I spent a considerable amount of time, on two separate visits, looking at this exhibition of the work of Montreal artist Marion Wagschal. She is an artist who is difficult to peg and that is a very good thing. There is much to look at and think about. One thing for sure is that she is an accomplished painter and one who has a deep understanding of the history of Western art. Some have written about her as a feminist artist, but I prefer to call her an artist who happens to be a woman and there is a difference. Her themes are universal and, at the same time, personal. Other writers have stated that she has rejected traditional ideals of beauty, perhaps because of her dark content. I find her work quite beautiful, indeed, in many cases, breathtaking. It all depends on your concept of the word beautiful. I find Goya’s black paintings beautiful despite their dark content. Beauty is in the mind and not about subject matter.

Both times that I visited the exhibition, I did so in the company of a senior realist artist. Each time they were blown away by Wagschal’s virtuosity and neither of them is easily pleased by the work of other artists. Many of the painting in the exhibition are quite large including Psyclorama (243.8 x 261 cm) from 1988, which immediately drew my attention with its complex composition and obvious echo of the work of James Ensor, another artist who created beauty in very unusual, and original, ways. I’m sure there are many elements of autobiography in Psyclorama including a nude self-portrait, hints of other paintings of hers and what appear to be images from her family history, but it is the bringing all of this ‘stuff’ together that is mesmerizing. In the end, your eyes are led upwards to the top and centre of the canvas, the apex of a triangle, to an image of a carrousel which, I assume, means what goes around comes around or, at least, that life in circular. I could be all wrong about my interpretation, but that’s the good thing about Wagschal’s art, it leaves room for everyone to see something different.

Another interesting large painting in the exhibition that gives one plenty to look at is Spill (254 x 198cm, 2000). Two boys wrestle on the floor amidst a bunch of spilt articles while an older man sleeps on bed above them. Everything is held together in a tight shallow, vertical composition. This time I’m reminded of the painting of Lucian Freud, both in composition and palette, but her painting is dryer (Freud uses a lot more paint) and relies more on drawing than the British master. An artist who does not look at other artists and learn from them is a poorer artist. Clearly, I can see growth in Wagschal’s painting from one year to the next. She must have been a very a good teacher at Concordia where she taught for thirty-seven years before her recent retirement. There is much to be said for artists who are always growing and improving.

One of my artist friends who accompanied me to the exhibition said that he preferred her paintings that used more colour. Interestingly enough, the other artist said the opposite, preferring her more monochromatic paintings. Me? I like both. I think that she is using her palette to help tell her stories such as in The Great Coat (213 x 261cm, 1986-87) with the splash of purplish blue colouring of the coat contrasting with a monochromatic background or Woman with Still Life (213 x 122cm, 1998) with a bright red dress against a yellow throw. I assume that the subject of both paintings is her mother judging from other paintings of her mother in the exhibition. The later painting’s still life is a human skull, a memento mori, at the feet of the sitter.

At first glance most of the subject matter in the exhibition appears to be grim and perhaps that has something to do with the artist’s personal history as a child of parents fleeing the Nazis and her longtime care of a brother suffering from Parkinson’s disease, but that would miss the love that she injects into these subjects. A good illustration of this is a new painting Trim (228.6 x 182.8, 2012) of her brother, in the late stage of his disease, getting a haircut from his caregiver. It is a very tender painting, masterfully done.

There is rather more to write about than I have room for in this short review as this exhibition represents a lifetime of work by the artist and I have only skimmed the surface. The works in the exhibition have been well chosen by Art Gallery of Nova Scotia curator Sarah Fillmore and it’s good that it will travel to the artist’s hometown at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Please take a chance to see it. 

Art Gallery of Nova Scotia
13 June — 7 September 2014

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
April — August 2015