Bringing the Americas Together Through Landscape


Lawren Harris, Grounded Icebergs (Disco Bay) [c.1931], oil on canvas, 80 x 101.6 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada, Gift from the Estate of R. Fraser Elliott, 2005, © 2015 Estate of Lawren S. Harris

This summer, as Canada welcomed the Pan Am and Parapan Games, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) has been inviting visitors to experience the Americas through an exhibition of landscape paintings.

Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic features 118 works by artists from 14 countries. Each work depicts the landscape as captured in paint by explorers and artists. Spanning more than 100 years, the paintings depict everything from the Canadian North to peaks of Patagonia.

Tarsila do Amaral, Postcard (1929), oil on canvas, 127.5 x 142.5 cm. Private Collection, Rio de Janeiro. Photo Credit: Romulo Fialdini

“This exhibition looks at how these artists were connected by what motivated them to paint,” says Georgiana Uhlyarik, Associate Curator of Canadian Art at the AGO. “At the same time, they remain distinct in the unique styles they used to capture regional vistas. Tarsila do Amaral, for example, may not be very well known in Canada, but she is considered the leading modernist artist in Brazil. Known simply by her first name, she has iconic national status. When she was painting, she had the same kind of ambition as Lawren Harris: wanting to paint her homeland.”

The National Gallery of Canada has lent Kakabeka Falls, Kamanistiquia River (1882) by Lucius O’Brien. Produced in studio from sketches O’Brien made around the Great Lakes, it was the last oil painting he would exhibit for more than a decade, having switched to watercolour in the early 1880s. O’Brien’s image of the falls — along with works by other artists capturing the natural world from Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, the United States, Uruguay, Venezuela and other countries — informed much of what settlers to these newly formed nations expected to see.

Lucius R. O’Brien, Kakabeka Falls, Kamanistiquia River (1882), oil on canvas, 83.9 x 121.7 cm. Purchased 1935. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © National Gallery of Canada

“These artists pictured very calm scenes of rich, fertile land, promoting new settlement,” says Uhlyarik, “even though some of these paintings would have been painted at the height of intense conflict, war, and forced and violent displacement of Indigenous populations. Picturing the Americas seeks to challenge the notion that the landscape is something in the background of an image, or little more than a backdrop for a bigger story.”

Although landscape painting has often been taken for granted as simply beautiful or decorative, Uhlyarik maintains that such works “are part of that whole ideology of claiming and occupying territory, and continue to speak to a colonial attitude. Visitors will be able to look at these works and consider how these images have shaped the way we think about land.”

One of the artists she cites is Pedro Figari, a Uruguayan artist who focused on the pampas that cover parts of Uruguay and Argentina. Colts on the pampa (c. 1930) shows his love of this unique lowland environment, which has generated powerful literature while also defining daily life and cultural identity — much as the Prairies do in Canada.

Pedro Figari, Colts on the pampa (c. 1930), oil on cardboard, 61.8 x 81.1 cm. Collection of Museo de Arte Latinoamericanos de Buenos Aires, Costantini Foundation, Buenos Aires

“What Figari does,” says Uhlyarik, “is create these images that are recognizable as the pampas, but at the same time have universal meaning. He does this in the same way that Harris treats the North, despite their styles being vastly different. When we look at Harris’ work we see it as very specifically the Arctic or the Rockies. Yet both artists are seeking to capture what they considered to be the true spiritual flow that informs the Americas.”

Twenty of the 85 artists featured in Picturing the Americas are Canadian. In addition to iconic Canadian artists such as Emily Carr, Mary Hiester Reid, and Harris — all of whom have works in the National Gallery collection — visitors will be treated to works by artists that include Frederic E. Church, Grant Wood, Joaquín Torres Garcia, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

Georgia O’Keefe, Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico/Out Back of Marie’s II (1930), oil on canvas mounted on board, 61.6 x 92.1 cm. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, United States, Gift of the Burnett Foundation, © ARS, NY. Malcom Varon, 2001. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe/Art Resources, NY

This first-ever pan-American landscape exhibition gives visitors a keen sense of the natural world on both continents, while also showing the similarities and differences that inform the work of their respective artists. “Every nation has painters that people feel represent their country, their landscape, and identity,” says Uhlyarik. “This exhibition is about bringing together the leading artists of the period, who helped define the attachment we developed with the lands in the Americas.”

Co-organized with the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, and supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art, Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic will be on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario until September 20, 2015, after which it will go on tour.

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