A museum is successful when it answers a question: Where are we? More specifically, where are we geographically? Where are we temporally? Where are we culturally?
The newly expanded Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, appended now by the Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion of Quebec and Canadian Art, which opens to the public October 14, answers those questions, and brilliantly.
Nestled in behind the renovated Erskine and American United Church (now a concert space, Bourgie Hall) on Sherbrooke Street, the new pavilion tells the story of Canada and Quebec in a six-floor narrative pieced together from collections which are often dazzling and deeply compelling, though sometimes skewed by the penchants of the collectors who donated them.
Yes, you may wonder, why so many Marc-Aurèle Fortins? And there’s more than a fair share of colonial kitsch here (lame but lovable in the overall storyline). But how about those knockout J.W. Morrices, Prudence Hewards, Edwin Holgates, Ozias Leducs and Jean-Paul Riopelles? Or Tom Thomson’s In the Northland—fall birch trees against a cobalt lake, edging toward abstraction? There are some unexpected eccentricities, like the collection of objects from the Pacific Northwest donated to the museum by Cleveland Morgan, an early advocate and volunteer curator of aboriginal art. But there have also been a few strategic acquisitions, like an exquisite Mi’kmaq porcupine-quill box, embroidered with dyed moose hair, which points to the artistic production of native peoples closer to home in the Gaspé and Maritimes.
The installation, overseen by MBAM curator Jacques Des Rochers, tells the story of Canadian art from a very clear perspective—that of Montreal. Once a bastion of Anglo wealth, whose gifts and patronage built the place, the MBAM is now the centre of a Francophone city with its own established power elite. More than any institution in the city, the MBAM now expresses that pride, as well as that hybridity of cultures. It bestows on Montreal a renewed sense of place.
Nothing says this more clearly than the new bronze sculpture by Montreal-born, New York–based artist David Altmejd titled The Eye, which stands guard on Sherbrooke Street outside. A winged figure, its head made up of hundreds of fingers clustered together to make up a kind of feathery mass, it calls down the spirits of Quebec’s artistic past, particularly surrealist giants like André Breton, who came to Canada from Paris, igniting the sensibilities of the fledgling Automatistes and engendering the birth of Quebec abstraction.
“Make way for magic! Make way for objective enigmas! Make way for love!” Paul-Émile Borduas wrote in his groundbreaking 1948 manifesto Le Refus global. Those ghosts are stirring here, moving us to cherish the history that we have. But Altmejd’s sculpture also serves as a monument to the artist, a standing Icarus who merges thought and feeling, intellect and touch, in the forging of new realities. Like the museum it heralds, it will weather the ages well.