Fredericton’s Beaverbrook Art Gallery opened in 1959. It was the gift of Lord Beaverbrook (Sir William Maxwell [Max] Aitken, 1879-1964) to New Brunswick, the province where he grew up and first prospered. I cannot think of a comparable gift of this type in Canada. On opening day, he had not only paid for the land and the building, but had filled it with three hundred and twenty-three first class works of art. In addition to his own collection, he also convinced rich and powerful friends, in particular fellow New Brunswicker Sir James Dunn, to donate important pieces to the gallery before it opened. Since then the collection has grown to over two thousand works that include a second gift of paintings from Lord Beaverbrook.
The current exhibition was initiated in 2009 by Terry Graff, now the gallery’s director, who was at the time its deputy director and chief curator. It took extensive research to put it together. The resulting selection of seventy-five major works from the collection has since toured the United States and Canada and is now being shown at its home, the Beaverbrook Art
Gallery, for the first time. Graff has added forty additional works to the Fredericton exhibition, which now virtually fills the gallery’s main floor viewing space. The impact is spectacular. Never before have so many of the gallery’s finest works been shown at one time.
They range in time from Lucas Cranach the Elder to Lucian Freud and Salvador Dali. It’s hard to pick favourites. Each time I view the exhibition, I come up with another list. Lord Beaverbrook wanted to emphasize British and Canadian art and the Masterworks exhibition mirrors not only his taste but his predilection for realism. Of course, since Beaverbrook’s death in
1964, the gallery’s holdings have become much more eclectic reflecting the broad nature of art, but while he was alive he handpicked every work in the collection. Lord Beaverbrook would have approved of this exhibition.
I have a soft spot for British 18th and early 19th century portraiture. There are some beautiful examples in the exhibition by the likes of Ramsay, Romney, Reynolds and Lawrence. The abstract quality of their brushwork within areas of clothing and background is outstanding, and their sheer virtuosity has always amazed me. To pick one, George Romney’s 1776-77 portrait of a young man, Charles Lennox, 4th Duke of Richmond, Duke of Lennox and of Aubigny, is a beautiful example in every way. Its portrayal of the young Charles resting outdoors with his dog possesses a beautiful strong diagonally composition combined with a carefully chosen palette. It certainly easily fits the criterion of masterwork.
It’s impossible to describe in a few words the many fine works in this collection. There is an excellent catalogue edited by Graff that covers, in detail, all seventy-five works in the original exhibition. Perhaps, the best known works in the show are Joseph Turner’s The Fountain of Indolence, 1834; Cornelius Krieghoff’s, Merrymaking, 1860; Lucian Freud’s, Hotel Bed-
room, 1954 and Salvador Dali’s, Santiago El Grande, 1957, but everything in the Masterworks exhibition is of very high quality. Many of the works were involved in the infamous lawsuit between the heirs of Lord Beaverbrook and the gallery, which has now thankfully been settled largely in favour of the gallery.
Central to the suit was the Freud painting that was bought directly from the artist by Lord Beaverbrook in 1955 after it won the second prize of 500 in an art competition sponsored by his newspaper, the Daily Express. The painting was part of the original gift to the gallery in 1959. It is now worth many millions of dollars and is considered a key work by the artist. The small work (91.1 x 61 cm), is a haunting self-portrait of the artist is set in a Paris hotel room. He appears darkly in the background, while his second wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, lies in bed in the foreground, her head resting on a pillow. The work foreshadows the greatness that Freud would eventually attain. Fortunately, Hotel Bedroom is now firmly in the hands of the gallery and will remain in Canada rather than on an auction floor like those few works that were lost to the Beaverbrook Foundation in the suit.
The massive Santiago El Grande is only one of three late paintings by Dali in the exhibition. The other two are La Turbite: Sir James Dunn, 1949 and Equestrian Fantasy: Lady Dunn, 1954. These large husband and wife portraits by Dali are fanciful, to say the least. Sir James appears wrapped in a gold sheet every inch a Roman emperor while Lady Dunn is dressed in velvet, seated on a horse with a falcon on her arm. Not surprisingly, the Santiago El Grande is the painting that is the most popular work in the gallery’s collection. It’s not only its size that overpowers viewers, but its composition. You look up, from below, at St. James mounted on horse. It’s painted in a limited blue palette and there are strange details to be found by the careful viewer. The atomic cloud under the horse, the small draped figure, in the right hand corner, Dali’s wife, Gala, and the even smaller figure, in the centre bottom, that the artist says is a self-portrait although this is not apparent. It is a very accomplished piece, perhaps the best late work by the artist.
While the Masterworks exhibition continues on tour after Fredericton there is other good news from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. It has just announced a twenty-five million dollar expansion of its facilities that will make the gallery the largest in the region. Phase one will encompass new galleries, storage space, an artist in residence studio and a café, with the
work starting almost immediately. The future bodes very well for the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and the public of Atlantic Canada.
The Beaverbrook Art Gallery
Fredericton, New Brunswick
May 2—24 August, 2015
Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery
September 19, 2015—February 7, 2016
Audian Art Museum
Whistler, British Columbia