Over the past few months, we’ve been re-installing the renowned Thomson Collection of Canadian Art, located on the second floor of the AGO. You may have noticed this work going on, and special signs on easels explaining the temporary closures. Marking the first re-installation of the Collection since its debut in 2008, this ambitious project is reconfiguring gallery spaces in a thoughtful and exciting way, introducing previously unseen works, and launching a new gallery in celebration of visionary collector and philanthropist Ken Thomson. The re-installation will be completed in the spring of 2016, and is a collaboration of the Thomson family and the AGO, led by our Fredrik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art, Andrew Hunter.
The Thomson Collection of Canadian Art is known around the world for its remarkable breadth, the high quality of its individual works and the rarity of many of its First Nations objects. When completed, the newly re-installed galleries will feature interesting pairings and visitor favourites, including major paintings by Cornelius Krieghoff, James Wilson Morrice, William Kurelek, Tom Thomson, Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven, Emily Carr and David Milne. There will also be rare historic Indigenous artworks on display, including pieces by Haida Chief Charles Edenshaw, which help tell the broader story of art in Canada with attention to dialogues between first nations and settlers, the rural and urban, as well as Toronto and Quebec. Also new to visitors will be the addition of two rooms celebrating post-war painting, including works by Charles Gagnon, Paul-Émile Borduas, Alex Colville, Yves Gaucher and Kazuo Nakamura. A special gallery dedicated to Ken Thomson’s vision and passion for collecting—effectively a “cabinet of curiosities”—will also be added to the installation in the New Year.
The Collection will continue to occupy over 16,000 sq. feet within the AGO. Changes to the interior architecture, inspired by and developed in collaboration with David Thomson, has opened up several rooms and now allows visitors a unique 360-degree vantage point of the works of J.E.H. MacDonald, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. Spaces dedicated to Krieghoff and early Canadian artists have also benefited from the removal of a partition.
More details are to come as the re-installation progresses. Our special system of using rolling closures of galleries means there is always something to see at any given time. Once completed, the Thomson Collection of Canadian Art will remain free with general admission to the AGO.
Want to see more? Curator Andrew Hunter took Art Matters on a tour to share some of the highlights of the newly reinstalled Thomson Collection of Canadian Art. Read Andrew’s candid thoughts below:
“This is going to be a surprise for people. Beginning with Cornelius Krieghoff (1815–1872), the Thomson Collection of Canadian Art tells the story of how the medium of painting progressed in this country. With the new inclusion of works from the 1950s and ‘60s, we’re adding an entirely new chapter. Strong, post-war Québécois painting is a vital part of our history.”
“Guido Molinari was a clear standout in Quebec during his own time. Krieghoff’s work offers a way of imagining Lower Canada/Quebec in mid-19th century, and 100 years later we have these Molinari works that clear away the old thinking and hit the reset button with his modern vision. So these are bold, modern paintings and also quite strong political statements.”
“Charles Gagnon’s works are also representative of the explosion of abstraction after the war, but done with a very different approach—his work has an expressive, painterly approach. Molinari’s is precise, analytical. I love these works in conversation—it’s a nice contrast.”
Post-war rooms (continued)
“Another nice surprise is seeing Alex Colville’s work from the 1950s alongside Paul-Émile Borduas in the 1950s—you can see how the two artists are in completely different worlds. Their styles speak to the emergence in Canada of a strong, international approach, and this pairing says something very particular about Colville. When he emerged in the ’50s, he was making this type of work, and this room illustrates what it was like for him on the scene. Borduas’ works show where the broader momentum in art was going, but there were artists like Colville who stuck to their guns. We wanted to highlight these crucial moments in the Thomson Collection of Canadian Art, because it’s exciting to contemplate these slightly rogue, individual artists.”
Cornelius Krieghoff rooms
“Another one of our goals was to refine our display of Cornelius Krieghoff works. Here we’ve placed Krieghoff alongside a number of artists who, in the 19th century, were representing the interaction between settler culture and Indigenous peoples. What you see here is Verner and Berczy in dialogue with Krieghoff. In the corner we have the three main Indigenous cultures of this region (Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Wyandot) all brought together, offering an opportunity to talk about some of the important social history all these artists were trying to represent.”
“We refined this room to showcase the many threads running through Krieghoff’s work by grouping paintings that share many of the same characters, motifs, stories and compositions. In this series, you see Krieghoff expressing the full diversity of Lower Canada coming together, his observations of class and society, and his attention to detail in illustrating those populations.”
“Krieghoff was a businessman, and he made a living through his painting. What you see on these walls are the various scales of the paintings he made for his patrons, and how they were indicative of the market: some collectors could only afford or want small works, so that’s what Krieghoff would create. Regardless of scale, the quality was always high.”
The Group of Seven: A new view
“The walls have come down. You can stand in the centre of these rooms, turn around, and see Tom Thomson and J.E.H. MacDonald side by side, which is important because the two artists were so connected early on in their careers. Now the rooms themselves are so much airier, larger, with fantastic lighting, achieving our goal to open up the spaces. You stand here and get a 360 view of the Group of Seven rooms.”
“In the previous installation, J.E.H MacDonald’s works were spread throughout various galleries. He was well represented, but there wasn’t a concentration of it that visitors could experience in one room. Now you can see the full sweep of his career; following the walls counter-clockwise, you see his early works from Toronto, his moves further into the wilderness, the North, and, in the last sequence, the West.”
“MacDonald’s paintings of the Rockies are quite spectacular, and are very different from Lawren Harris’s views of the Rockies, two rooms away. With Harris, you get this grander, at-a-distance view of mountains that fill the frame like big icons. Meanwhile MacDonald is absolutely in them, painting at the base, and you get the sense that these mountains are so big it would be impossible to even fit them in the frame.”
Frederick Varley’s Immigrants
“This is a big, bold painting that’s quite surprising to people. It’s not quite what they expect to see when they visit the Group of Seven galleries, but it’s important to remember that Varley was largely a portrait and a war artist who often represented social issues in his work. It’s also a nice reminder and celebration, at this particular moment, of newcomers to Canada. It’s not a new idea, and it’s really powerfully rendered by Varley. And it’s grounded in the middle by this spectacular portrait of the woman in the pink, who’s moving forward towards us.”
Paraskeva Clark’s Still Life with Apples and Grapes
“Many people don’t realize that when the Group of Seven had their shows in Toronto, they often invited other artists to show with them. Artists from Montreal, like Edwin Holgate (who became a member of the Group of Seven), the Beaver Hall Group, and Toronto artist Paraskeva Clark. This work, which was a really important piece for Ken Thomson in his collection, reminds us of the artists who were in dialogue with the Group of Seven, and where the Group was going.”
“The Thomson Collection of Canadian Art takes you on a journey of how Canada evolved through painting. As you walk through these rooms, you’re always weaving in and out of artists who are vocal about painting as painting, and others, like the Group of Seven, who are discussing Canada and its ambitions. That’s what I love about the addition of the post-war works: they reflect the progression of art in our country, but also remind us that many of the issues that were present in the early 19th century are still being worked out. The story continues today, but when the re-installation is complete we will have added a chapter or two.”