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National Gallery of Canada

National Gallery of Canada: Ideas, Art, Architecture

Douglas Ord
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 464
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  • Book Info
    National Gallery of Canada
    Book Description:

    Ord looks at the gallery's historical and intellectual context - from 1910 when Eric Brown became the gallery's founding director, through Jean Sutherland Boggs, to Shirley Thomson - shedding light on its acquisitions, government policy towards the arts, and the public's deep-rooted suspicion of avant-garde art. In showing how Canadian art came to be housed in a building whose architectural and ideological sources include Gothic cathedrals, Islamic mosques, Egyptian temples, St Peter's Basilica, and the squared-stone facades of the Holy City of Jerusalem, The National Gallery of Canada insightfully explores the relationship of Canada's art and its National Gallery to the project of the Canadian nation state.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-7083-2
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-2)

    • 1 From Outside
      (pp. 5-18)

      Approached from downtown Ottawa, and seen against the background of the Gatineau Hills in Quebec, the National Gallery of Canada suggests a glittering and immense cathedral. Among its features, establishing its presence on the horizon, is an elongated glass-faced wall, which is supported by external concrete pylons in groups of four. At its eastern extremity, this wall dilates into a low crystalline cupola, whose surfaces are also of glass. At the western end, the glass cupola is repeated on a larger scale and in three angled tiers that rise majestically above the rest of the building. The overall shape suggests...

    • 2 From Inside
      (pp. 19-32)

      A visit to the National Gallery of Canada begins at the glass-walled Entrance Pavilion on Sussex Drive, directly across from the Basilique cathédrale. Passing through the main glass doors, the visitor is faced with a long, straight ramp, roughly four metres wide, which slopes gradually upward toward the west and whose floor is of squared pink granite. In a promotional book commissioned by the Gallery, the writer Witold Rybczynski has declared that this is “surely the longest ramp in recent architecture,” with dimensions “based” by Moshe Safdie “on those of the ramp leading to the Scala Regia in the Vatican.”¹...

    • 3 Inviting in Lawren Harris
      (pp. 33-44)

      From the Great Hall, the visitor has the option of proceeding through another immense post-and-lintel doorway to a wide corridor called the Concourse, which is significantly darker than the Great Hall and Colonnade ramp even though it is skylit from far above. The area of this Concourse provides, at last, access to the National Gallery’s collections and temporary art exhibits. On the left side of this doorway is the smaller entrance to the Special Exhibitions Hall, and on the right a staircase and the still smaller entrance to the Canadian collections. The Concourse itself is defined on the left by...

    • 4 Inviting in Plato on Grace and Gracelessness
      (pp. 45-52)

      In the 1989 interview that produced his comment about “ascending” via the Colonnade ramp, Moshe Safdie spoke also of how he had come to design the Great Hall. He did so in reply to Dan Turner’s suggestion that, because of “the Great Hall’s affinity to the Parliamentary Library,” he might have been appropriating past styles for theatrical effect, a practice for which he had often criticized architectural postmodernism. Somewhat testily, Safdie answered:

      Postmodernism uses somebody else’s language. At its worst it doesn’t even understand the language so it’s not even using the language, it’s just borrowing fixed images from it....


    • 5 Eric Brown: A Gatherer of Visions
      (pp. 55-74)

      When Eric Brown arrived in Canada from Britain in 1909, he was, at thirty-two, a not-so-young man with very few prospects in either place. Tall, stooped, and almost birdlike, with thin fair hair, he was not at all the sort of immigrant that Canada was courting with the offer of hard work in a mine or on a prairie farm. Instead, he had just made the discovery, through a failed attempt at farming in Lincolnshire, that he was, as he later put it, “more interested in the colour of a cow with the sun on it, than in its pedigree.”¹...

    • 6 Brown, “National Spirit,” and “Futurism”
      (pp. 75-100)

      In June 1914, only months before the opening shots of the First World War, the twenty-nine-year-old Lawren Harris mounted a public attack on Eric Brown’s running of the National Gallery. “How the artist is assisted or the public educated,” Harris wrote in a letter to the TorontoGlobe, “by a national gallery at Ottawa full of second-rate foreign pictures is not evident. Though several hundred thousand dollars have been expended on it, it might burn down today without hurting any artist’s reputation.”¹ What prompted this assessment was Brown’s arrival back from England, with some fifteen paintings by British Academicians whose...

    • 7 Vincent Massey and the Transformation of Rhetoric
      (pp. 101-128)

      The National Gallery’s transfer in 1912 from the Fisheries Building to the east wing of the Victoria Memorial Museum was never intended to be permanent. The building itself had been designed by its architect David Ewart to house the seventy-year-old Geological Survey, which was diversifying into the basis for a National Museum, with zoological, botanical, and – following the imperial taxonomies of the time – ethnographic material joining the rock specimens gathered by Sir William Logan during the nineteenth century. Through the auspices of Sir Edmund Walker, the National Gallery was a late addition, and to accommodate its collection many...

    • 8 Alan Jarvis as “the Billy Graham of Canadian Art”
      (pp. 129-156)

      In 1955 H.O. McCurry retired after sixteen years as director of the National Gallery. When he left, he took credit for having carried through – as the annual report of 1953–54 put it – “the most outstanding single event in the history of the collection.”¹ This was the Gallery’s purchase of “five important paintings from the collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein.” These had discreetly come onto the market owing to the tiny principality’s impoverishment after the Second World War. As so often in his relationship with Eric Brown, McCurry had responded well to a situation not of his...

    • 9 A Canadian Tragi-Comedy
      (pp. 157-184)

      With his emphasis on a unitary standard of “quality,” Alan Jarvis was not simply showing the influence of Clement Greenberg’s style of judging art. More implicitly, he was also honouring the subtext in Greenberg’s project that aestheticized and legitimated the post-war flow of American capital by discouraging the nurturing of “national” cultures. Yet, almost in spite of himself, Jarvis hinted publicly at the shadow side of this legitimation. In March 1956 the OttawaCitizenwrote that “Mr. Jarvis wants to make the National Gallery one of the worlds great collections, instead of something ‘small but interesting.’ To acquire such treasures...


    • 10 Humanism, “Openness,” and Jean Sutherland Boggs
      (pp. 187-220)

      Between 1965, when Charles Comfort retired, and 1982, when the Trudeau government announced a new building, the world beyond the National Gallery’s walls underwent extreme, if often subtle, upheaval. Among the factors in this transformation were the spread of cybernetic technologies; the end of an economic boom driven by cheap oil; the slow defeat of the United States in Vietnam; increasingly multicultural immigration patterns in Canada; and the growing political empowerment of women. Changes in art took place in dialogue with this upheaval, and were in turn reflected – often with some time lag – in the practices of the...

    • 11 Centennialism
      (pp. 221-246)

      In 1967 Canada was officially one hundred years old, and George Grant’s claim that electing the Diefenbaker government had been the “the Canadian people’s last gasp of nationalism” was belied by multitudes of children singing the syllables ca-na-da, in stadiums from sea to sea. Yet behind the fanfare lurked ominous patterns, which suggested this national fervor might come with a price, not least for the National Gallery.

      The Gallery’s own centennial projects were threefold and were set in motion before Jean Boggs’s arrival, under the direction of Donald Buchanan, who was brought back on special arrangement by the acting director,...

    • 12 The First Triumvirate: The National Museums of Canada
      (pp. 247-278)

      When published in 1972, the National Museums Policy both justified the government’s four-year investment in the nmc and established a blueprint for its continued expansion. The policy’s catchphrase goals, which were to guide the nmc for the next two decades, were announced to be “decentralization and democratization.” Elaborated in the prose style of the bureaucracy, these meant that the nmc’s objective would be “to better distribute those cultural resources which are obtainable through Canadian museums, both national and regional, to the end that the greatest possible number of Canadians be exposed to our national heritage.” The means toward mobilizing “national...

    • 13 The New Triumvirate: Trudeau, Boggs, Safdie
      (pp. 279-312)

      In the autumn of 1966, just after her appointment as director, Jean Boggs told an interviewer that she thought of her involvement with the National Gallery “as a Life Work.”¹ Ten years later, in the unlikely circumstances of her resignation, she seemed to restate this commitment, when she wrote that she was “ready to withdraw temporarily from the fray” about a Gallery building.² The implications of the adverb “temporarily” would take another five years, until February 1982, to be revealed. By then Boggs was director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, having moved there from Harvard in 1979 and having...

    • 14 A “Magical Spot”
      (pp. 313-342)

      The collaboration between Jean Boggs and Moshe Safdie entailed, along with the Gallery’s usual web of irony, an almost comically ambiguous relationship to time and space. It was Safdie’s job as architect, and Boggs’s as chief administrator, to produce the building that had been sought by the National Gallery’s partisans since 1910 and that would also endure as its “appropriate” shell for the indefinite future. Toward this goal, Safdie would paradoxically reach back in time, as well as far away in space, toward the retrieval of motifs that he and Boggs thought suitable. Adding to this ambiguity was the fact...

    • 15 Potentialities
      (pp. 343-366)

      Behind the change of government in 1984, and the topsy-turvy fortunes of the Canada Museums Construction Corporation from 1982 to 1986, there also took place, more quietly, another round of government-sponsored studies on the role of the arts in Canada. Though comparable in process to the Royal Commission’s hearings from 1948 to 1951, the assessment this time was not done via a small group which – under a patrician guide – established a semi-official view that would endure for decades. Rather, by the 1980s, a more diverse ethnic fabric virtually demanded of elected politicians that such efforts incorporate a wider...

  8. Epilogue: “The Spiritual Foundations of Our National Life”?
    (pp. 367-398)

    The first dozen years of the new building’s operation contained enough exhibitions and public controversies, big and small, that a separate volume would be needed to do them justice. But if there was one clear trend and baffling lacuna by the turn of the millennium, it was the lack of any program of site-specific installation by contemporary artists that might interrogate the Gallery’s own nuances as aplace, and thereby answer to the insistence of the 1982 Applebaum-Hébert committee that “the cultural sphere … has as one of its central functions the critical scrutiny of all other spheres including the...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 399-440)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 441-454)
  11. Index
    (pp. 455-496)