Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

I have a love hate relationship with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. I like what St├ęphane Aquin is with the contemporary art collection and I think that the museum might go in a more interesting direction under Natalie Bondil than it did under her predecessor. Yet, during my undergraduate studies in Art History at McGill the MMFA was the frequent and easy target for my term papers. The museum’s collection of First Nations or what they call Amerindian art occupies a scant corner of the Canadian Art galleries. It might as well not even be there. Most of the galleries take a very boring and safe view of art history; the Canadian galleries in particular follow chapter-by-chapter the seminal but dated Painting in Canada: A History by Russell Harper. Thus in my last semester I undertook a project in which I proposed a re-hang of the MMFA’s Canadian galleries, including a list of hypothetical acquisitions. For this reason, I am intimately familiar with the Canadian collection and was incredibly disappointed with the museum’s recent show Expanding Horizons: Painting and Photography of American and Canadian Landscapes 1860-1918.

The exhibition is academically up my alley but what distracted and upset me was the amount of paintings on display that were straight off the walls of the permanent collection, which is free to the public. Although the exhibition will be brand new for its Vancouver audience and for first time visitors, I found it to be sloppy and unacceptable curatorial practice. Putting up a major exhibition is a lot of work, but I cannot believe that the curators couldn’t have displayed works from the collection that have not been on display recently. I have decided not to renew my membership after that exhibition, but before it expired I visited the newest show: a J. W. Waterhouse retrospective.

Stylistically, the show is beautifully done. Everything is black, including the velvet room dividers and the pots of plants. Waterhouse’s paintings pop against the dramatic backdrop. The lighting could have been better, it was either too dark or too bright and not always easy to see the paintings clearly. I was impressed with the extended labels. The texts explain the history and mythology in the paintings without telling the viewer exactly how to interpret them. Waterhouse is an interesting and intelligent artist and the show is definitely worth experiencing.

Hopefully the MMFA will continue to put up quality exhibitions without cutting corners.

6 down, 26 to go.