When the director of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Terry Graff, asked last year if I would be interested in putting on an exhibition of five art works from each of five public collections in New Brunswick for a total of twenty-five pieces, I jumped at the chance. It was an opportunity to put my money where my mouth was, as an art critic I am always judging the efforts of curators and their exhibitions. Now it was put up or shut up. I decided that there would be no theme other than the fact that I liked what I picked. No matter what choices you make people will find fault with your selections. Everyone should trust their own taste and if there was disagreement, so be it, but it would, in my case, a change of that old chestnut from: “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” to “I know a whole lot about art and I do know what I like.”
The five collections were the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and the University of New Brunswick Art Centre, both in Fredericton; the New Brunswick Museum, in Saint John; the University of Moncton’s Galerie d’art Louise et Ruben-Cohen and Mount Allison University’s Owens Art Gallery in Sackville. My choice was enormous as there were thousands of art works in the collections of the Beaverbrook, the Owens, and UNB; in the hundreds at UdeM and, in the case, of the NB Museum, which is an archive and museum rather an art gallery, over 100,000 items. Surely this was a recipe for disaster.
It is not that I won’t make a case on why I picked a work from a collection for the exhibition. I have a good reason for every piece in the show. The reason that is common to all of them is that they all caught my eye. An artwork that I am not interested in looking at is a non-starter. Here is where I claim expert art ‘looker’ status. I have spent well over half a century looking at art professionally, and believe it not, forty years writing about in it in this magazine. I would not foist my taste on anyone, however, how does a painting catch my eye? The answer is beauty. Beauty is big subject in the study of art. It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I do not agree. I think that beauty is a very real thing that can be defined. I have written a lot on this subject and taught a course on the philosophy of beauty for over thirty years. I believe that every work in this exhibition is in one way or another beautiful.
However, beauty was only one aspect of my thinking about this exhibition. I wanted viewers to perhaps see works that had not seen the light of day for a very long time. Works that for one reason or another have lingered unseen in a vault. In vast collections works, particularly works on paper stored in boxes, can get lost. Case in point the small drawing of Leon Trotsky by the Russian artist Philipp Maliavin, which came into the Beaverbrook Art Gallery as part of the original collection of Lord Beaverbrook in 1959, and as far as I can see from the gallery’s records, has never been exhibited. There are many questions about this drawing such as why would Lord Beaverbrook buy a drawing of Trotsky by a little known Russian artist who died in France in 1940? There are many drawings by Graham Sutherland of Churchill in the Beaverbrook collection that makes sense because of Lord Beaverbrook’s connections with both the artist and the subject, but I am hard pressed to think of Lord Beaverbrook as a fan of Trotsky. Nonetheless, it is a very nice little drawing, typical of the artist that deserves to be seen.
An example of pure conventional beauty, also from the Beaverbrook collection, that I included in the exhibition is a painting by the 17th century Flemish master Frans Synders, Two Lionesses Attacking a Young Stag; it is pure painterly virtuosity that takes one breath away, but a humble late 19th century New Brunswick quilt by Ruth Bateman from the New Brunswick Museum, also in the exhibition is, in its own way, equally as beautiful. Both are a feast for the eye.
There are other personal choices by contemporary New Brunswick artists like Molly Bobak, Stephen May, Stephen Scott, Jennifer Belanger, Yvon Gallant and Romeo Savoie that run the gambit from realism to abstraction, but all share a commitment to what I find as the beautiful. The artworks in this exhibition are my treasures; another person picking from the same stock would likely come up with a different selection. Indeed, perhaps on another day my choices might have been different. Art does give me satisfaction. I want people who look at this exhibition to share my satisfaction. After all it is the artists who are the real treasures, without them making the art there would be nothing to look at. The unnamed person who made tiny Easter Island totemic sculpture; the woman who crafted the quilt; the well known and the not so well known traditional artists whose works are in this exhibition can transform the world into a better place if only we take the time to pay attention to their efforts.
ART TREASURES OF NEW BRUNSWICK
Beaverbrook Art Gallery, New Brunswick
21 February—26 May 2013