By Raechel Bonomo, AGO communications assistant
Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic takes visitors on a landscape journey through 14 different countries. This pan-American experience is the brainchild of curators Peter John (PJ) Brownlee of the Terra Foundation in the United States, Valéria Piccoli of the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo in Brazil and Georgiana Uhlyarik of the AGO. We spoke to curator Georgiana Uhlyarik about her five-year-long journey with Picturing the Americas.
Take us through the planning of Picturing the Americas. How long has this exhibition been in the works, and what was the spark that set the process in motion?
It all started quite by chance – as often projects do – when in May 2010 I gave a talk at a conference at the Art Institute of Chicago on the Art Gallery of Ontario’s reinstallation of Canadian Art for Transformation AGO. Peter John Brownlee heard my presentation and reached out to me soon after to talk about a new project he was developing with Valéria Piccoli.
The project, PJ said, examined landscape painting across the Americas from the early 1800s to the early 1900s. I was intrigued. An important part of the vision of the Canadian Art department at the AGO is to advance the knowledge of our art beyond national borders and situate Canadian artists and art in the broader context of the world. I am interested in working with this material in a way in which we can begin to liberate it from the traditional national myth-making. It was one of the main reasons I had started presenting on Canadian Art to audiences outside of Canada. The opportunity to place Canadian paintings in a truly hemispheric framework is unprecedented.
Once the three institutions agreed to form a partnership to develop the exhibition, PJ, Valéria and I, as co-curators, began discussing the project over the phone over several months. We invited scholars from across the Americas to meet with us in what we called “curatorial summits” several times over the next three years.
The first time was at the Pinacoteca. We spent three-and-a-half days, speaking in three-and-a-half languages, intensely immersed in the history of pan-American landscapes from the Argentinean Pampas to Hudson’s Bay, from Peru’s mountain ores to Mexico’s emblematic two volcanos, and from the Hudson River valley to the Amazon — to name only a few highlights — while it rained tropically every day at 4 p.m., the Paolista traffic thickly flowed by and music conservatory students practised across the street with open windows. As we delved into each of these traditions, a complex array of differences and similarities emerged, and we became more and more aware of the immensity of the project.
And then, at last, came the breakthrough moment — naturally at lunch — rapidly sketched out on both sides of the Flor Café (Pinacoteca’s restaurant) paper placemat as we were preparing to present our ideas to our directors. Sometimes a bit of pressure is all it takes for everything to come together. We shaped the structure and had the TITLE!
Landscape painting in the Americas is a huge topic — as vast as this hemisphere allows, you could say. We each had been trained in our national tradition; we had much to learn about each others’. We travelled together to visit art collections and museums in Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Brazil, the U.S. and Canada to create the checklist and further shape the exhibition. In addition, we attended conferences and presented our project broadening our view and delving deeper into the material.
We also had some fun!
I remember that very early on I was invited to give a talk just as we were beginning to develop our ideas. It is interesting to compare those initial thoughts from 2012 and be able to view the exhibition today!
What were some obstacles you faced when planning and organizing this exhibition?
From a practical point of view, I would say that by far the most challenging part of this exhibition has been to convince art museums and collectors from across the Americas to part with their most-beloved treasures. I understand what it is like — we are asked to lend Tom Thomson’s The West Wind all the time. It’s not always easy to say yes.
To gather the nearly 120 works in Picturing the Americas it took determined — some might say unrelenting — insistence with some of our colleagues in other institutions. We are very fortunate to benefit from the generosity and spirit of collaboration from more than 50 lenders.
I jumped for joy when Tarsila do Amaral’s Postcard arrived!
And then when it came out of the box, I jumped some more!
Our visitors are able to see paintings never before displayed in Canada, such as Sun on the Lake (1938) by Arthur Dove from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Thomas Moran’s Cliffs of Green River (1874), from the Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Vista de São Tomé das Letras (1876), by Nicolau Facchinetti, from Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Rio de Janiero; and Gerardo Murillo (“Dr. Atl”)’s La sombra del Popo (1942), from Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City, among so many others.
Why landscapes? Why are they important in both art and socio-political histories?
Artistic representation of human interaction with the land has a long history in the Americas. It spans more than 30,000 years, from the earthworks and pictographs of ancient Indigenous cultures, to land and interdisciplinary art of the 1960s and ’70s, to contemporary photography of the terrible beauty of continental environmental destruction. It was during the early years of the 19th century, as nations in the Americas gained and asserted their independence, that pictorial expressions of the landscape forged visions of the whole hemisphere. Artists seeking to respond to and depict distinctive topographies and natural wonders of the Americas produced unique pictorial representations that nonetheless shared a common ideological and aesthetic orientation to the land, as well as artistic techniques for depicting it. Bringing these various visual histories together for the first time allows for an unprecedented consideration of the intricately intertwined geographies and complex socio-political conditions of the peoples, nations, regions and the diasporas of North and South America.
Landscape paintings are not neutral or decorative. Significantly, the exhibition explores the different attitudes towards nature and culture, the recognition of landscape as ideology, the forced and violent displacement of Indigenous peoples, the constructions of national icons, identity and myths (if not nostalgia), as well as the role of pivotal artists, European influence, literature, spiritualism and inevitably modernism. Many find the paintings beautiful. Yet they are filled with history in the making: they reflect and shape the attitudes of the settler culture in which they were created.
Landscape painting continues to speak to issues that are still very pertinent today: land remains fundamentally about resources, ecology, Indigenous rights and confrontation, as well as collaboration. These paintings have the capacity to bring us together around such issues, as, after all, we share the land mass that has generated so much wealth, conflict and cultural meaning over the centuries.
Is there one work that you believe the exhibition absolutely couldn’t do without or one that visitors should spend extra time contemplating?
It is difficult to pick just one, as the whole vision of the exhibition is to see familiar works in new contexts. There are several groups of paintings that simply “make my heart sing” as Ivo Mesquita, former director of the Pinacoteca, said when he first walked through Picturing the Americas. Mesquita is the inspiration for the exhibition; he first imagined it in the late 1980s when he spent some time in Canada as a visiting curator.
A real highlight for me is the series of paintings hung near the end of the exhibition: Grant Wood’s Fall Plowing, a gorgeous field in Iowa; Anne Savage’s The Plough, a majestic fertile field in rural Quebec; and the urban view celebrating the newly constructed viaduct and skyscrapers in São Paolo by Tarsila do Amaral. They speak directly to how landscape painting was transformed as artists in the early 1900s searched for a new visual language with which to represent the rapidly changing times as well as reaffirm the authenticity and natural realities of their home region.
In the exhibition, we have developed six “Lookout Points” that offer in-depth looking and exploring of paired Canadian and Brazilian subject matters. They deliver focused interpretation through extended texts on the elements in the paintings, history and geography, as well as natural phenomena depicted, additional images, artist biography and schematics that break down the composition of the work and highlight specific details. Through these deliberate pairings we make connections, comparisons and contrasts across North and South, better articulating the ways in which we are connected and distinct. It is our hope that visitors will make their own groupings and pairings and consider the way in which they belong to the land.
Learn more about Picturing the Americas, see related programming, watch video interviews with artists and curators and buy tickets at ago.net.
Tags: #AGOFirstThursdays, #AmericasAGO, AGO, Brazil, First Nations, Georgiana Uhlyarik, Indigenous, installation, interactive, interview, Josh Vettivelu, Landscapes, Painting, Picturing the Americas, Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, PJ Brownlee, Q&A, Raechel Bonomo, the Terra Foundation, Valeria Piccoli