National Gallery of Canada: The vision of Peter Schjeldahl

Peter Schjeldahl. Photo: Ada Calhoun Schjeldahl

One of the first things Peter Schjeldahl wants to see when he enters the National Gallery of Canada are the Old Masters.

Those are, he says, “my favourites.”

Schjeldahl has one of the great jobs in cultural journalism in the beating heart of the modern art world. He is the art critic at The New Yorker magazine. But he also has been a poet and an educator in his 75 years. Schjeldahl, who joined The New Yorker in 1998 from the Village Voice where he held the same position, has won numerous awards for his writing. He’s also the author of four books.

With all the cornucopia of art laid out before him, though, works created in the 17th century have captued his heart.

“They are the best. It doesn’t get any better. The 17th century for painting was sort of the peak.

“It has to do with the conditions. It was a revolutionary time in society, in Europe. It was beginning of the bourgeoisie and the Counter Reformation in the Catholic church. (Culturally) the Baroque was under way.”

Two artists stand at the top of this very active scene for Schjeldahl. “Rembrandt (van Rijn) was a Protestant entrepreneur in Amsterdam. (Diego) Velazquez was a Catholic royalist in Spain. They were contemporaries and they didn’t know each other and they were the two best that ever were.” And, he noted, Vermeer was just down the road from Amsterdam in Delft.

It was an incredible period.

“It was also a time when paintings were travelling around. Paintings were the movies. It was fertile ground.”

Art evolves and changes, but in Schjeldahl’s opinion nothing quite measures up to that fertile time.

The legacy gets passed down and people rebel against it, he says.

“You don’t want to do what’s been done before because it’s been done. So you come up with the best thing you can. And some periods seem richer in what they allow and permit than others.

Schjeldahl is coming to Ottawa to take part in the Contemporary Conversations series Thursday (Feb. 8) at 6 p.m. in the Gallery’s auditorium. The free series was started by the U.S. Embassy by Bruce and Vicki Heyman three years ago and intended to bring interesting figures in the American art world to a Canadian audience. This is the second talk this season following the chat with the photographer Steven Wilkes. Others who have taken part include Marie Watt, Nick Cave, Eric Fischl and Kiki Smith.

Schjeldahl is “coming to Ottawa because I was asked. I have never been to Ottawa. Part of the attraction for me is to see the National Gallery.”

In addition to Old Masters, Schjeldahl is a fan of museums and galleries. He likes to get inside them and explore.

“My favourites in New York are the Metropolitan and the Frick. The Met I think of as the Home Depot of the soul. Whatever you want, it has it and it has a lot of it. The Frick is a house museum based on the collection of one extremely rich man.”

For Schjeldahl, the “trouble with the big museums is they are kind of like meat racks, you know. And they are arranged over the years by committees and when you walk in everything is cold and you have to warm things up. In a house museum, everything is already warm. You sense you are in someone’s living room.”

While he favours the Met and the Frick, Schjeldahl is less positive about the Museum of Modern Art.

“The MOMA is the Kremlin of the modern. It’s essential but I don’t like it. It’s overcrowded and too small. I’m still furious that they threw space away for a new atrium … like we need another corporate atrium in town. They should have used the space for more galleries.

“They are showing a fraction of their collection; it’s like a brochure and it should be like an encyclopedia.”

So what else is he high on these days.

“I’m particularly high on my grandson at the moment.”

As far as art? “I don’t make a fundamental shift between art and life. The aesthetic is a way of experiencing things which art simply makes handier and more concentrated. It isn’t categorically different from enjoying a beautiful day.”

The conversation with National Gallery director Marc Mayer will focus on the role of the critic. For Schjeldahl, that seems pretty straightforward.

“Readers want to know what you think. So you have to decide what you think and not waffle.”

As far as he is concerned though, “the opinion part is the least interesting part of criticism. I am more of a writer. I regard it as a branch of literature. I’m giving people something to read, whether they agree or not. I’m not a rating service.

“For one thing, art is still economically archaic. It is not supported by the sale of tickets or copies. Every other art is. Only a fraction of the people who read me will be people who have money to spend. … I’m writing for readers of New Yorker. I don’t know who they are but my editors do and if I put a foot wrong, I’m sure they’ll tell me.”

Schjeldahl is a friend of Steve Martin, the comedian, playwright and art aficionado who has recently been trumpeting the art of Lawren Harris. Still, Schjeldahl says, “I remain to be educated about Canadian art. I am friends with Steve Martin who is a great fan of Canadian art … he did the Lawren Harris show. I had the vaguest knowledge of who Harris was before Steve.”

Schjeldahl was born in Fargo, North Dakota, in the middle of the North American plains.

“I have a theory that whatever landscape you were in when you were a baby, before you have conscious memory gets in really deep. I know that when I see the flat plain I get a deep feeling like a baby memory.

“Standing in the middle of this flatness, you feel really tiny and like the centre of the universe at the same time. The sky bells down over the horizon and you can see other people’s weather.”

Then there is the wind. “That’s something I could really do without. It’s like a freight train.”

The landscape of the plains appears empty but when you look closely it teems with all manner of life. Did looking at that landscape train him as an observer?

“I think it had more to do with my eye. Everybody’s got an eye, it just depends on what you do with it, what satisfies you. I did have, when I was young, 20/10 vision. I was better than perfect. Now I have my multi-focals.

With those he peers at the centre of the art world. New York, he says, “is the one place in the world where you don’t have t worry about not being in New York. That’s really the only advantage.”

He doesn’t get outside the U.S. as much these days, but he loves it when he does. And he likes talking “about anything people want to hear. Just put a nickel in.

“I don’t think abstractly about being a critic. I concentrate on being a writer and being adequate to whatever the subject is. I didn’t set out to be a critic. I come from a time when nobody in human history had set out to be a critic. It’s something that happened in a writer’s career.

“I think Jasper Johns once said: Having a personal style is only common sense. You find out what people like about you and you exaggerate it.”

His role as a critic finished his dreams of poetry but “I don’t regret that. I certainly cannot complain. I’m very lucky.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.