The first week that I worked at the Kelowna Art Gallery, I walked the gallery in giddy awe that my life had put me in this beautiful spot. Every day I got to wander the gallery and admire art work I’d only previously seen in Art History text books. I certainly never expected to see works by Monet, Van Gogh, Pissarro, Rubens, Degas, and other masters in my home town of Kelowna, BC, population 127,400. I gravitated that first week to the landscape by Jean Victor Bertin. Large and displayed prominently, this painting, which was in every art history book I had ever touched, compelled me. If I didn’t have an actual job to do, I could have stood in front of it and memorized the painting’s play of light and shadows for hours.
The second week that I worked at the Kelowna Art Gallery, my parents came from Vernon to support my new job, and see the art work I kept extolling. My mother, who is the organized glue which keeps our family of artists running, walked diagonally from one end of the gallery to the other twice, meeting me in the middle both times, then settled herself in front of Harold Gilman’s Portrait of an African American, and was promptly moved to tears. I understood. The anger and pride and humiliation and fear battling in the features of the model spoke to me, too. My father, himself a landscape oil painter, traversed the entire collection slowly, gazing with detail at the paintings he most enjoyed then leading me over to the Bertin and conveying his appreciation for the work. Apparently, I thought, the apple did not fall far from the tree in our family. My parents had picked out two of my favourites.
Except, by the end of week two, I would discover the passion in the rocks and waves of Roderick O’Connor’s Red Rocks and Foam. His technique reminded me of a lesson from University Art Class, where the name of the game was get your arm flowing freely. Somewhere, I have a painting from that class whose impassioned brush strokes rival O’Connor’s. On the opposite end of the spectrum, during week two I would fall slightly in love with the evocative warmth of Henri Le Sidaner’s The House in the Morning. If, I thought to myself, I could own only one of these paintings, The House in the Morning is the one I would want.
In week two, you see, I started to understand the urge to posses. These amazing works hanging on the museum walls stir the type of reverence which has grown adults whispering in their presence. The collection is on loan to Kelowna for a limited time. Eventually, we will have to give them up. I am asked by patrons on a daily basis, which is your favourite, if you could own one, which would it be? By the end of week two I had my answer narrowed down to a list of six, no eight, maybe ten, of the works.
By week three, I had noticed the disproportionate nature of the garden planters in the Le Sidaner painting, and had become arrested by the eyes of Maximilian III, by Peter Paul Rubens. What is that expression on his face? I would ponder, unable to properly identify the look in the man’s eyes. If I stood back far enough, the Archduke looked imperiously annoyed and dangerous. Three feet in front and to the center, he looked hopelessly sad, but directly in front of the portrait and slightly to the left, and the long ago Austrian with the warm brown eyes and beautiful long eyelashes looked — intelligent. Intelligent, is not an emotion, I chided myself. So what is the expression on the man’s face? With the slight churl of his upper lip, the man could have been irritated, or, I supposed, he could have been born with a trace of a cleft palate. I didn’t know which, but I wanted to learn. At some point, I promised myself, I will research this man, I will learn who he was and what he accomplished.
And with these thoughts, I was struck by the reality that all the people represented in these portraits were actually alive once. Now, all are dead and gone, even if immortalized in the works surrounding me. Perhaps this is no different than the photography and video of our current century. It feels different to me, though, given the effort and commitment required to sit for hours for an artist versus the mere click of a camera button and its instant resultant image.
It was Andre Derain’s Bust of Woman with Bare Breasts which got me thinking in terms of academic papers. The painting is beautiful, the model lovely, and I was fascinated by how Derain used colour to define the contours of her arms, her torso, her breasts. The woman is looking away, and as I viewed the painting it occurred to me, she is the only unclothed portrait (painted, at least) here, and that got me reminiscing on film study lectures about the male gaze. Derain’s painting is an amazing tribute to the woman, or at least to the female form. This model has forever been captured in the prime of her life, beautiful, voluptuous, young. And yet, I noticed, within the title, she is unnamed. If I wanted to, I realized, I could write an entire feminist treatise off this painting. This, I decided, is one of the works from this collection I would covet, were I a collector.
Likewise James Jefferys’ pen and ink, The Crucifixion. The name of the work seemed telling to me. The Crucifixion. Certainly, Jesus Christ was not the only man nailed to a cross. Yet in historical terms, his most correctly was the crucifixion that mattered — the only death by crucifixion to significantly impact the future of the world. The executioner in the piece is a headless mass of naked bulging muscle. Without facial identifiers, it could be argued that everyman was Christ’s executioner. Depicted in the sketch itself, Jesus’ genitals are tucked between the agony of clenched thighs. Was it a sign of respect, I wondered, to depict Christ as sexless, or was this emasculation intended to emphasis weakness in a moment which the Bible refers to as Christ’s moment of glory?
With my academic mind stirred, I walked out at the end of week three asking our curator about the frames surrounding these works of art. Some of the frames, such as the carved wood frame on Pissarro’s Apple Trees in Bloom, seemed to me as much works of art as the paintings themselves. Laura would tell me that all the works came to us framed, and some of these frames would indeed be original to the piece.
I have now completed my fourth week at the gallery. This past week, I found the oldest work on our walls, from 1498, and, doing the math, realize the paper print by Albrecht Durer, is 520 year old. How, I marvel, has this survived? I mean, sure, restorers now know the optimum means of preservation of these works, but certainly this knowledge did not exist 500 years ago. In some file folder somewhere, I have sketches of my own done as a teen, and already, they are fading in places, yellowing in others. As well, I find Durer’s work highly ironic, considering it is reminiscent to me of some of the art works I observed walking around the booths at Comic Con a month ago. The oldest work in the gallery is, to me, the nearest to our 21st century computer generated art. The difference being, of course, Durer completed his masterpieces without the assistance of modern technology.
By the end of week four, I have yet another ‘favourite’ painting, and it is one I barely glanced at during week one. Gustave Caillebotte was both an artist and a patron according to the write up next to his Sailboats at Anchor. The water in this painting amazes me. It is alive, active, and the paint — or possibly whatever glaze covers the paint, I don’t know — shimmers. That is the only word for it. Part of me just wants this work to come home with me. I want to stare at it unhindered for hours, get lost in the complexities of its simplicity. I could likely hang a print on my wall, but I can’t imagine that the quality of this work would translate well as a print. It is the texture and gloss of the paint, the brushstrokes, the dynamic interactions of talent and tools which speak to me here.
It is near the end of my last shift of week four that something finally clicks within my brain. I walk near and to the left to be sure, and I am content because I finally have a name for the expression on Maximilian III’s face. The man, I decide, was lonely.
I am fortunate to walk the boundaries of these walls three times a week, and every day it seems I experience this collection differently. I have also observed that every individual who walks through experiences the exhibit in their own unique fashion. Mid-way through my final shift of week four, a patron sums this up perfectly.
“The more time you spend here,” she says to me as she walks toward the exit, “The more you appreciate it.”
I couldn’t agree more.
The Herman H Levy collection is on loan at Kelowna Art Gallery until October 28. Come out and visit before the opportunity is gone. For more information on this and other exhibits check out the KAG website http://kelownaartgallery.com.