Mystical Landscapes: Let the Spiritual Journey Begin

Emily Carr, Sky, 1935–36, oil on wove paper, 58.7 x 90.7 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Drawn towards a source of light, inspiration or a divinity, artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Lawren S. Harris, Edvard Munch and Emily Carr immersed themselves in the spiritual, even the mystical. In addition to their outstanding works of art, some of them left behind letters and diaries, books and interviews, offering insight into their transcendental journeys, and focusing on the soul of things, rather than on more material elements.

These turn-of-the-twentieth-century masters created evocative and moving bodies of work that continue to speak to audiences today. Given the artists’ importance, it should come as no surprise that a great deal of research has gone into exploring their lives, demons and muses as a doorway to understanding the trajectory of modern art. Yet, when it comes to the exploration of the more esoteric and spiritual aspects of their work, there appears to be a tremendous void.

Eugène Jansson, Dawn over Riddarfjarden, 1899, oil on canvas, 150 x 201 cm. Collection of Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde

In this seeming paradox, Katharine Lochnan, Senior Curator of International Exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), saw an opportunity to create a unique show. “There is a lack of overall focus on spirituality as a key component to the artist’s vision,” said Lochnan in an interview with NGC Magazine. “The works of art we’ve chosen convey spiritual insights, and have the power to move people.”

Developed together with former AGO curator Roald Nasgaard and art historian Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, Mystical Landscapes: Masterpieces from Monet, van Gogh and more is a co-production between the AGO and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, which will present the exhibition this spring. Featuring several works that seldom leave their home museums, Mystical Landscapes — which also has an eponymous catalogue — includes masterpieces such as Paul Gauguin’s Vision after the Sermon (1888) Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (Nymphéas) (1907) and Edvard Munch’s The Sun (1910–13). In total, there are some 90 paintings and 20 works on paper by 36 artists from 15 countries across Europe and North America. Produced over the course of a five-year period, Mystical Landscapes included input not only from curators and art historians, but theologians, psychologists and scientists.

Edvard Munch, The Sun, 1910–13, oil on canvas, 162 x 205 cm. Collection of the Munch Museum, Oslo. Image courtesy of Munch Museum

The National Gallery of Canada (NGC) is the single greatest contributor to the show after the Musée d’Orsay. “The generosity of the National Gallery in lending six pictures is enormous,” said Lochnan, “it is symbolically very important, too, because this is a Canadian-generated project. It is going to be a major revelation to the French and the European audience in general to see Emily Carr for the first time.” The loan includes both celebrated and little-known gems from the national collection — Maurice Denis’ Landscape with Hooded Man (1903), James Dickson Innes’ Arenig (1911), Lawren S. Harris’ Decorative Landscape (1917), Emily Carr’s Sky (1935–1936), and two works by Paul Nash: Void (1918) and Chestnut Waters (1923).

James Dickson Innes, Arenig, 1911, oil on canvas, 36 x 51 cm. NGC. Gift of the Massey Collection of English Painting, 1946

The term mystic derives from the Greek mustikos and the Latin mysticus, meaning “initiated.” A mystic believes in the spiritual discernment of truths that are impossible to comprehend. Despite incredible scientific discoveries and the exploration of worlds far beyond our reach, however, we are still no closer to understanding basic mysteries of nature such as where life began.

Mystical Landscapes: Masterpieces from Monet, van Gogh and more was designed around the metaphor of life’s journey. The first section of the exhibition takes visitors on a path through the woods. In paintings by Gauguin, Denis and Georges Lacombe, trees themselves become conduits between art and heaven.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Series I — from the Plains, 1919, oil on canvas, 60.6 x 58.4 cm. Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of the Burnett Foundation. © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Visitors next enter a contemplative zone, which begins with Monet. “You feel like you are literally transcending the earth,” says Lochnan. “There is a tremendous feeling of uplift that comes with encountering these pictures.” Then there is a section dealing with darkness: a mystical journey that takes visitors through light and dark periods, as well as periods of twilight. “There is night itself right there,” said Lochnan, referring to Paul Nash’s nihilist Void. “There is also Chestnut Waters, a very peaceful painting, a memento mori created in memory of a lost friend.”

The next area deals with wilderness. “We are all capable of having mystical experiences,” Lochnan notes. “Most of them are triggered by nature, night skies, sunrises and sunsets.” In her view, people have gone into the wilderness since ancient times to pray and contemplate their lives. The work of Emily Carr and Tom Thomson on view here features mountains, forests and untamed places.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night over the Rhone at Arles, 1888, oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm. Collection of Musée d’Orsay. Image courtesy the Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France/Bridgeman Images

The final part of the exhibition explores the cosmos, beginning with outer space, and ending on a mountaintop. This section includes van Gogh’s The Starry Night over the Rhône at Arles (1888), which suggests the wildness of supernatural dimensions through a swirling night sky.

Since time immemorial, humans have sought the mystical in the everyday. In this exhibition, artists from Edvard Munch to Emily Carr become skilled intermediaries between the world we see around us and something more transcendent. For Katharine Lochnan, the show was designed precisely to stimulate contemplation. “We are inviting the public to enter into these mystical landscapes,” she says, “and to ultimately share in the artist’s experience.”


Mystical Landscapes: Masterpieces from Monet, van Gogh and more is on view at the AGO until February 12, 2017 — the exhibition’s only North American venue. It will open in Paris at the Musée d'Orsay in the spring of 2017. For more information, please click here.

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