Jeffery D Muzzerall Reviews Generations: The Sobey Family and Canadian Art
Edited by Sarah Milroy
Goose Lane Editions
Generations: The Sobey Family and Canadian Art is a gorgeous book, suitable for bookshelf display, exploring the prominent Nova Scotia grocer family’s commitment to its Canadian and Indigenous art collection. It catalogues and complements the exhibition that inspired it. Editor Sarah Milroy says both were curated to honour “the way the Sobeys are …obviously a very prosperous family, but also very down-to-earth.”
The cover is a polychromatic mash-up of foundational 18th-century Dutch-Canadian painter Cornelius Krieghoff’s oil painting “Crossing the St. Lawrence with the Royal Mail at Quebec, 1859“ with contemporary Indigenous artist Kent Monkman’s monumental ”Mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People); Welcoming the Newcomers and Resurgence of the People, 2019.”
A former curator of Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada has noted, via Wikipedia: “Krieghoff was the first Canadian artist to interpret in oils … the splendour of our waterfalls, and the hardships and daily life of people living on the edge of new frontiers.”
Kent Monkman’s interview with the editor reveals Mistikôsiwak as a deathly raft of a decadent, sickly and dying European culture on the brink. Kent’s alter-ego, “Miss Chief Eagle Testicle,” points a way forward:
I acknowledge the artists who came before me: Robert Houle, Rebecca Belmore, Alex Janvier, Norval Morriseau. I am happy to be carrying that forward–I want to open more possibilities for those who come behind me.
The Sobey Foundation purchased Mistikôsiwak and others to donate to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Monkman says, “I felt a real connection to Don Sobey, his generosity, kindness, sensitivity, his compassion, funny, brilliant, humble. I respected him for his vision.”
The organizers say:
Braiding together works by early European newcomers like Cornelius Krieghoff; titans of Canadian 20th-century art, the Group of Seven, Tom Thomson, David Milne and Emily Carr; a rich display of works by the Quebec Impressionists, as well as Automatiste painters Jean-Paul Riopelle and Paul-Émile Borduas; and works by trail-blazing artists of today, including contemporary Indigenous artists Kent Monkman, Brenda Draney, Brian Jungen and Annie Pootoogook, as well as leading international artist Peter Doig.
The publication of Generations intentionally coincides with the 20th anniversary of the prestigious and “career altering” Sobey Art Award. Ian AC Dejardin, executive director of the McMichael Canadian Collection, states, “[This award] has become the acme of all contemporary art prizes in Canada.”
I had the privilege of experiencing the nationally touring exhibition of 175 works that explores the “range and depth” of primarily early 19th and 20th-century art, held with dear vision by three generations of the Sobey family, at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinberg, Ontario in March.
We are fortunate to have this gift to Canadian culture assembled, curated and revealed publicly across the country. It is a careful exploration of Canadian landscapes depicting Canadian communities and invested in Canadian Art institutions. As culturally evocative, controversial and worthy of contemporary critique as the art, artists and worldviews of their makers.
In her essay on ”The Sobey Family and Canadian Art”, Sarah Milroy says:
Assembling was a rare privilege. Avoiding a sense of inventory, plodding periods, predictable tread cue from private collecting: the pleasure of creating novel adjacencies reigns supreme…this was a conversation, and there are and will be others.
In ”Patriotic and Artistic: Canadian Painters and the National Challenge, ”Jocelyn Anderson contemplates the tension faced by many of our artistic pioneers, “how to create a new national art in the face of a powerful European inheritance. Classic European training, French School Ateliers to British soldier artists.” (The Royal Canadian Academy of Arts was created in 1880 and modelled after the Royal Art Association of Britain).
According to John Geoghegan, Morrice, Cullen, Gagnon and others went the opposite way in ”Making the French Connection: The Group of Seven and Quebec Painting.” The artists quest for their roots and “a longed-for-identity” after the rural departure for the new urban industrial jobs of the time. He says:
The impact of Quebec painters and Morrice, in particular, on his Ontario contemporaries is often overlooked. A subject of consideration here is a story seldom told. Morrice is to Quebec what Tom Thompson is to Ontario.
In her essay, ”The Story Tellers,” Milroy acknowledges the contribution Pootoogook from Cape Dorset made to her craft and the impression she may have had on Donald Sobey. Pootoogook “revolutionized Inuit Art depicting contemporary life in the Canadian North. Donald Sobey had kept two of her works near his desk to remember her.” Milroy speculates that perhaps it was for “the pleasure of representations of a life so different from his own.”
The collection includes Kurelek’s, “Look who’s Coming” (1976), in which one can see “unsettling” perceptions between “settlers” and “settled.” In Joseph Tisiga’s, “Fabricated Fear Only Prolong Risk” (2016), look for signs of “anxiety” in the frame.
Mario Doucette’s time and culture-shifting historical caricatures sometimes allude to the Acadian diaspora. In ”Beausoleil Broussard III” (2007), one can ask how the stories “of the vanquished, have been erased.” Why do “American superheroes preside” in other works?
Powerfully evocative Images from yesteryear and today are intended to provoke novel conversations and reframe the collective wisdom of its source material, changing context, and future aesthetic ambitions.
The Generations exhibition ends its run at the Ontario McMichael Canadian Art Collection on May 23rd. It begins its cross-country journey with stops in St. John’s, Edmonton, Alberta, Charlottetown and Halifax.
Generations: The Sobey Family and Canadian Art, a handsome Goose Lane Editions book, can be purchased at the exhibition, online or at your favourite independent bookstore.