Wednesday, June 13, 2012

An unexpected 'après-midi' at AGO

Many years ago, when I lived in Toronto and went often to the AGO, I fell in love with Walker Court, an entry space then characterized by names of Ontario aboriginal tribes written on the mantel and glimpses of Renaissance art in adjacent corridors. I loved its Greek inspiration combined with a desire to be rooted in Canadian identity. I once planned a short film in that space, about a child left there who imagines her way out of isolation into distant lands. Yesterday, I realized that long ago child has always just been me.

Finding myself with an unexpected few hours, I went spontaneously back to the AGO, arriving in mid-day, when the sun was drenching the Frank Gehry-reconceived space, striping it with the shadows of windows and ornaments and filling it with warmth, the abundant staircase winding up the middle toward the glass ceiling like a beanstalk searching out the light. What an extraordinary way to be received into the space of artists. I stood there a long time, enjoying every corner and connection, and so happy to be back on my own in a museum space. In the 90s when my life afforded it more, frequent trips to New York were times of happy meandering through tiny and expansive museums and galleries, my favourites always the reinvented home spaces like the Frick Museum or the Morgan Library. Though I love galleries and museums with friends, I also love being there on my own, taking quiet inspiration in unexpected details. On this day, the architecture was my first gathered treasure.

Climbing the stairs, I wound my way around the court's contours that led me to the Picasso exhibition, still able to enjoy it until releasing it for the world of the great Spanish painter.

This exhibition has been gorgeously conceived, taking its cue from the Picasso that Picasso himself collected. Led down a short, very red, hallway, I had the immediate joy of encountering rare and beautiful Joan Vilar Vendosa and Robert Capa photographs of Picasso and the people of his life, while loud (and unnecessary) but strangely compelling Spanish music set the scene. The photographs reveal (without our being told) the cast of characters who would unfold in the coming paintings, sometimes prefiguring even the ways in which they were rendered. The hallway then released me to a larger space where I was met by photographs taken by Picasso himself, and others made already famous by the internet's easy access. One consistently overwhelming reality of the day was how different art is in person. The photograph of Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Claude Picasso watching a bullfight is well-known, but in life it is even more haunting: the emotion in both the artists' eyes somehow more vivid. I loved most, however, Picasso's self-portraits, which immediately foreshadow and reveal his own organization of space. Rather than frame his own face or body, he chose to picture himself Monet or Cezanne-style, amid the landscape of his art and his studio. One image in particular shows him on a sofa, flanked to the left by a spanish guitar standing upright. The composition is unusual, just as it would be in the paintings.

Many wonderful surprises awaited me, but highlights included the extraordinary portrait of Dora Maar, which takes you by surprise when it is found. Though the painting is famous, the expression made me laugh in complete delight. Because of the cubist contours, no reproduction (plentiful in the gift shops) does justice to the immediately evocative poise, humour, coquettishness and confidence of its subject. To turn from this to see Dora Maar's own photographs of the building of Guernica, makes clear the curators' intentions of putting Picasso's image of himself in dialogue with those he loved: an ingenious concept. Maar's photographs are showcased in a small alcove where I could have spent hours, with her own portrait by Picasso, just viewed, hanging over my shoulder. Her photographs document the building of a masterpiece almost beyond comprehension in its powerful meaning, not only for the people of its time but for all times. Seeing its chalk outline on black reminded me of the old adage about artists, often attributed to Michelangelo, which is that they release a work already embedded in the materials. Somehow Maar captures that.

Turning around, I found myself again delighted by the sudden appearance of Picasso's sculpture The Goat - which has been beautifully positioned on a three-quarter corner so you can appreciate its every angle. The Bathers' series of statuary is equally delightful. As I stood in front of them, a small child arrived at my side, no more than eight, clutching an audio tour to her head. I watched her very precocious face as she scrutinized and listened, and enjoyed the impish grin that slowly broadened across her face. To have concluded this exhibition in the company of a child could not have been more perfect. If I came away with one enduring idea about Picasso that I had not previously held - it was one of the playfulness of the artist, a playfulness of composition, organization and colour that I had new appreciation for.

Moving downstairs to the Berenice Abbott display, a soberer, but equally joyful experience awaited. This great American photographer has long been one of my favourites for her portraits, her celebration of Eugène Atget and her unparalleled documentation of the New York of another age. Displaying her work at the same time as the Picasso exhibition allows some of the characters of the worlds to overlap, such as French painter and Picasso-friend Marie de Laurencin, whom Abbot photographs in a way reminiscent of Picasso composition (or perhaps I was just too influenced by seeing them all at once). As I made my way into the rows and rows of images of Manhattan, I was struck by the contrast of the idyllic and dreamy skylines with the rough-edged and somber street scenes. I stood for a long time in front of an image of a Broadway theatre lobby staircase, c. 1938. Somehow the dingy marble stairs combined both the elegance and the despair of a theatre that was continuing to live out the hopes and dreams of those caught in the Great Depression. I could imagine both the spectacles of the stage and the tired people coming and going from them, from a simple staircase.

Meeting my friend Andrew in the café, I related the pleasures of my afternoon. I had seen a smile bloom on his face, and knew I had another treat coming. Sure enough, his story unfolded: once, as a teen, he had met the real Dora Maar in the south of France and spent some time inside her home, as the guest of a friend of his mother's who had befriended the photographer at a market. (Since Andrew is a wonderful storyteller, I hope he will write this himself and do it full justice!) Immediately the colours I had seen all day blended into the world of his story and the real and the imagined became the embodied stuff of my own childlike dreams.

As if all this were not enough already, I was later treated (after a meeting) to an early birthday dinner on a patio with my friend Moze, whom I haven't been able to see in person in too long. We laughed and caught up over a feast of Mediterranean foods, as the light of day exchanged its lines for those of night. Over his shoulder I saw the neighbouring cafe turn on its string lights and set out chairs, an old man sitting down in one of them for a minute, like a figure from any canvas of the day.

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