100 Masters at the Winnipeg Art Gallery: A Playlist of Art for the Ages

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Claude Monet, French, 1840–1925, Waterloo Bridge, Effet de Soleil (1903), oil on canvas, 65.1 x 100 cm. Photography by John Tamblyn. Lent by: McMaster Museum of Art, McMaster University, Hamilton

In today’s digital era, it’s not uncommon to create and share your own playlist: a selection of individual songs that can span genres, from hip-hop to country to classical. But what’s increasingly the norm in music hasn’t necessarily taken hold in other art forms. The Winnipeg Art Gallery’s new exhibition, however, seems designed for cultural omnivores who aren’t afraid to mix a little Rembrandt with their Richter.

100 Masters: Only in Canada brings together six centuries of art under one roof. Conceived and curated by WAG Director and CEO Stephen Borys, the exhibition features 100 masterpieces to commemorate the WAG’s centennial.

Dr. Borys spent two years crisscrossing the country, selecting some of art history’s “greatest hits” from the collections of 28 Canadian institutions (including the National Gallery), and two in the United States. The resulting selection of art is divided evenly between Canadian and non-Canadian works, and is enriched by pieces from the WAG’s permanent collection. Each artist is represented by only one work, with one exception: the inclusion of two paintings by Alex Colville. 

The exhibition begins in a red-walled gallery of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century works by Old Masters, including the richly detailed Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder, and a mechanized piece by Matthias Walbaum. One of the exhibition’s most delightful and peculiar works, Walbaum’s Diana and the Stag is designed to move across a table and serve guests, enabling them to drink from a removable liquid-filled stag head.

From there, visitors are taken on a chronological journey through seven additional galleries that feature an impressive range of historical and modern “masters”: Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Emily Carr, Andy Warhol, Bill Reid, and Wanda Koop, just to name a few. In addition to these recognized names, there are also lesser-known masters, such as French artist Dominic Serres, who painted several eighteenth-century views of Halifax.  

One of the exhibition’s strengths is how it showcases the breadth of holdings in Canadian collections. People might be surprised to discover that Auguste Rodin’s circa-1898 work The Kiss, for example, is from the collection of Regina’s MacKenzie Art Gallery. A simultaneously vibrant and delicate bronze sculpture, The Kiss depicts Paolo and Francesca, the ill-fated lovers of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. I was reminded of this couple later, when encountering Mirror of Thought, a 1937 work by the Group of Seven’s Frederick H. Varley. Painted after the end of both an affair and Varley’s marriage, the hybrid self-portrait/landscape depicts the seemingly weary artist gazing upon a terrain peopled only by two figures, thought to be lovers.

It is these kinds of connections—spanning decades, media, and nationalities—that make 100 Masters such an interesting and rewarding exhibition. While each visitor may make their own links across different galleries, other links emerge from the juxtaposition of particular pieces. Seeing Quebec artist Jean Paul Riopelle’s Vallée, alongside Study for Portrait No. 1 by British artist Francis Bacon, highlights the white, grey, and crimson swatches of Riopelle’s abstract oil on canvas, and even suggests a similar energy in their brushstrokes.

Among the judicious selection of artworks in this exhibition, it is the ones by Aboriginal masters that are the most powerful—particularly Alex Janvier’s Lubicon, Jane Ash Poitras’ From Riel to Peltier, and Robert Davidson’s Killer Whale Transforming into a Thunderbird. The latter, a kinetic sculpture of a killer whale that opens to reveal the face of a thunderbird, was a standout, and a reminder of the unparalleled Aboriginal masterworks that can be found only in Canada.

100 Masters: Only in Canada is on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until 18 August.

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