“King Lear Admonishing Cordelia” (“King Lear Banishing Cordelia”). Henri Fuseli, Swiss, 1741-1825. painting c. 1784-1790. oil on canvas 267.3 x 364.5cm. Gift from Contributing Member’s Fund, 1965
How do you bring a work of art to life? The largest painting in ‘Drama and Desire’ is the focus of an AGO experiment. Visitors can settle into a comfortable leather chair and catch the action. In a pivotal moment of the play, King Lear (recorded by Stratford actor James Blendick) banishes Cordelia (Sara Topham) from his kingdom forever. Synchronized lighting effects will accompany the speeches to give the impression that the two characters in the painting have come alive.
Edgar Degas, L’Orchestre de l’Opéra, around 1870, oil on canvas, Paris, Musée d’Orsay
In the Pit: Maurizio Baccante, principle cellist with the National Ballet of Canada orchestra brings to life Degas’s painting “L’Orchestra de l’Opera” with insights into life in the pit. Click to play:
Gaetano Previati, Paolo and Francesca, oil on canvas, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo.
Looks a bit like a soap opera? This painting depicts an episode from a story originally set in medieval Italy. It tells of the brave but deformed aristocrat Giovanni who sends his handsome younger brother Paolo to propose to the maiden Francesca on his behalf. She falls in love with Paolo, but soon marries Giovanni who is in disguise. Francesca only discovers the trick after her wedding night. She and Paolo become lovers. They are surprised by Giovanni who accidentally kills Francesca as she rushes to protect Paolo. Giovanni also murders Paolo.
John Singer Sargent, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1889, oil on canvas, Tate Britain
Ellen Terry (1848-1928) was the greatest English-speaking actress of her day. “Miss Terry”, wrote artist John Singer Sargent, “has just come out in Lady Macbeth and looks magnificent.” Terry soon agreed to be painted by Sargent in a dramatic pose of the artist’s invention. “The picture is splendid,” commented Terry. “It’s talked of everywhere and quarreled about as much as my way of playing the part…. Sargent has suggested in this picture all that I should like to convey in my acting.”
Ellen Terry, Queen of the Stage
Terry’s London debut in 1888 as Lady Macbeth, in a spectacular dress decorated with beetles, sparked an unprecedented response from artists. Photos of this dress, and Terry wearing it, will be featured in the AGO’s installation. Coincidentally, the Toronto Public Library owns personal archives of Ellen Terry which have been borrowed for the exhibition.
The dress was made from knitted wool and tinsel decorated with Jewel Beetles (Sternocera Aesquisignata). Mrs. Cosmyn-Carr, the designer, commented: “I wanted to make this particular dress look as much like soft chain mail armour as I could, and yet have something that would give the appearance of the scales of a serpent.” The AGO has borrowed a selection of Jewel Beetles from the ROM to include in the show.
Ellen Terry and Toronto
Ellen Terry regularly toured North America to great acclaim. With the London Lyceum Theatre Company she performed at Toronto’s Grand Opera House at least four times through the 1880s and 1890s. But all was not work. “When we were first in Toronto,” she commented, “I tobogganed at Rosedale. I should say it was like flying! The start! Amazing! A very nice Canadian man was my escort, and he helped me up the hill afterwards.”
Designer Gerard Gauci, together with a team of set painters, has created a seductive entry into Drama and Desire: Artists and the Theatre. It’s based on 18th trompe l’oeil painting techniques used in the theatre. The arches behind the lush draperies were inspired by the most famous painting in the exhibition‚ Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii.
If you look carefully, you can see the way these recreations of 18th century stage flats were constructed and how they would have appeared to performers. In-house painters have aged the new plywood to give visitors a real sense of what it was like to be on stage over 250 years ago.
The AGO has negotiated the loan of archival books and a toy theatre from the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. The Toronto Public Library is lending personal memorabilia of the most famous actress of the late 19th century, Ellen Terry, to complement the startling portrait of her as Lady Macbeth by American painter John Singer Sargent. We’ve also borrowed jewel beetles (dead ones that is) from the Royal Ontario Museum to replicate the ones sewn into her very controversial costume.
In the 18th century several different machines were used to create sounds effects in the theatre. This is an authentic recreation of a wind machine. Visitors can turn the crank and create a really believable simulation of howling winds.
Lighting and sound technicians are busy concocting a storm with waves crashing, thunder, and lightning bolts to bring an English landscape painting to life. 18th century style stage machines that make the sound of rain and wind have already been constructed and only await visitors to activate them. The sound of rain is made from putting beads in a drum and rotating it, while the sound of wind is created from canvas passing over wood.
French painter Edgar Degas loved to hang out at the Paris Opera House observing ballet dancers both on and off stage. Elaborate red velvet drapes and crystal chandeliers will evoke the atmosphere of a reception room at the Opera and create an appropriate setting for seven wonderful Degas paintings of dancers. (We intend to move the sky-jack before the show opens!)
Drama and Desire starts with a recreation of an 18th century stage set and concludes with one from the early 20th century. Englishman Edward Gordon Craig designed this set for Hamlet in 1911. At the time, its stark white forms made it the most revolutionary of the day. It still looks remarkably contemporary today. Hamlet’s voice performing the famous “To be or not to be‚” soliloquy will be heard as visitors approach the columns. A strong light from behind visitors will cast their shadows onto the set and make them feel they are part of the drama.
Actors Geraint Wyn Davies, James Blendick, Sara Topham and Yanna McIntosh
Four celebrated actors from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival –- Geraint Wyn Davies, James Blendick, Sara Topham and Yanna McIntosh — have made their mark on Drama and Desire. To bring the paintings to life they’ve recorded speeches which will be featured in the show: Titania and Bottom (Midsummer’s Night Dream), King Lear and Cordelia (King Lear), and Lady Macbeth (Macbeth)in her infamous mad scene.
On select weekends throughout the summer Canadian Stage will perform excerpts from High Park’s version of Romeo and Juliet. Opera Atelier will feature ballet demonstrations in their production ‘Degas and his Dancers’. Single Thread Theatre Company will highlight key moments in Shakespeare’s dramas.
All performances will take place in the exhibition.
Summer student Alex Dault, from George Brown Theatre School, has been hired to perform short excerpts from famous plays featured in paintings in the exhibition. Visitors to Drama and Desire are certain to encounter Alex in full costume as he performs in various locations throughout the exhibition and across the AGO.
Warning: Do not attempt this at home! Actual elapsed time: way longer than 1 minute!
Watch expert AGO installlers Craig, Ben, Ruth, and Jacques install Jacques-Louis David’s The Oath of the Horatii, part of Drama & Desire: Artists and the Theatre, opening June 19 and running through September 26 at the AGO.
Gerard Gauci, guest designer for the exhibition, has created a theatrical environment that brings the artworks to life with recreations of eighteenth and early twentieth century stage sets, sound and light effects, theatrical props and on-site performances.
“Visitors to Drama and Desire will experience the exhibition as audience members, actors and even stage hands,” says Gauci. “Designing this exhibition has been like designing an opera with an overture, a series of distinct acts, special effects and a grand finale.”
Gauci is not new to the AGO. He began his theatre career in 1986 designing and painting the sets for Opera Atelier’s first fully staged production in the Gallery’s Walker Court as part of the exhibition Vatican Splendours. Resident set designer for Toronto’s “Opera Atelier” – a period performance opera company that is respected around the world for its lavish productions of operas from Monteverdi to Mozart – he uses his extensive knowledge of early stage techniques and modern stage craft.
Gauci is known in Toronto as an illustrator, painter and theatre designer. After graduating from the Ontario College of Art and Design, he created familiar poster images for local cultural institutions such as the Canadian Opera Company, The National Ballet of Canada and The Toronto International Film Festival.
Katharine Lochnan, the AGO’s Deputy Director of Research and The R. Fraser Elliott Curator of Prints and Drawings chats with Rogers TV’s Daytime Toronto host Myrocia Watamaniuk about the innovative presentation of Drama & Desire: Artists and the Theatre, the AGO’ major summer exhibition, opening June 19 and on view through September 26.