Art in the Palm of Your Hand

The National Gallery of Canada’s new mobile app, sponsored by Bell. Image: Tom Thomson, The Jack Pine (1916–17), NGC

I have long admired Rita Letendre, the celebrated Canadian artist known for her dramatic abstract paintings. But I’ve never had a chance to encounter Letendre or hear her talk about her work. The National Gallery of Canada’s new mobile app, however, allowed me to do just that. 

Sponsored by Bell and available for iOS and Android phones and tablets, the free app highlights 52 artworks from the Gallery’s Canadian Collection. Along with in-depth descriptions about each work, it offers a range of audio, video, and interactive features, allowing users to hone in on details, discover related maps, and click on key art terms and artist bios.

During a recent visit to the Gallery, I stood in front of Letendre’s Tension on Black (1963) with my smartphone in hand, as the artist explained in one of the app’s video interviews, “I like very contrasting and strong colours, and I’ve used black in great numbers of my paintings. The black is very important, and is surrounded with the red that is either threatening or embracing it.” It was a bit like having Letendre alongside me.

Indeed, the app puts access to a number of artists and experts at your fingertips. In one of its audio highlights, the Gallery’s senior conservator Doris Couture-Rigert recounts how she carefully restored a silver coffeepot that’s over 200 years old—the only one known to have been produced in pre-industrial Quebec. In another audio clip, curator of Canadian art Charlie Hill brings to life the times during which Group of Seven member J.E.H. MacDonald painted The Tangled Garden (1916), along with the controversies that surrounded his then-radical “garden painting gone wild.”

The National Gallery of Canada’s new mobile app, sponsored by Bell. Image: J.E.H. MacDonald, The Tangled Garden, 1916, NGC. Gift of W.M. Southam, F.N. Southam, and H.S. Southam, 1937, in memory of their brother Richard Southam

The works of art featured in the app are further enriched by some 110 images, including sketches and studies, photos of artists, and behind-the-scenes conservation shots. With a floor plan and the option to navigate by room, artwork, or artist, the app is a perfect companion for your in-person visit, offering what the Gallery’s director Marc Mayer describes as “a deepened experience.” But with all-new content and art spanning the 18th to 20th centuries, the app is also a useful tool to conduct offsite research—or to just get your art fix at midnight. 

One of the great things about the rise in mobile apps, such as the Gallery’s Canadian Collection application, is that they allow art lovers to access art from wherever—and whenever—they want. Here are a few other apps worth checking out from wherever you are:

If you’re curious about the lives of artists past, then try Yours, Vincent, from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It allows users to explore Vincent Van Gogh’s life through his letters, images of which are featured in the app, along with dramatic readings, video interviews with experts, and sketches and paintings from the Museum’s collection.

Meanwhile, Wondereur brings you today’s “best artists to watch.” Each week, the app automatically updates to feature a different contemporary artist from around the globe, selected by Wondereur’s team of international talent-spotters. With gorgeous photo essays, compelling stories, and exciting new works of art in a range of prices, Wondereur also gives burgeoning and experienced art collectors the chance to buy what they see.

If this leaves you feeling inspired, try MoMA’s Art Lab app. With this iPad app, you—or the budding artist in your life—can explore artists’ techniques and processes, then create art inspired by Henri Matisse, Alexander Calder, and other artists in MoMA’s collection.

Finally, if all this has you yearning to see more of the real thing, download the Akimbo app, Canada’s mobile source for visual and contemporary art information and listings. Find out what’s happening in your area, and store your Akimbo events in MyKimbo. Other Canadian art galleries and museums, such as the DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art, the MacKenzie Art Gallery, and the Art Gallery of Ontario (iOS and Android) also offer some great apps to help you discover their exhibitions and plan a visit.

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