The call of home: Paul Lang exits the National Gallery for Strasbourg

Paul Lang beside Bacchus and Ariadne by Antoine-Jean Gros, oil on canvas. 1821. Photo courtesy National Gallery of Canada.

Paul Lang informs me, as I step into his office at the National Gallery, that I was the first journalist he spoke with when he came to Canada in 2011, and would now be the last.

Both interviews — and several in between — were wholly a delight, as Lang is affable and has an inextinguishable enthusiasm for talking about art. And talking, and talking some more. Ask about a painting or artist and he will, typically, talk with animation for five, eight, 10 minutes, then stop mid-sentence and suggest, “But I talk too much?”

No, no. The only trouble is keeping up.

Later, when we leave his office to visit the European galleries — an environment that Lang inhabits natively, exuberantly, like a dolphin in the sea, or a swallow in the sky — it’s a challenge to stay with him: This painting was exhibited at the World’s Fair in London in 1855, he says, with much added fine detail. That one was found in the collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery and is important because … Another is important because it was early in the artist’s career, while another was later in another artist’s career. All fill gaps in the gallery’s collection — which was a mission that Lang and gallery director Marc Mayer discussed before Lang, a Swiss-French citizen, arrived as deputy director and chief curator seven years ago.

Lang even points to literal gaps on the walls, to empty spaces where paintings have been removed for various reasons, and explains what should be there and why it’s important — in one case Delacroix’s compact painting Christ at the Column, an acquisition of the Lang era and currently on loan to the Louvre. You get the feeling that Lang, so tall and thin and eager, would run through the gallery to see as much art as possible in the time he has —  a pace he doesn’t attempt, as even top curators won’t escape the dreaded security guard stink eye.

Lang leaves Ottawa to return to the place that made him what he is, to his hometown of Strasbourg. It’s his first position as director, and a challenge it will surely be.

“The 11 museums and historic monuments of the City of Strasbourg together make up one of the largest networks among French museums,” says a release from the Musées De La Ville de Strasbourg, announcing Lang’s appointment. “He will focus on developing exhibition projects aiming to continue and deepen collaboration between the different network institutions . . . with the constant aim of implicating all the teams maintaining the Strasbourg museums.”

At the National Gallery, he says, “I didn’t plan to become director. I always thought the curator was a much better job,” whereas some curators are “obsessed by the idea to become director, and if they retire not as director, it’s a certain empty feeling that they’ve failed.”

But when approached by the Strasbourg committee a few months ago, he reconsidered.

“I learned so much here about every point of view, about art, about management, about human beings, about relations with government, about relations with donors, I found out that maybe I can indeed do it.”

Though he “was not looking” to leave Ottawa  — “I thought I would finish my career here. I thought I would stay up to 2023, when I will be 65” — the call to home was as strong as it was unexpected.

“They’re the museums where I trained my eyes as a teenager. That really means something for my identity, for my childhood.You know what it is in a museum when you go there when you are eight, nine, 10, and 14, 16? It means something. And I had to say, ‘yes, I am interested.’”

He speaks matter-of-factly about being a child seeing paintings for the first time and being struck for life, as if all children react that way. As we stroll through the European galleries I stop in front of The Letter, a romantic, narrative painting by James Tissot, and for a moment I feel his sentiment. I remember The Letter from my first visit to the gallery 20 years ago, and though I wasn’t a child at the time, I get a sense of how Lang felt as a boy, when he stood in front of great art and was transfixed, transformed.

He remains enchanted when discussing key additions to the collection during his time in Ottawa.

On Wilhelm Hammershoi’s Sunshine in the Drawing Room: “Every major collection should have a picture by him. More and more rare and getting more expensive.”

On Gustave Doré’s landscape Souvenir of Loch Lomand: “That was a big reason to be really happy. I cannot imagine this room without it now.”

He explains his final purchase for the National Gallery, The Triumph of Galatea by Simon Vouet, as having filled a gap from the artist’s later career, after his Caravaggist period, “when he was quoting Raphael.”

Yet nothing fires his zeal more than the remarkably storied 19th-century portraitist Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, around whom he built a rare retrospective in 2016.

“Honestly, I’m now in this business for a while, I started to work in ’83. My friends, they always say the exhibition I just did is my favourite one, but I had particular pleasure in this one. It’s my favourite exhibition I ever did — Zurich, Geneva, here. Maybe in Strasbourg I will have another favourite one, but this one, to do about the woman artist, the challenge only portraits, mainly works that were not known, I really enjoyed, I really, really enjoyed.”

Beside him, in his office overlooking the river and the last traces of his last Canadian winter, is a mounted exhibition poster with a Vigée Lebrun portrait of Marie Antoinette.  The royal visage is surrounded by handwritten bon voyages from his colleagues of seven years.

“I will hang it in my office in Strasbourg.”

Share Post
Written by

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.