The singer Paul Hewson, better known as Bono, once said, “It’s the job of art to be divisive.”
By that standard, Franco-Russian modernist Marc Chagall’s The Eiffel Tower and French master Jacques-Louis David’s Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment have put in a splendid shift.
The National Gallery of Canada has several Chagalls and almost no Davids, so it decided to sell one to acquire the other. The move created a ruckus in the art world, where eyebrows are easily raised. But given the legitimate worry that the David would leave the country, it was a defensible plan – until it blew up in the gallery’s face.
The David in question is owned by a Quebec religious order, and the province’s Liberal government has suddenly taken steps to bar its sale outside the province.
So why is the National Gallery pressing on with the Chagall auction if it no longer needs the money? It is the kind of fiasco that can define tenures, and gallery director Marc Mayer has only himself to blame.
In fairness, there are few heroes in this tableau. The Notre-Dame-de-Québec Parish put the David up for sale last year, raising the possibility it would wind up overseas. The government of Quebec never expressed concern about the painting crossing the Atlantic Ocean; it only stepped in when word got out that it might cross the Ottawa River.
That’s because no Quebec politician has ever suffered from taking on a federal institution of any kind. But the provincial government may rue preserving the right of first refusal on the David if a quick sale to two cash-strapped Quebec museums can’t be arranged .
The government isn’t obliged to buy the $6.3-million work, but given the huffing about its high cultural importance, is there another choice? That would set a precedent for any other body looking to sell off a notable chunk of Quebec’s cultural history.
In the end, the parties may decide to keep the painting in Canadian hands in the type of sharing arrangement Mr. Mayer inexplicably pooh-poohed earlier this month, before abruptly reversing course in an open letter on Monday.
Art can be divisive, but it’s got nothing on politics.