The Art Gallery of Ontario’s summer blockbuster, “Drama and Desire: Artists and the Theatre,” comes with the descriptive rider, “conceived by Guy Cogeval,” which is a good thing. The former director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and current director of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris is the creator of numerous entertaining exhibitions that bring intense installation drama to smart groupings of famous and not-so-famous works of art. His Montreal exhibitions on Édouard Vuillard and Jean Cocteau raised the bar for museum stagecraft and it is a pleasure to see the AGO embracing similar standards of panache.
While “Drama and Desire” can serve as code for Cogeval’s ongoing curatorial interests, a show about artists and theatre is also a comfortable fit for the AGO. Think of it as a warm up for the Julian Schnabel retrospective in the fall—a show about painting and film that meshes well with the Toronto International Film Festival—and a continuation of the gallery’s longstanding engagement with art and pop culture. This time, the pop culture is historical, meaning not television, movies and magazines, but rather the ongoing impact of theatre on art, beginning with neo-classicism, where resurrected stories of ancient Greece and Rome served as parallel texts for the percolating issues of sacrifice, oppression and revolution that shaped the day.
Cogeval’s show is a walk through history from 1789 to 1914, when popular theatre served as the engine of both mass culture and a burgeoning internationalism that saw the rise of cross-cultural performance stars and a pervasive embrace of Shakespearean drama. One of the highlights of the show is a room devoted to Eugène Delacroix with early paintings and drawings that track his fascination with Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and Romeo and Juliet. Audible readings from the texts by Stratford actors add their own frisson of immediacy to the images. Other highlights include a star-papered chamber for Aubrey Beardsley’s Salome drawings and some truly impressive Edgar Degas paintings that render the atmosphere of live-flame footlights in the days before electricity.
At the end of the exhibition are five spectacular stage designs for Wagner by the Swiss artist Adolphe Appia. The panel posted in the room notes that the spirit of the times (the late-19th to early-20th century) involved angst, unbridled freedom and impending doom, but what is so spectacular about Appia’s soft, grey drawings is the spaciousness they add to these terms. Every drawing is of a fatal but enticing landscape where the horizon perches on the void. (317 Dundas St W, Toronto ON)