North America may never again see a spectacle to match this. Stellar works by Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin and 30 plus contemporary artists. Five years in the making, conceived by the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Curator of International Exhibitions Katharine Lochnan, the exhibit Mystical Landscapes is a mesmerizing display.
The work fascinates, yet the stories behind them are often as compelling. As French artist Maurice Denis says, “It is in one’s soul that one must find the true landscapes.” Many represented here struggled with institutional religion. Some felt abandoned by or alienated from it. Some were devoted believers. Others straddled the lines between devotion and abandonment. Canadian artist Emily Carr says all were “groping religiously for something. The artist himself may not think he is religious but if he is sincere his sincerity in itself is religion."
Sincerity, depth, and groping are evident in Gauguin, says Regis College’s Gilles Mongeau in audio accessed via a hand-held wand. Alienated from society, culture and the Church, Gauguin’s angst is conveyed in three of his most famous paintings.
They are arranged here as intended by Gauguin. First is "The Vision of the Sermon "(Jacob Wrestling with the Angel). Living in Brittany, and influenced by its Celtic-Christian traditions, he portrays Breton women having a vision of Jacob wrestling with an angel, a priest appearing to the right. In the center is the crucified "The Yellow Christ." To the right is "Christ in the Garden of Olives," as Mongeau says Gauguin uses Christ’s image to depict himself.
Alongside is Paul Serusier’s "Farewell to Gauguin," perhaps a tribute to his mentor. In Serusier’s "Incantation," women alone appear, as it was thought mysticism was reserved for them. Two stand, another kneels, her hand extended over a flame. Two hold bowls filled with food, as though offering alms to sacred woods.
In "Woman Asleep in the Enchanted Forest," Denis portrays a woman dreaming on pillows, trees and a white horse led by an apparent knight in the background.
Van Gogh’s "The Olive Trees," painted while voluntarily admitted to an asylum, generated excitement in him says University of Toronto’s Bogomila Welsh. “No subject attracted him more than olive orchards.”
"Landscape" and the "Dark Night of the Soul" demonstrated darkness did not escape the Symbolists’ brush. Fernand Khnopff in "Bruges, A Portal," casts a declining, dying city. World War I brought greater dread, as paintings such as "Gas Chamber at Seaford" by Frederick H. Varley, Paul Nash’s "The Void," and Alexander Young Jackson’s "Gas Attack, Lievin" dealt with somber times.
Of Monet “The landscape he loved the most,” says Lochnan was “in the vicinity of his home in Giverny.” That vista produced "Grainstack" and "Stacks of Wheat," things Monet saw worthy of thought. Monet’s first effort in transmuting Buddhism’s lotus to a western peace symbol occurred in 1907’s "Water Lilies." The war’s end brought "Water Lilies, Reflections of Weeping Willows" a peace offering to France.
"The Wilderness and Spiritual Encounter" was championed by Canadian painters Tom Thompson, Lawren Harris, Alexander Young Jackson, and English transplant Frederick H. Varley.
Like Monet, Carr, and her Group of Seven colleagues became one with one their subject, as their works here, save one (Frederick H. Varley’s "Gas Chamber at Seaford"), are of the natural world, becoming one with it, devoid of humans, and things made by them.
Trees to Symbolists resembled columns in nature’s temple. Carr’s "Forest," "British Columbia" and "Trees in Sky," along with Monet’s "Poplars" and "Wind Effect," "Sequence of Poplars," Gauguin’s "Blue Trees," and Thompson’s "Algonquin Park" all emphasize the oneness these artists sensed in trees. Whereas Carr’s "Sky" and "Overhead," Harris’s "Isolation Peak," and Varley’s "The Cloud," "Red Mountain" and "Early Morning, Sphinx Mountain" point to the heavens.
In "The Starry Night over the Rhone at Arles," it is obvious Van Gogh was looking, as we are asked to look not only at the Monets and Van Goghs in Mystical Landscapes, but also work by those not as well-known.
The Art Gallery of Ontario is at 317 Dundas St., Toronto. Mystical Landscapes runs through Jan. 29. For gallery hours, go to ago.net