Monday, December 31, 2007


Graffiti on the side of a building on St. Catherine St.
I was taken by the scale of the image, against the relatively human scale of the buildings that typify Montreal, which is much more human scale than NYC.

After visiting my family for Christmas in Vermont, I thought I would take myself on a little vacation to Montreal, since I was two thirds of the way there; that is how far North my family is. I went to Montreal for the first time last summer for just two nights, and totally enjoyed it; of course the main attraction are the gay strip bars, which are unlike anything in the States. There I worship before the altar of another sort of beauty, than usually reviewed in these pages.
But in addition to the wonderful freedom Montreal offers, it also has some really good art to be seen. I have only begun to explore the art there, focusing mainly on the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which is pretty big, and has allot to see. But there is also a good Museum of Contemporary Art, and the McCord Museum, devoted to the history of Montreal, and others such as the Redpath Museum at McGill University which was not open and which I have not seen yet. In addition I understand there is something of a gallery scene, but being the holidays, none were open. So I have more to see on future trips.

Berri UQAM subway station, which has a beautiful back lit stained glass window over the tracks, and the enormous scale of the Ipod ad somehow seemed more art like than ad like in this setting. The subway in Montreal is clean, attractive, easy and a pleasure to use.

But enough of street art, after doing the obligatory shopping, which is great there and doing some damage, I made my way to the Museum of Fine Arts.

This is the old section, built in 1879, the first building in Canada specifically built to house art. Interestingly much of Montreal's history echoes that of New York City, the Metropolitan was established in 1870, the Montreal Museum was started in 1860, so around the same time. However, this museum is much smaller than the Met, as is the city.
This is a view of the Gilded Bronzes of Cartoceto di Pergola, and amazingly, this is the first time they have been displayed outside Italy. Belonging to the class of gilt bronze statues that the Marcus Aurelius of the Capitoline and the Horses of San Marco belong to, these statues, fragmentary as they may be, are rare survivors. For me they are a bit crude, the details and quality of the work is not fine, but workmanlike, although at a distance they are quite effective and splendid. It reminds one of two things, ancient art varies in quality, and that it was made for specific functions which were more important than their aesthetic appeal. These sculptures honor a family, there are two draped female figures and a man mounted on a horse, who they are is unknown at this time. While of high rank their quality indicates they were not imperial; even so a statue was a very important honor to have been granted, giving them a life into eternity.

Here are the two Roman portraits in the museum, both actually quite good. The forward one is identified in the label as being of Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, or Caius Cassius Longinus, dating to the First Century A.D. It is a type which is known from other copies, two of which are in the Louvre, so the person depicted, whether or not it is the two identified, was a man of very high rank to have commanded multiple images of himself. This one is of really beautiful quality and is very well preserved, intact as far it exists with all its features, including the nose, which is usually damaged. The rear portrait is identified as the young Emperor Severus Alexander, dating to 222-235 AD. Again a very fine and well preserved portrait, and of an attractive subject so appealing on a number of levels. So while not rich in Classical art, at least the Montreal Museum has managed to get some good pieces.

Relief from the Temple of Isis at Behbeit El-Hagar, Egyptian, XXX Dynasty, ca. 378-341 B.C.
Carved of Granite. The scene depicted is Nectanebo II making an offering to a god.

Detail of relief above showing the god receiving the offering. Note the superb quality of this relief.

This relief is of beautiful quality, while in very low relief, every detail has been carved, and the style is that smooth ideal style of the Ptolemaic period and later. The temple that this relief comes from is well known an antiquarian circles as fragments from it come up for sale occasionally and in 2004 one of them was for sale at Christies and returned to the Egyptian government when they were able to prove it had been taken from the site in the 1990's. It was a large temple, dating to the Ptolemaic Period, and this relief is from the Persian Period just before the Ptolemy's. I believe the Met has a relief from this temple.

Statue of Vishnu, South Indian, Chola Period, ca. 1200 A.D., in grey granite.

Keeping to the sculpture part of the tour, I was struck by this beautiful Chola sculpture. My eyes have been opened to the quality of Chola stone sculpture after seeing the glorious Shiva from the Albright Knox sold at Sotheby's, so I note them where-ever I see them. Typical of Chola stone sculpture is the soft carving style, which looks as if it were pecked out of the hard granite with a rounded chisel or a hard pebble, with very little surface polish, unlike the hard precision of Egyptian stone carving. Even so, all the important details of jewelry and raiment are successfully indicated to convey a richness, and the surfaces appear that they would be soft and smooth to the touch, even though not polished. (Sadly I have never touched a Chola stone statue, I need to do so at some point. I have Egyptian statues, and I can testify to their smoothly polished surfaces.) While a modest example of Chola sculpture it is of quite high quality and is a very good example of its culture and time.

L'apotheose de Napoleon. Workshop of Thorvaldsen, Danish, ca. 1830, marble.
on loan from the collection of Huguette and Ben Weilder.

This amazing bust, by one of the greatest sculptors of the Neo-Classical age, depicts the French hero, General and Emperor of what he hoped would be the new Roman Empire, become a god. In the frontal view Napoleon is supported by an eagle, the symbol of Zeus, and he wears over his shoulder the aegis, also symbolic of Zeus/Jupiter and only worn by Roman Emperors when they became gods after death. The crown of laurel leaves completes the Classical references. But what most strikes me about this bust, is the treatment of the back, which has been fully finished with a carving of a date palm tree in relief, a clear reference to Napoleon's conquest of Egypt. The back of busts is always a problem, often they are left unfinished and roughly blocked out, sometimes they are smooth and polished, almost never are they carved. In this piece it is an important part of the sculpture so this bust was intended to be seen in the round.

The Napoleon Bust is in a wonderful exhibit All for Art! Our Great Private Collectors Share their Works. Culled from seventy collectors who live in or have a connection to Montreal, it is a wonderful selection across a broad range of art, from ancient to contemporary. This piece comes from collectors who seem to focus on Napoleonic art, judging from this and other pieces in the exhibition. Seeing them made me sad for the hubris that destroyed Napoleon, he really was a great ruler in some ways and energized the arts, and design. If only he had done what he did best, which was to bring France into the Modern world. Who knows, if he had not over reached, and was able to stay in power, perhaps he would have brought back the Gods of Antiquity, he certainly seemed to understand the pagan spirit.

This is it for this post, I will do more on what I saw in Montreal, it was allot.

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