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National Gallery of Canada’s new show: an ambitious Canadian epic

The Saskatchewan Legislative Building, which was finished in 1912, was designed by Edward and William Sutherland Maxwell.

The National Gallery of Canada could stand to have a hit. Its last really big show, the superlative, ground-breaking Sakahan: International Indigenous Art, drew only 61,000 visitors during a 31/2-month run that ended in early September.

However, it seems unlikely its newest epic, Artists, Architects and Artisans: Canadian Art 1890-1918, will mark the desired reversal of fortune. Which is too bad since the exhibition, occupying essentially the same footprint (large) as Sakahan, is pretty much perfect. Perfect, that is, if you believe, as I do, that a (large and largely) publicly funded art institution such as the NGC should from time to time originate and mount an ambitious, historic, Canadian-themed show buttressed by considerable scholarship and accompanied by a hefty, heavily illustrated, densely annotated catalogue.

Artists, Architects and Artisans has all these elements – the 340-page catalogue weighs 2.3 kilograms, in fact – plus it's often visually arresting and there are at least eight touch-activated monitors to give the visitor extra images and information. Six years in the preparation, the exhibition, as its forthright title declares, offers a sweeping, trans-Canada survey of developments in easel painting, photography, murals, decoration, building design, urban planning, housing, book-binding, other applied arts and much else as they occurred in a country that, while no longer a hodge-podge of colonies, was more of a great notion than a full-fledged nation. If this smacks of "the worthy" and the "good-for-you," so be it. As a child, I did not like spinach; today I think it a very fine vegetable and enjoy it very much.

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With some 320 artifacts spread across a dozen or so rooms painted mostly in shades of green, the whole shebang is clearly a labour of love for Charles Hill, the NGC's veteran curator of Canadian art. It's also something of a summation, a return and a swan song. A return in that it's a completion or at least an elaboration of the first significant show Hill did as a Canadian art curator, 1980's To Found a National Gallery: The Royal Canadian Academy of Arts 1880-1913. An envoi because Hill, who's 68, is retiring next year after a 41-year tenure at the NGC. It is, he acknowledges, his "most ambitious project ever" – and one, averred to without prompting, that "demands a lot of its audience."

Indeed, the show's multidisciplinary sprawl – the cross-fire hurricane of its themes and influences, the overarching seriousness (notwithstanding occasional whimsies like the Boy with Turkey and Boy with Fish bronzes by Alfred Laliberté that bracket the presentation) – is at once its genius and the likely sticking point for a general audience. We're an era, exhibition-wise at least, with an overweening appetite, it seems, for the wham-bam of the now, the overly familiar and famous, the immediately recognizable or the easily grasped. Witness the 230,000-plus visitors the NGC got for its 2012 van Gogh show, the 150,000 attendees at the recently concluded 10-week Ai Weiwei retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Artists, Architects etc. certainly has its familiar names – Ozias Leduc is represented by three paintings, there are decorative works by Tom Thomson and Lawren Harris, an exquisite 1917 foray into Japonisme by Arthur Lismer titled Georgian Bay, Spring – but here the emphasis is less on individuation than community and interactivity. Or, as Hill put it in a recent interview, "how literature was an inspiration for sculpture, music for painting, text for image, a house for furniture." Sometimes this could smack of gilding the lily – one example being the elaborately carved, all-white wooden case with flanking lamps affixed, in 1902, to a Steinway piano in the home of Montreal financier Louis-Joseph Forget. Ditto the carvings atop the newel posts on the headboard of architect Percy Nobbs's 1909 marriage bed – one is of Cupid with his bow, the other of a mother pelican plunging her bill into her breast to provide blood to nourish three clamouring chicks at her webbed feet! And what to make of the Frances Loring bronze clock from 1914 formed by the shapes of two nuzzling peacocks?

At the same time, there is much to treasure – a George Reid/Edwin Challener oak sideboard with azure enamel inlays (1904) by Mabel Adamson; the deep blue tones of Robert Flaherty's evocative cyanotype of the previously mentioned Loring and fellow sculptor/partner-in-life Florence Wyle (1915); a beautifully proportioned 1912 bookcase built for the Art Association of Montreal; a model of the mostly unrealized murals that George Reid envisioned in 1899 for the interiors of the new Toronto Municipal Buildings. For sheer over-the-topness, check out the madcap neo-classical vision that landscape architect/planner Thomas Mawson entertained for Calgary in 1914 – definitely more Paris-on-the-Bow than Cowtown-in-the-Foothills!

This homage or tip-of-the-hat to far-off influences and inspirations crops up repeatedly in Artists, Architects etc. As Hill noted, "There was not a lot of talk about doing something specifically Canadian" in pre-First World War Canada. Rather, "it was about trying to implant an art culture here from which other things could grow." Grappling with rapid industrialization, waves of immigration and urban growth (Winnipeg's population alone rose more than fivefold in 20 years, to 136,000 by 1911), the young country's tastemakers and vision-shapers looked to Paris, London, New York, Chicago, Vienna, the English Arts and Crafts Movement, the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition, the City Beautiful Movement and Art Nouveau for touchstones in their quest to meld the aesthetic with the practical.

If there's poignancy to Artists, Architects etc. it has less to do with the display of this emulation than the disjunction between the ambitions and dreams of the "art workers" and the lack (or at least partial lack) of these ambitions' realization. This is especially true in the realms of urban planning and renewal. Neither Toronto nor Montreal had its Baron Haussmann or Daniel Burnham, nor the deep-pocketed, visionary patrons, public or private, to make a Haussmann possible. Add a recession in 1913-14, the huge disruption of the First World War and what Hill calls "the colonialism in the belief that Canadians can't produce to the quality of abroad," and you can't help exit Artists, Architects and Artisans feeling admiration at what was accomplished and saddened by what wasn't.

Artists, Architects and Artisans: Canadian Art 1890-1918 is at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa through Feb. 17, 2014. Information:

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James More


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