The Lure of Victorian Landscapes, the MMFA goes Green.

By Alan Hustak on July 2, 2009

Who would have imagined that so many fusty, gilt-edged landscapes that have been out of fashion for so long could be so resonant to our times?  Expanding Horizons, a terrific summer exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts combines painting and photographs of the North American wilderness done, for the most part,  in the last half of the 19th century. Taken together, these bucolic, dreamlike vistas have been restored to their rightful position as potent masterworks. Such an exhibition could hardly be more appropriate.  While the show is rooted in the past, it is also alive to the lessons that nature teaches. “The early explorers sense of nature as gigantic, monumental and beyond measure, has now given way to an alarm about an endangered planet,” says Nathalie Bondil, the museum’s director.  “The exhibition offers a forthright look at current attitudes about the natural world and its value through an environmentally conscious prism.’’  

Hilliard T. Goldfarb, the museum’s ebullient associate curator, who holds dual citizenship as a Canadian and an American citizen,  came up with the idea for the show  four years ago when he was surprised to discover than no similar exhibition of late 19th century and early 20th century American and Canadian landscape art had ever been mounted. The exhibition is divided into six sections, beginning with Nature Transcendent, a gallery of romantic landscapes influenced by the Hudson River School after the American civil war. The Theatre of Myth shows how  artists at the time viewed aboriginal people, and Man Versus Nature illustrates how the destruction of the wilderness destruction was regarded as progress by turn of the 20th century artists. Nature Domesticated, The Urban Landscape and Return to Nature explore the spiritual facets of the natural landscapes. The more than 200 pictures on view are a bonanza that portray a disappearing wilderness in all its majesty. Thomas Moran’s iconic and inspirational 1875 canvas, Mountain of the Holy Cross in central Colorado ideally  sets the tone for the ecological themes being explored. Like Moran’s painting, many of the works of American artists such as Albert Bierstadt’s Passing Storm over the Sierra Nevada, William Morris Hunt’s American Falls, Niagara, and John Singer Sargent’s Tent at Lake O’Hara have never been shown in Canada before.  Chief among the many pleasures in the show, however, are three Tom Thomson’s, especially his dazzling Pageant of the North, and sublime works by Georgia O’Keefe, and Winslow Homer. There are few anticlimactic pieces, like Frederick Verner’s Buffaloes, and more images of Niagara than need be,  the paintings stir viewers today as they did when they were new, but for different reasons. As a bonus, the MMFA has also mounted a small but charming retrospective in homage to visionary Montreal conservationist, environmental artist and Oscar winning film maker, Frédéric Back. The exhibitions are at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until Sept. 27, then move to the Vancouver Art Gallery in October. 


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