture arcade that begins with Belgian artist Jef Lambeaux's Le blessé, a histrionic riff on the ancient Roman sculpture, The Dying Gaul. Lambeaux's work has the same muscular energy as that of his better-known contemporary Rodin, three of whose works stand in less prominent spots in an adjoining gallery. A Rodin in the doorway would have been a more obvious greeting, but perhaps less likely to deliver such a pointed reminder of the Romantic era's awareness of Classical models.

The adjacent galleries each tackle a period or art-historical development, while convening smaller thematic sub-areas. In the middle of the gallery that spans French realism to post-Impressionism, for example, there's a section devoted to Wagnerism and Fantin-Latour, under a floating ceiling segment that makes that section feel like a space of its own. A cluster of small sculptural studies in the modern end of the transitional galleries has the flavour of a studio display.

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Peony Knot (2015), Jean-Michel Othoniel, on the 3rd floor of the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Peony Knot (2015), Jean-Michel Othoniel, on the 3rd floor of the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Denis Farley/Jean-Michel Othoniel / SODRAC

Bondil has dramatized the Romantic gallery with a deep-green ceiling projection meant to make the room feel like an enchanted forest, and a recording of twittering birds. I couldn't shake the feeling I had wandered into the Bat Cave at the Royal Ontario Museum, and couldn't read the wall texts submerged in shadow – a periodic problem throughout the pavilion. The Belle Époque gallery offers a toothsome sampler of that colourful period, making pertinent use of some décor from its successful Orientalism exhibition.

In the pavilion's first level proper, reached by crossing a gently sloping floor into the new building, the displays open out, with wall-filling works by Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler and other Americans, along with striking pieces by lesser-known European artists of roughly similar practice. The interior box on this level is all black, including the works inside: brooding 20th-century pieces by Alberto Giacometti, George Segal and Christian Boltanski.

The medieval and Renaissance level is beautifully laid out, with inventive use of exposed steel pillars and arches. There are some fine individual pieces here, though this period will never be the MMFA's strong suit.

Canadian artists regularly pop up in this pavilion of mainly European art, in five large commissioned works by Patrick Beaulieu, Martha Townsend and Patrick Coutu, and in creative interventions such as John Oswald's video response to a portrait by Rembrandt, which for some reason the curators have installed in different rooms. The concept of a Pavilion of Peace can't only be focused on the art of the past or from other places, Bondil says – it also has to include the here-and-now.

Bondil elaborates the pavilion's concept in a far-ranging essay in a related hard-bound book, in which she argues that art is a crucial component of a peaceful society. The pavilion emphasizes the social structurally through its wide staircases and ample landings, all open to views of the city. There are lots of places within and without the galleries to sit, reflect and converse. This too, Bondil says, is part of the MMFA's tribute to the Hornsteins, who escaped the Holocaust and found in Montreal a place to rebuild their lives and explore the world of art.

"This was a city of peace for them," she says, just as it has become a safe harbour for more recent refugees. The museum's current outreach includes collaborations with 450 community organizations and with art therapy and education programs at Concordia University. These will run through the handsome and expansive new Michel de la Chenelière International Atelier for Education and Art Therapy, which occupies the two lowest levels of the new pavilion, and gives the museum the largest art-education facility of any art gallery in North America. One can truly say that the MMFA is building a community for art from the ground up.

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The MMFA's Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace opened Saturday.

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