Two new books peel back some of the mystery of former National Gallery director Pierre Théberge

A portrait of Pierre Théberge when he was director of the National Gallery of Canada.

Pierre Théberge is back under the spotlight after leaving the public stage in 2009 when he retired, amid considerable controversy, as the director of the National Gallery of Canada.

His re-appearance, at age 75, comes in a two-volume, French-language biography by Montreal art critic Nicolas Mavrikakis. The two books, written with Theberge’s co-operation, do not resemble a traditional biography – they are more of a tribute. But we do learn many fascinating details about the life of Théberge – everything from the Mounties questioning him about links to the terrorist Front de libération du Québec, to an intense friendship with the late American silent film star Louise Brooks and the semi-autobiographical art exhibition Théberge would love to organize before he dies.

Théberge’s departure in 2009 from public life came as he was suffering from the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease. As well, he had just weathered a salacious court case against his deputy, David Franklin, who had claimed the boss was “unfit” to lead Canada’s high temple of art.

One of the biographical volumes is called Les aventures de Pierre Théberge: L’homme qui a osé exposer Tintin au musée (The adventures of Pierre Théberge: The man who dared exhibit Tintin at the museum.) The book offers snapshots of Théberge’s life and career, focussing on some of the unorthodox exhibitions he organized in Montreal, including those on cartoon characters such as Tintin, on Pierre Cardin fashions and on flashy automobiles. Mavrikakis writes approvingly that Théberge was determined to make “art accessible to everyone” by broadening the definition of “art” beyond the traditional parameters of fine art.

The other volume is called Ecrits et entretiens sur l’art. It is a compilation of art-related writings by Théberge. Both books are published by the imprint Varia and were released this month.

Théberge was already an influential figure in Quebec’s cultural milieu when, at age 23 in 1966, he became the curator of contemporary Canadian art at the National Gallery and soon was introducing Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland and other iconic Canadian figures to the larger art world.

At the time, Théberge was nicknamed the “pope” of Ti-Pop, a 1960s movement in Quebec, mainly expressed in literature, that simultaneously celebrated and satirized pop culture in the province. Théberge’s ties to Ti-Pop resulted in a visit to his Ottawa home by two Mounties. (The book does not give the date.) The police had intercepted a letter to Théberge from another Ti-Pop adherent the Mounties suspected of belonging to the FLQ. The police wondered whether Théberge was also an FLQ member.

Théberge’s first stint at the National Gallery lasted until 1979 when relations deteriorated between him and the then director, Hsio-Yen Shih. Théberge sent a letter of resignation to Shih, a Chinese art scholar, with a bouquet of tiger lilies. “She responded with one word in Mandarin!” Theberge recalls. “I threw it away without reading it.”

He was immediately hired by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts as chief curator, eventually rising to the post of director, a job he held until 1997. The next year he returned to the National Gallery, this time as director.

Back in the 1960s, before joining the National Gallery, Théberge was active in Quebec’s film community. That involvement led him to meet Louise Brooks, an American sex symbol from the silent film era. The two became fast friends.

“Louise Brooks influenced me very much,” Théberge is quoted as saying in the book. He was struck by her “clearcut opinions” and her “fierce” sense of humour. “My one great fear for you,” Brooks wrote Théberge April 18, 1965, “is that you will marry for sex and animal security which for you would be a worse trap than sin. For you are a born writer which is a hard way to make a buck and unpopular with wives.”

Théberge never did marry and the book offers no hints about any romantic involvements. Nor do we get Théberge’s thoughts on the court case over Franklin’s firing for improperly deleting emails. (The firing was rescinded and, shortly after, Franklin became the director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, where he was fired a few years later because of an affair with a museum employee.)

In Les aventures, the author also does not describe the current severity of Théberge’s illness, which was diagnosed after he had a mysterious fall in downtown Toronto in 2002 that left him “bloodied” and with torn clothes. There is mention of medical interventions in Halifax and Toronto, including surgery to implant electrodes in his brain to help combat the effects of Parkinson’s. The book also mentions several trips, with the assistance of an attendant, Théberge has made since 2009 to see art exhibitions in Europe and the United States.

At the time of the author’s interviews with Théberge in 2014, he was about to move from Toronto to Montreal to a facility described as being more like a hotel than a traditional old-age home.

Théberge tells Mavrikakis that he would love to curate one last exhibition. It would be semi-autobiographical and contain only 15 or 16 works of art, each shown alone in a separate room. The exhibition would include many works he acquired for the Montreal or Ottawa museums where he worked and possibly be called The Living Room, the title of one of Alex Colville’s last paintings, showing the then elderly painter with his wife and pet dog at home. The dream exhibition would also include works by such Théberge favourites as Michael Snow, Gathie Falk and Betty Goodwin. (A Michael Snow photo of Théberge from the rear, titled Shade, is on the cover of Les aventures de Pierre Théberge.) The last work in the exhibition would be a Snow photo, distorted by a false shadow, called Door.

“This work speaks of the illusions in art, but also in life,” Théberge told Mavrikakis. And that would be Théberge’s farewell to the art world.

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