A Visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario

Whenever I’m in Toronto, the AGO is a must-see. Over the Christmas holidays I had the chance to catch the last few days of an awesome exhibition there: Early Rubens, plus some impressive works from other artists.

I use the word ‘awesome’ not casually, I mean exactly as the word is originally intended. Flemish Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens’s (1577-1640) paintings are huge, depicting Biblical characters and narratives in epic scale. On a wall I read this Rubens quote:

I confess that I am by natural instinct better fitted to execute very large works than small curiosities. Everyone according to his gifts; my talent is such that no undertaking, however vast in size or diversified in subject, has ever surpassed my courage.   –  Peter Paul Rubens, Letter dated 1621

Glad he mentioned ‘Everyone according to his gifts’, or else those who are afraid of heights would never be able to score any artistic achievement.

Anyway, this one in particular haunted me, The Massacre of the Innocents, around 1611-1612. Mothers try desperately to protect their sons against muscular men:

Massacre of the Innocents

Those entangled, near-naked bodies are men following an order from King Herod to kill all babies under the age of two after hearing that the King of the Jews had been born in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph took their baby son Jesus and fled to Egypt to escape a ruler’s jealous rage and his desperate cling to power. Yes, Jesus and his parents were migrants, one of the early political refugees escaping from a ruthless government.

Fast forward several centuries to 1903, and in contrast to the massive scale of human tragedy of the above painting, I was drawn to this very quiet, seemingly simple painting of a mother giving a bowl of soup to her child. The mother looks unwell and seems to give away what she needs to her child. This poignant and sparse scene entitled The Soup is Pablo Picasso’s social statement of poverty and homelessness:

Pablo Piccaso The Soup

A more relaxed social scene. This painting from the 19th C. French landscape painter Eugène Boudin, Beach Near Trouville, linked my thoughts to a movie scene right away. Boudin’s work is dated 1864, that’s around the same period as Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women. Boudin depicts Parisian high society mingling on the beach town of Trouville. Notice the women’s dresses:


My mental association was naturally the Greta Gerwig directed Little Women beach picnic scene. I couldn’t help but compare their formal attires even at the beach and the actual chairs they sat on in Boudin’s painting with the beach scene in Little Women, so free and casual (not displayed in AGO):

Beach Scene in Greta Gerwig's Little Women

Don’t you want to fly a kite with the March sisters on that sandy beach?

From the historic to the futuristic, the iconic Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (born 1929) has invented visions of infinity with her experimental installations for three decades. Her work was exhibited at the AGO in 2017 and now the Gallery has a permanent set up Kusama called The Infinity Mirrored Room – Let’s Survive Forever. I had to reserve a time slot ahead for my visit. At my appointed time, which was another hour later, I still had to wait in line to go into the room.

It’s a room of silver spheres suspended from the ceiling and arranged on the floor set against mirrors. A person standing in the room will see seemingly infinite reflections:

Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrored Room

Here’s the image of one silver ball in the middle of the room. I didn’t do any colour changes, so just interesting to see what looked to me was a silver ball came out green in the photo:

One silver ball

You can actually see me taking the picture. What does this all mean? According to Kusama, the room gives a person a sense of infinity and limitlessness.

Only two visitors were allowed inside the room at one time. And how long could we spend in there? One minute. A staff with a timer in hand monitored the flow of visitors. When our time was up, she knocked on the closed door for us to go out and another two would go in. Call it a visual oxymoron if you will: A one-minute taste of infinity. O the limits of our human experiences.



Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Alex Colville and the Movies

Bernini’s Corpus and Modern Movies

My review of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women




Alex Colville and the Movies

“It’s the ordinary things that seem important to me.” — Alex Colville Whenever I go to Toronto, The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is always a must. As if to correspond with The Toronto International Film Festival, the current exhibition of more than 100 pieces of works by Canadian artist Alex Colville is a timely offering. Before my visit to AGO I’d looked up some info on Toronto born Alex Colville (1920-2013) who later moved to Nova Scotia and became an icon of Canadian art. His “Man on Verandah” (1953) set the record as the highest auctioned price recorded for a living Canadian artist in 2010. He was then 90 years old. The realism of Colville’s paintings at first reminded me of the American painter Edward Hopper. But a closer look at his meticulous renderings and precise details, I had the feeling that I was looking at a photograph, but the dramatic depictions made them look more like movie stills. As I walked through the exhibits, my inkling was confirmed. The quote on this banner may well set the tone as one enters the exhibition hall: EnteringAs soon as I stepped into the gallery, I saw this familiar work but only then did I find out its title: “To Prince Edward Island” (1965):

Alex Colville

Adjacent to the painting is a movie clip projected on the wall, showing Colville’s influence on the director Wes Anderson. Of course, that’s Suzy from Moonrise Kingdom (2012). The ever watchful female gaze through the binoculars. Both works exude mystery and nostalgia:

Moonrise KingdomApparently Colville’s influence can be found in several other filmmakers. In the exhibitions I was led to view samples of some close associations.

Artists influence each other. Colville’s “Target Pistol and Man” (1980) could be the inspiration for the Coen brother’s imagery of the psychotic and sinister character Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (2007). But of course, one could argue that the movie was based on Cormac McCarthy’s book (2005). So it could be McCarthy being first spooked by Colville’s depiction of this cold, hard, and unpredictable character in the painting:

Pistol and Man

Further down the exhibits, I was confronted with a set of four Colville paintings in the scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s famous horror film The Shining (1980), adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. Too ‘in-your-face’? Some critics think so. No matter, I’m not posting them here to avoid sensationalism.

However, as I walked through the exhibits without any explicit prompting, I could indeed draw connections between some of them and the movies I’ve seen. Here are a few more examples:

Just when you think you’re going to have a good time taking the children on an outing, maybe a swim or a picnic, and then you see the rainstorm approaching.

Family and Rainstorm (1955):

Family & RainstormJust like the ending scene of A Serious Man (2009) by the Coen brothers, impending storm in the school yard. The unpredictable and precariousness in everyday life.

Or, how about this, which movie does this painting “Seven Crows” (1980) lead you to think of:

Seven CrowsOr this one, “Soldier and Girl at Station” (1953):

Soldier and Girl at Station“Anxiety is the normality of our age,” Colville had said. I could totally feel it while looking at his works.


To correspond with my weekly photo meme, I’m linking this post to Saturday Snapshot Sept. 27 hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. CLICK HERE to see what others have posted.


Some related post on Ripple Effects:

Art Gallery of Ontario

AGO Exhibition: Terror and Beauty

Bernini’s Corpus and Mordern Movies

Edward Hopper, William Safire: The Visual and the Word


AGO Exhibition: Terror And Beauty

The Art Gallery of Ontario, AGO, is a must-see whenever I visit Toronto. Not only because I’m a Frank Gehry fan who never gets tired of looking at the centre spiral staircase in there, but the exhibits are always intriguing and thought-provoking. Spent a few days in Toronto last week and this time, I was much gratified to view the current show at AGO: “Francis Bacon, Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty”.

Terror and Beauty, the motif resonates with the idea of Wabi-sabi. I’ve explored visually the notion of Wabi-sabi before. Two seemingly incompatible states juxtaposed against each other, beauty and sadness.

“You can’t be more horrific than life itself” says a quote from Francis Bacon on the AGO’s Artist page. The exhibits speak to that by extracting from the horrors of WWII and other forms of human sufferings and struggles depicted in the works of these two 20th century Irish/English artists who were contemporaries of each other.

The exhibit is a wealth of surrealist works from Bacon, and sculptures and drawings from Moore. But I was particularly captivated by the WWII items. While Moore is well-known for his abstract sculptures of the human body in larger than life poses, here’s a rare chance to see his more personal, wartime drawings.

Going home one evening in 1940, as he entered a London subway station, Moore discovered crowds of people sleeping on the platform to take shelter from an impending German air strike, the Blitz. He was taken aback by what he saw and his later drawing was a ghastly interpretation:

Tube Shelter Perspective 1941 by Henry Moore OM, CH 1898-1986

Photo Source: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/moore-tube-shelter-perspective-n05709

That’s Moore’s view of the underground subway station used as impromptu bomb shelter. But what was it really like in those tube stations? That’s when I was totally captivated by the photos of the renowned photojournalist Bill Brandt displayed alongside Moore’s shelter drawings.

Rather than horrific depictions, I was utterly surprised by the actual photographs by Brandt, who acted as official war photographer. His noir and darkened perspective is haunting and yet, full of mystique and beauty.

What I saw was an opposite interpretation of the subway scene: rather than terror, I saw resilience. Indeed, the London populace came out in droves to seek shelter in the subway, a much safer haven than their own homes. What I saw in many of Brandt’s photographs was the strong sense of ‘life goes on’.

Two photographs in the exhibition will forever remain in my mind.

First is the Liverpool Street Underground Station Shelter during an air raid in November, 1940. The photograph shows a family sleeping soundly, bedding against the grooves in between the steel structures of the tunnel. But look more carefully, there’s even a bunk and blanket for a doll beside the child. They all look peaceful and calm.

For the archive in my mind, let me call this photo: “The Doll in the Subway”

Sleeping in the subway bunk-child & doll

© IWM Non-Commercial License http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194652?cat=photographs

The second picture by Brandt is in the Elephant and Castle London Underground Station Shelter. Here, people sleeping on the crowded platform while taking shelter from German air raids during the Blitz.

But look how they were dressed in. The mid-heel pump the woman in the foreground was wearing caught my attention. Looks like she was dressed for work. Blitz or no Blitz, after she woke in the morning, she had to go to work. Life as usual.

In my mental archive, this photo will now be entitled “The Mid-heel Pump”.


The mid-heel pump

© IWM Non-Commercial License http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194638

What more, after civilians had crowded into the subway stations against government’s advice, the officials had to respond with helpful measures by installing chemical toilets, first aid facilities, and providing drinks, while the people created their own entertainment. With all due respect to the victims of the Blitz, the resilience and adaptability of the Londoners are most inspiring.

After I stepped out of AGO, I wanted to go back in to take a more careful look at the exhibits again. But that was not feasible so I had to write this post from memory (no photos of the exhibits were allowed) and from some online digging. Glad to have found these two  memorable images from the Imperial War Museum website. Thanks to AGO, these two historic photos will remain in my mental archive for a long, long time.

CLICK HERE to see 9 Incredible photos of the London Underground as Bomb Shelter.


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The Frank Gehry designed Art Gallery of Ontario

Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005)

Art Gallery of Alberta




Bernini’s Corpus and Modern Movies

The Art Gallery of Ontario holds more than 79,000 items in its collection, from 100 A.D. to the present. I’d just seen a tiny fraction of them during the six hours I was there. But if I’m to say which one has stirred the most ripples, it would be the bronze sculpture by Bernini, Corpus (The Crucified Christ), ca. 1655.

Successor of Michelangelo, the Italian Baroque architect and artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini had produced many famous Papal works. I’m impressed by how contemporary this 17th C. sculpture looks with its silvery-bronze color and its minimalist styling. Further, I’m amazed that it has been in private hands all the years… Like you might hear at a party, “Oh, I just happen to own a Bernini.” Having been ‘lost’ and then ‘found’, the sculpture was last in the possession of the Frum family who donated it to the AGO in 2007, estimated value at that time was $50 million.

Murray Frum, real estate developer and philanthropist, had earlier donated an entire African art collection to the AGO. To the general public, probably the most well-known member of his family is his late wife who died of cancer in 1992, the prominent CBC news journalist Barbara Frum.

Unlike the other art works of the crucifix that I’ve seen, the Bernini Corpus has no cross. Its 5 foot 6 inches life-size body hung in midair, supported only at the base.  There it is, right in the middle of the darkened gallery room displayed at eye-level, the suffering Christ suspended in silence. You can get near to the outstretched arms, you can see the loincloth blown to the side, and every minute detail on the body.

Without the backing of the cross, the image gives a weightier impression. You can go right up to the work, except of course you can’t touch it or take a picture, even though both were what I actually wanted to do… But at least, I could look and wonder in nearness.

The cruciform pose of Christ being hung on an invisible cross turns the literal event into a symbolic timelessness. The mere posture of two outstretched arms has long been associated with the essence of the cross: suffering, sacrifice, redemptive salvation. Such a visual icon has been used in many movies effectively. Whether you agree with the director’s message or parallel is another matter. Nonetheless, the archetypal cruciform pose is a powerful image when aptly embedded in a visual context.

Here are a few movies that I can think of where the cruciform pose vividly depicts a memorable moment. (Warning: The following section carries Spoilers.)

How Green Was My Valley (1941): John Ford’s visually contemplative work. When the shaft comes up from the underground mine carrying survivors of the explosion, you can see the rescuer Mr. Gruffydd in the cruciform pose. What’s more, you can even see the Pieta image:

Through a Glass Darkly (1961): Ingmar Bergman’s classic. The estranged father David stretching his arms out in front of the window, sobbing and seeking redemption through family relationship: Cool Hand Luke (1967): After eating 50 eggs, it’s enough suffering for Luke (Paul Newman), a determined radical fighting a callous system in a hopeless prison. His graceful form is a clear contrast to the stark surroundings: The Graduate (1967): Ben (Dustin Hoffman) cries from above: “Elaine! Elaine! Elaine! …” Which yearning heart would not respond to such a passionate cry and be delivered in the nick of time out of a loveless union: Dances With Wolves (1990): Only when you’re not afraid to die, then can you live.  Lieutenant Dunbar (Kevin Costner) embraces death only to be ushered into a new life and adventure:

Shawshank Redemption (1994): Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) literally digs out a new path to salvation. This is the iconic scene of freedom and cleansing after climbing out from the sewage line: Superman Returns (2006): Superman (Brandon Routh) returning from Krypton to save the world. His famous line to Lois: “You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but everyday I hear someone crying for one.” Gran Torino (2008): Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) laying down his life to save his young friends from a neighborhood gang, in search of self-redemption: … I’m sure you can think of more.


Related Posts you might enjoy:

Alex Colville and the Movies

The Art Gallery of Ontario


Art Gallery of Ontario

There are several interesting facts about the AGO.  That it is situated in Toronto’s Chinatown is an example of the vibrant cultural mix an urban centre can sustain.  And in multicultural Canada, that sits well indeed.  These are the buildings right across from the front entrance of the AGO on Dundas Street:

On the upper floor of the building to the left, the four characters indicate it’s the “United Chinese Drama Society”.  The main floor is a French Café.  The building to the right is home to a Chinese clan association.  And the barber shop below… oh, what does it matter.

And across the street, spanning one full block from Beverley to McCaul, adjacent the Ontario College of Art and Design is the Art Gallery of Ontario:


The AGO originally began as The Art Museum of Toronto in 1900.  Its first home was The Grange, a Georgian Mansion built in 1817.  The last hundred years saw several stages of expansion. In 2008, the Gallery received a major facelift.  The prominent architect Frank Gehry brought the AGO into a new phase, and to finally contribute to the Canadian architectural landscape with his first design in Canada.  And what an approparite choice.  According to the AGO guide who led our tour, Gehry was born right here on this street some blocks away.  He holds fond childhood memories of the area, particularly the AGO.

At the back, one can see the very postmodern juxtaposition of the old Georgian Mansion The Grange with the new Gehry-designed AGO:


But the outside does not prepare one for what is installed within.  I was amazed many times over as I explored the gallery spaces. Photography was not allowed in the exhibits areas.  So I’ve only captured the general interiors, and they are breathtaking, elegant and exquisite:


I love the contemporary light wood contours placed against the classical styling.  The overall color scheme is soothing and relaxing, without the austerity of some art galleries and museums.   Natural light is plentiful as it is let in through the glass ceiling.  Light and shadows play out in an interesting way:

The central spiral stairwell is the main attraction.  It is made of B.C. douglas fir, light, fluid, swirls gracefully down from the top.  As I made my way down, every step I took offered me a new perspective.  An inspiration in itself:





. . 




And finally we were shown this magnificent design, right against the glass inside the front of the building:



Unlike Gehry’s other more showy works of bending metals, the AGO is decidedly unpretentious, curving wood against arches, blending nature with art, art with architecture, and architecture with an urban neighborhood.


TEXT AND PHOTOS by Arti of Ripple Effects, July 2010.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.