Beautiful Monsters in Kamloops

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Albrecht Dürer, The Beast with Lamb's Horns (c. 1496–97), woodcut on laid paper, 38.8 x 27.9 cm. NGC

The Kamloops Art Gallery (KAG) is about to be overrun by monsters—beautiful ones.

The British Columbia gallery is the most recent venue for the National Gallery of Canada touring exhibition, Beautiful Monsters: Beasts and Fantastic Creatures in Early European Prints. This time, however, the installation is being presented alongside two additional exhibitions that promise to complement the ghoulish theme.

“I went back to the original meaning of ‘baroque,’ which refers to misshapen pearls. That led me to thinking about other deformed objects,” says Sonia Del Re, curator of Beautiful Monsters. “I realized that the National Gallery has numerous representations of fantastical creatures, whether they are mythological or part of apocalyptic narratives. That’s how it all started.” 

The exhibition brings together approximately 50 European prints from the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, all drawn from the National Gallery’s collection of etchings, engravings and woodcuts. The creatures, beasts and human forms range from handsome to hideous, real to fictitious, strange to surprising. 

Del Re also delved into the Latin root of the word “monster” for inspiration and insight. “It’s from the Latin verb monstro, which means “to show or reveal.” I thought that was interesting,” she says, “because it suggests something bad is about to happen. So it’s not only about legends and things that exist in our minds alone, but also about reality, the world in which we live, and how we conceive of that world.”

This mixing of the modern world’s monsters with their historical depictions is, in part, where the accompanying exhibitions come in. To fill out the space, Charo Neville, Curator at the KAG, went back to Del Re to see what else the National Gallery might have in its collection to further explore the human fascination with the beastly.

Beautiful Monsters is very compelling, and there are lots of levels that different audiences can tap into in terms of these original old works,” says Neville. “The theme of monsters is something that really intrigues people today, and with the widespread interest in vampires and zombie films, we saw lots of opportunities for our public programs.”

One of the accompanying exhibitions, Picasso’s Beasts: Selections from the National Gallery of Canada, contains some of the 100 etchings Picasso made for Ambroise Vollard, a Parisian art dealer who gave Picasso his first Paris exhibition in 1901. Produced between 1930 and 1937, the etchings depict the Minotaur, the Greek mythological beast that was half-man and half-bull.

Rounding out the theme is unlimited edition, which features prints by Indigenous artists from the KAG collection, all related to the mythology of storytelling in Indigenous culture.

Beautiful Monsters is divided into five themes: religious chimeras, mythological creatures, sea monsters, war horses and decorative motifs.

Del Re says that some prints, such as Andrea Mantegna’s famous Battle of the Sea Gods, depict mythological or allegorical themes. Others, like The Whore of Babylon by Dürer have a more moralistic message. Regardless of the theme, tone or meaning, however, it is hard to look away.

“It’s that push-pull relationship we have with the Other, with the unknown, that is the true subject of this show” adds Del Re. “Monsters embody certain anxieties and tensions. That’s why we’re fascinated by them.” 

Beautiful Monsters, Picasso’s Beasts and unlimited edition are on display at the Kamloops Art Gallery from 17 January to 22 March 2014.

With files from Peter Zimonjic

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