A passage marked by dreams
In advance of the National Gallery of Canada's exhibition Impressionist Treasures: The Ordrupgaard Collection, Paul Lang introduces the great 'civic project' of two Danish visionaries. This exhibition, organized by Lang in collaboration with Erika Dolphin, Associate Curator of European art, marks the culmination of the art historian’s tenure at the Gallery, as he departs to take on his new role as Director of the museums of Strasbourg. The upcoming exhibition offers an opportunity for Lang to look back on his years at the Gallery, as Chief Curator and Curator of the Department of European Art, and comment on the exhibitions he has organized, both in curatorial terms and also in the context of the National Gallery of Canada.
Among the highlights of his time at the Gallery are Gustave Doré (1832-1883): Master of Imagination in 2014, a retrospective devoted to the work of the renowned illustrator, and the 2016 Élisabeth Louise Vigée Lebrun, an exhibition entirely devoted to the work of Marie Antoinette’s portraitist. If, in Souvenirs (1835), the female artist evokes her “enchanting dreams,” and Gustave Doré, in the words of Émile Zola, “drew dreams the way others sculpt reality” (1865), the Impressionist Treasures exhibition, opening on May 18, is also the creation of great dreamers: Wilhelm and Henny Hansen. Their dream is called Ordrupgaard and it arrives from Copenhagen.
As Paul Lang states: “Ordrupgaard began, and I choose my words carefully, as a utopia. It is a dream that is also a social undertaking. It is important to understand that these two collectors truly possess, in the etymological sense of the term, a civic-mindedness. They thought about their collection in terms of their community and with an educational aim.”
Beginning in 1918, the insurance magnate and his spouse made their collection publicly accessible, when they opened the doors of their home, located in the Charlottenlund countryside, each Monday from noon until 3 p.m. The Hansens thereby gave the Kingdom of Denmark a collection of works from the golden age of Danish painting and French art of the nineteenth century —from Delacroix to Cézanne. Among these works are masterpieces by Monet, Gauguin, Matisse, Morisot and Hammershøi.
Feeling a great affinity for the way Ordrupgaard was formed, Paul Lang speaks of a style of collecting “that wasn’t about covering all the bases or making compromises for the art market.” Despite the collection’s many Impressionist treasures, Lang underlines the “incredible humility” of the two founders, who preferred to name the collection after their manor house rather than themselves.
In his work at the Gallery, the curator has applied the same determination to serve the Canadian public: “One always has to find a balance between what the public would like us to show and re-show, and offering something new. The exhibition of the Ordrupgaard collection fits this purpose well.” He sees in art a purpose that goes beyond the strictly aesthetic, always taking care to preserve the gallery’s institutional memory by offering exhibitions “closely linked to its collection, to its identity, to what is there or what should be there.” In this context, he emphasizes the relevance of the Ordupgaard collection: “All the painters represented in this exhibition are also found in our collection.” This art experience thus offers an opportunity to display works from the national collection that came to the Gallery under Lang’s curatorial leadership. They include, among others, Sunshine in the Drawing Room (1910) by the Dane Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864–1916).
From the outset, his mandate at the Gallery has been characterized by the constant desire “to facilitate understanding of what the Gallery inherited from its predecessors.” A specialist in European neoclassicism, he sees a gallery not as the dream of a single curator but as a repository of culture and heritage: “I’m pleased that we have acquired works spanning Italian art of the eighteenth century to Danish art of the early twentieth century.” He is grateful to have played a part in the Gallery’s acquisitions plan and draws attention to the important purchase of the painting by Charles Meynier (1763–1832), Wisdom Preserving Youth from the Arrows of Love (1810). In his daily deliberations, Paul Lang considers the collection as a whole: “Through acquiring, for example, a great landscape by Doré from the end of the 1870s, we shed light on our holdings of work by Gustave Courbet, because Doré would never have begun painting landscapes without the influence of Courbet.”
When asked what a curator dreams of, he answers: “When we talk of a dream, we are also talking of a utopia, of a perfect balance between the three goals of a gallery: preserve, study and diffuse widely.” By contributing to the “renaissance” of the National Gallery of Canada Review in 2016, the curator undoubtedly served the organization’s scientific mission. On the eve of his return to Europe, Paul Lang allows himself to dream of what a gallery can be: “I dream of a tranquil gallery, although by definition galleries are places of permanent revolution.”
Impressionist Treasures: The Ordrupgaard Collection, curated by Paul Lang and Erika Dolphin, is on view at the National Gallery of Art from May 18 to September 9, 2018. It is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated publication, available from ShopNGC.ca. If you would like to share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right of this page.