As the new exhibition of paintings by the great Canadian James Wilson Morrice was being hung at the National Gallery earlier this week, a passing comment had Katerina Atanassova’s heart glowing like a fauvist apple.
Atanassova, the exhibition curator, was overseeing the hanging of a painting titled In A Garden, West Indies, that Morrice had made late in his career, after decades of work in Europe and a close friendship with the French master Henri Matisse.
“Over here there was an elderly couple,” recalls Atanassova, the gallery’s Bulgarian-born senior curator of Canadian art. “They were just curious, peeping through, and the lady said to me, ‘Ah, good, you’re hanging Matisse.’ I stopped and I said, ‘I thank you for confusing it, but it’s actually a great Canadian artist.’”
The curator was pleased because the European influence was profound upon the Montreal-born Morrice in many ways, including his friendships with Matisse — a man “not very open to welcoming friends into his circle” — and others. He achieved wide and critical acclaim in Paris, that most discriminating of art scenes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The influential critic Louis Vauxcelles once wrote, “After the death of Whistler, Morrice is the most important North American artist to have an enviable career in the arts in Paris.” Leading figures such as collector Charles Pacquement and Salon d’Automne president Frantz Jourdain owned Morrice paintings, and those same works hang in the National Gallery’s new show.
The exhibition is titled The A.K. Prakash Collection in Trust to the Nation. Prakash, the Toronto collector, donated more than 40 Morrice works in 2015, and gallery director Marc Mayer’s gratitude remains fresh.
“There are many collectors of historical Canadian art in this country, but there are very few who have collected it so intensively, focusing on collecting such a significant body of work by one artist,” Mayer says. “The National Gallery of Canada is now the collection of record for Morrice, thanks (to) this outstanding gift.”
Prakash didn’t attend the preview and reportedly doesn’t like to speak about himself in public, but his comments in the media release show a pursuit of art and artist that is refreshingly free of eye-watering scholarship. “It has been a magnificent obsession that I have pursued with reckless abandon.”
His love of Canadian art is clear in his celebrated 2014 book Impressionism in Canada: A Journey of Rediscovery. Meanwhile, the gallery has produced a rich catalogue for the latest exhibition, with essays by Atanassova and others, and a preface by Prakash friend and fellow collector David Thomson.
Though some of the 49 paintings and watercolours now on display were seen at the gallery two years ago, the current exhibition is different in focus and broader in scope.
There are more than twice as many pieces as were in the first show, Atanassova says, “and it was largely integrated with works from the (gallery’s collection), which was really to show the wonderful fit, the relevance of the donation to our collection.”
The latest exhibition is entirely of Prakash’s gift, but for two complementary works from the gallery collection, and the exhibition, with examples of Morrice’s work from throughout his career, is effectively a mini-retrospective.
After he attended law school, Morrice moved to Paris in 1890, and over 30-odd years worked in France and Italy, as an official Canadian war artist in north Africa during the First World War, and then, in his final working years, in the Caribbean. There were many visits back to Quebec. One exquisite, tiny, winter scene, from 1897, shows a horse and sled full of cut wood in a landscape of grey and white, with broad brushstrokes confidently gushing across the small canvas like half-whorls of blowing snow.
Perhaps no single painting in the exhibition better shows the changes to Morrice’s vision and style than does the one the passing patron confused with a Matisse. In A Garden, West Indies, painted between 1915 and 1921, shows a man sitting in a park, the flora rising around him in vivid colours, as if carried up by the rising heat of a tropical day. It demonstrates Atanassova’s observation that, “the introduction of a modernist approach to painting in 20th-century Canadian art owes much to Morrice’s restless search to transform painting from a vehicle of seeing to an aid in feeling.”
The patron may have seen testament to a later, global change in painting, had she turned from where the Morrice hangs to look to the other end of a long hallway. There hangs Francis Bacon’s life-sized study for his portrait of Pope Innocent X. It too is of a man, alone and seated, though the vibrant colours and soft lines of vegetation have been replaced by blackness all around, with a geometric frame and a relentless angularity.
The paintings are separated by 30 to 40 years and, here, by perhaps 100 feet, but together they show how great artists always push, always seek, are always somehow not content. That never changes, so art does, constantly.
The exhibition runs until March 18, 2018.