National Gallery’s summer blockbuster of Old Masters mysteriously cancelled

The National Gallery of Canada announces cancellations of summer show and biennials of contemporary art.

The main summer exhibition of Old Masters planned for the National Gallery of Canada has been mysteriously cancelled and that’s not all — the gallery will no longer mount biennials of acquisitions of Canadian contemporary art.

The news was transmitted in emails from Josee-Brittanie Mallet, a gallery spokeswoman, on Wednesday.

The main summer exhibition at the National Gallery was to be a reunion of Old Masters paintings currently or previously owned by the Prince of Liechtenstein.

“The North American tour of the exhibition is no longer taking place,” Mallet wrote. “It is not unusual for an exhibition program to change. We are not at liberty to share any additional information at this time.”

“After recently learning of published reports regarding the historical record of Liechtenstein, and after careful consideration, the National Gallery of Art has concluded that it cannot participate in the exhibition The Princely Collections, Liechtenstein: Five Centuries of European Painting and Sculpture. The Gallery’s decision was solely for itself, and it does not speak for any other institution,” said Anabeth Guthrie, chief of communications for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

There have been questions raised about the legitimacy of some of the collection’s art works in recent published reports. These reports have indicated some works may have been done by forgers.

Emails to tour organizers, the American Federation of Arts and The Princely Collections, Liechtenstein, were not immediately returned.

The exhibition was to start this summer at the National Gallery in Ottawa and then visit The Seattle Art Museum, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas and, lastly, the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

The exhibition was to contain about 100 paintings and sculptures either currently or previously owned by the Prince of Liechtenstein. Twenty-five of those paintings had been sold by the prince decades ago after the Second World War. Twelve of those paintings were purchased by the National Gallery. The princely family of Liechtenstein sold dozens of valuable paintings because cash was badly needed. The tour was to be the first reunion of the prince’s paintings.

The gallery has decided to extend the international Indigenous exhibition Abadakone: Continuous Fire, which was to close next month. It will remain open for the summer, replacing the Liechtenstein exhibition in the prestigious special exhibition gallery. Summer is normally a busy time at the gallery because of the many tourists in Ottawa and local people stopping by while on holidays.

The National Gallery also revealed Wednesday it will not stage a biennial of Canadian contemporary art acquisitions this year, as planned. And it appears the biennials are gone for good.

“There will be no biennial,” said Mallet. “It is no longer part of our programming.”

But why?

“As you know, the biennial was an initiative from the gallery’s former director and CEO (Marc Mayer) “It is usual for a new directorship to make changes to the programming.”

The gallery’s new director is Sasha Suda.

The biennials started in 2010 so that people could take the pulse of Canadian contemporary art and see what their tax dollars purchased. The last one was in 2017, having been delayed a year to coincide with Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations.

The one scheduled for 2019 was delayed by Mayer until 2020 but now that has been cancelled.

The biennials were a great opportunity, especially for young, up and coming artists, to be part of National Gallery exhibitions.

As for the Liechtenstein exhibition, among the paintings purchased by the National Gallery from the principality is a Rembrandt portrait of a rich woman painted in 1632 or 1633 (the inscription is hard to read.) The National Gallery now titles the painting Heroine from the Old Testament, although a gallery publication from 2016 called her A Woman at Her Toilet – the name also used in a Kingston exhibition about Rembrandt this past summer. Over the years, the painting has had a number of other titles, including Saskia (Rembrandt’s wife), Lisbeth (his sister), The Jewish Bride, Esther and Bathsheba. The identity of the woman is still not known.

More definitive than the title is the painting’s provenance. The National Gallery purchased the work from the princely family of Liechtenstein in 1953. The gallery also purchased masterpieces by Peter Paul Rubens, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, Filippino Lippi, Simone Martini, Hans Memling and Barthel Beham. All 12 were to be in the summer exhibition but the Rembrandt and another by Hans Memling, The Virgin and Child with St. Anthony Abbot and a Donor, were not to travel to other venues.

“The Liechtenstein exhibition features masterworks by some of the most prominent figures in Western art, and presents the evolution of the Princely Collections against the backdrop of five centuries of European history,” the American Federation of Arts said last year while announcing the tour.. “Spanning from the reign of the first Prince of Liechtenstein, Karl I von Liechtenstein (1569-1627), through the current reigning prince, (HSH) Hans-Adam II von und zu Liechtenstein (born 1945), the collection was shaped over successive generations to include world-renowned holdings of European art.”

Artists in the Liechtenstin exhibition were to include Renaissance painters and sculptors Antico, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Sandro Botticelli, Fra Filippo and Filippino Lippi, Andrea Mantegna, Simone Martini, and Leonardo da Vinci; masters of the Baroque period, including Anthony van Dyck, Orazio Gentileschi, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Peter Paul Rubens; and, from the 18th century, Canaletto, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, and Hyacinthe Rigaud, The 19th century is represented by German and Austrian artists such as Friedrich von Amerling and Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller.

Note the inclusion of Rubens. He has been a particular favourite of the Liechtenstein rulers over the centuries. About a dozen Rubens were to be in the touring show, including Agrippina and Germanicus, a painting once owned by the prince and now held by the U.S. National Gallery of Art.

The exhibition is curated by representatives of Liechtenstein: The Princely Collections, the U.S. National Gallery of Art, the American Federation of Arts and, from Ottawa, the National Gallery’s acting senior curator of European and American art, Anabelle Kienle Ponka.

Also this summer at the National Gallery:

Beginning April 24, a new exhibition features the work of Moyra Davey, one of Canada’s most innovative photographers. Moyra Davey: The Faithful showcases a new film called i confess and related photographs that reflect on her memories of life in Quebec during the 1970s and ’80s.

On June 5 in the European Galleries, two fragments of a lost alterpiece will reveal some of the genius of the 16th-century Spanish artist Alejo Fernández. Alejo Fernández and Creativity in the Spanish Renaissance Workshop uses scientific imaging to reveal the artist’s process. Works by Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Dürer will be included.

On June 26, paintings donated by the Koffler family will be part of a new exhibition. The artists include Emily Carr, Marc-Aurèle Fortin, Lawren S. Harris, and Tom Thomson.

This year, 2020, marks the 100th Anniversary of the first exhibition of the Group of Seven on May 7, 1920. The gallery will display works from its large collection such as The Tangled Garden, 1916, by J. E. H. MacDonald; Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay, 1921, by Frederick H. Varley; October on the North Shore, Lake Superior, 1927, by Arthur Lismer; and Maligne Lake, Jasper Park, 1924, by Lawren S. Harris. There will also be an installation of graphic design works by members of the group opening April 28.

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