National Gallery: Marc Mayer puts pen to paper in book about Art in Canada

“From the very first pages of our art history books,” writes National Gallery director Marc Mayer on the very first page of his own new book, “we sense trouble ahead.”

The trouble comes, Mayer explains during an interview, “because of the way we priorize painting and sculpture as art, and everything else as craft, there’s something unfair. When you see something of the quality of Marie Lemaire des Anges’ embroidery, she was a better embroiderer than many of the (European) painters or sculptors were painters or sculptors.”

It’s the art-world establishment tradition of hierarchy, which elevated paint and sculpture, usually made by white, male Europeans, to the status of art, and devalued most everything else. Mayer writes in his book, Art in Canada, that the talent of women such as Lemaire — the 17th-century Quebec nun of European descent who, he writes, left behind a “creative legacy of astonishing beauty” that was the equal of “anything in Europe at the time” — were demoted to lesser status, as was work produced by Indigenous people and many non-European immigrants.

Mayer’s assertion is not new. The recently unveiled and reimagined Canadian and Indigenous galleries at the National Gallery are an overdue declaration that the work of Indigenous people and non-Indigenous women, even those of European descent, is finally regarded for the art that it is.

Yet, what may surprise some readers is the passion with which Mayer argues the case, for the few thousand words that open his book are a veritable cri de coeur.

“It’s my personal (Canada’s) 150th project,” he said, in an office lined with stacks of so many large books on art that they could serve as insulation. “I needed to say that, I needed to talk about how really important art is, in general but specifically in Canada.”

It remains a “big surprise for so many people that people have been making art here for thousands of years, if not hundreds of years, and what the indigenous people were making was art,” he says. “So why would our story start in the 17th century?”

That’s when the story of art in Canada has begun in most official histories, produced, of course, by the same settler establishment that was making what was considered to be “art.” The bias often continues today, Mayer writes, and it crosses lines of gender, race, and even choice of media.

“Many of the exceptional figures of the present — such as women, Indigenous artists, Canadians of non-European descent, photographers, video artists — appear like erratic boulders on the land, unaccountable,” he posits in the essay that begins Art in Canada.

Mayer wants readers to take another, perhaps more inclusive, look at the history of Canadian art — including the elusive question, what is Canadian art?

“Canada is a country that is being qualified, corrected, formed and reformed from people who did not come from Europe, who came from all over the world,” he says in the interview, and notes there are 71 ethnicities represented in the National Gallery’s permanent collection. “I don’t think you can define what Canadian art is, and I don’t think we ever will, because art is made by individuals. It’s made by people or small groups, and their perspective may or may not be Canadian, but in any case it’s not going to be the same perspective as the Canadian down the road. So I really have a hard time with this notion of Canadian art.”

So in his large book, with its gorgeous plates inside a plain and unassuming red cover, Mayer leads a new tour of our art history, and while he occasionally gets tangled in verbiage (“the typological hierarchies of art history and the segregationist taxonomies of anthropology”), the overall effect is engagingly personal — especially for the director of a national gallery. What art is placed with what is by times obvious, or obscure, or even whimsical.

He includes Rodney Graham’s photograph The Gifted Amateur, in which the artist pours paint directly onto a large canvas, and next to it is Yves Gaucher’s abstract painting T.D.S., which looks very much like the paint was poured directly onto the canvas.

He has Antoine Plamondon’s portrait of Sister Saint-Augustine next to a beaded bag made by an unknown Métis or western Cree artist, and slowly are the similarities — the flowing shape of both the nun’s habit and the bag, and their deep red bases — revealed.

This unexpected playfulness — typically not the first adjective ascribed to the director of a national art institution — is seen again when two of the gallery’s greatest works are juxtaposed, with Brian Jungen’s whale skeleton made of white deck chairs on one page, and Lawren Harris’s defining painting North Shore, Lake Superior on the next. Harris’s solitary tree trunk juts from the rock like, well, the elongated skull of a whale skeleton, and each seems a pillar of something intrinsically Canadian.

“I did not want this to be chronological, I did not want it to be didactic,” Mayer says. “I wasn’t trying to teach anyone anything about Canadian art, it’s just a pure pleasure of the variety and of the surprises and the similarities over the generations. There are these echoes.  Our culture is full of echoes as well.”

Yet, any essayist hopes his reader will learn something, will find some enlightenment.

“What’s exciting about the world we live in today is that people are much more adventurous about trying to find extraordinary examples of art making, trying to find artists all over the world who are really, really interesting, and kind of rehabilitating their careers if they were famous at one point in history, or just kind of inventing celebrity for them if they were not famous at all,” he says. “We used to just do that with people who worked in Paris, people who worked in New York, people who worked in London, now we’re casting a much wider net. . . . It’s a really exciting time to be alive and be in this field.”

Marc Mayer’s Art in Canada, published by the National Gallery of Canada, is in bookstores now.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.