Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Art as Therapy at the Art Gallery of Ontario

"I am half sick of shadows,' said The Lady of Shalott" (Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott, Part II), 1915 by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) , Painting (oil on canvas 100.3 x 73.7 cm), , AGO Gift of Mrs. Philip B. Jackson, 1971. 
It was a quiet opening. There was no press preview and no gala. And yet, the opening of the exhibit Art as Therapy by philosopher Alain de Botton and art theorist John Armstrong heralded in a new way of interpreting art and engaging audiences in museums.

I have to admit my bias since I am a big fan of contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton's work, especially The Architecture of Happiness, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, The Art of Travel, and How Proust can Change your LifeAlain de Botton's writing is clear and to the point. He is also refreshing in his candour and willingness to take a fresh look at the world.

The premise of the book Art as Therapy is that the conventional presentation of art in chronological format is too simplistic and didactic. In almost all cases, paintings and other forms of artwork are presented with a label that reveals the artist's name, date of production and provenance. This information does not help us interpret or engage with the artwork. Art as therapy suggests that a thematic presentation of the artwork - in terms of how it makes us feel - would offer a deeper layer of interpretation and engagement for the audience. Showcasing art in terms of its intent - whether political or religious or emotional - would bring the audience closer to the artist's intent for the work.

The Marches Casati by Augustus Edwin John (1878-1961), Painting (oil on canvas 96.5 x 68.6 cm) , AGO Purchase 1934,.
At the Art Gallery of Ontario, this premise has been used with selected works from the AGO collection chosen by John Armstrong and Alain de Botton defined by the themes of politics, sex, nature, love and money. The works include ones by Van Gogh, Gerard Richter, Andy Warhol, Kandinsky, John Waterhouse and many others. Installed in five different galleries linked by yellow arrows on the floor, visitors can "embark on a journey of discovery that will find them exploring different art, and a different part of themselves, in each space, or station". According to John Armstrong and Alain de Botton, art has a "powerfully therapeutic effect. It can variously help to inspire, console, redeem, guide, comfort, expand and reawaken us.”

In walking through the installation, I was profoundly moved by the authors' interpretation of the artworks. In some cases, I was surprised to rediscover new interpretations of old favourites. I felt moved and challenged by the information offered on the labels. Sometimes I felt comforted and a little less alone. The work I saw felt more powerful than I had previously given it credit.

Last night, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong also gave a talk about the premise of the exhibit and their experience in curating the work at the AGO. Alain de Botton was funny and self-deprecating in a way that made me wish he wouldn't stop talking. John Armstrong offered a quieter, more reflective analysis that gave depth to their unconventional approach to art curatorial practice.

Les Sabots, 1768 by Francois Boucher (1703-1770), Painting (oil on canvas 62.2 x 52.1 cm)
AGO Purchase, Frank P. Wood Endowment, 1978. 
There was a question period afterwards and at least two of the questions seemed to have been framed in a hostile manner, but this did not fluster the presenters, who showed grace and good form in their responses. I honestly felt surprisingly star struck and was unable to ask my questions:

1. Is it not possible that each person sees something different in an artwork?

2. If galleries are grouped thematically, might it not prevent some people from engaging with that artwork if they thought they didn't need or care about love, sex or nature?

3. Sometimes artists create works and don't know why they have made that particular piece. They might write an artist statement afterwards - adding theory or artspeak - to give the illusion of depth when in fact, it was something deep, powerful and unspoken inside that precipitated the creation. Does it matter what their intent is in the end?

4. If it is true that we crave in art what we are lacking (in the world around us), why are "beautiful" paintings like that of Fantin Latour not more popular? The contemporary art world seems to look down on the creation of "pretty pictures" as lacking in depth and meaning, when, in fact, creating those pretty pictures might be salve for the soul.

Despite the fact that this low key show requires some effort and self-reflection, this is a show worthy of a special trip to the AGO. It is an opportunity to consider what role plays in our lives and offers a much needed and refreshing re-examination of art curatorial practice. The show will also be presented in the Netherlands and also in Australia. Of course, there is also the book.

Art Gallery of Ontario 
Art as Therapy, May 3, 2014 - April 26, 2015.

All images courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario

Read my reviews of The Architecture of Happiness and How Proust can Change Your Life by clicking on the titles.