A trove of paintings is held on McMaster’s campus. Monet, Matisse and Van Gogh are just some of the artists in the collection. Staples in galleries around the world, immortalized in art prints or socks, these artists have reached the pinnacle of the art world, but also having a place in Hamilton.
The collection of European masterpieces comes from Herman Levy, a Hamilton businessman and art lover who once took art history classes at McMaster. Levy was a jeweler by trade and in his spare time an engaged member of the McMaster and Hamilton art communities. His interest in European art prompted him to collect famous works from the canon throughout his lifetime, including German expressionists and French painters.
Levy donated his private collection to the McMaster Museum of Art in 1984, and upon his death in 1990 left a bequest so the collection could be expanded. The accumulated art works now belong to McMaster and have toured the world, a testament to the collection’s prestige.
The Levy collection’s return from a cross-Canada tour brings 185 European and American art works back to their Hamilton home. But first the works had to be curated into an exhibit that would resonate with viewers nearly 30 years after Levy’s death. Faced with this challenge, Pamela Edmonds, the senior curator at the MMA, interpreted the pieces to provoke new ideas and interpretations in the homecoming exhibition.
French masters Monet and Matisse now hang on the white walls of the MMA. Monet’s painting of Waterloo bridge shows an industrial scene against a hazy sky, not unlike the real scenes of Hamilton’s shores. Except this image is worth millions. Another work by the impressionist sold for $110.7 Million in May 2019.
But cost doesn’t necessarily equal value.
“The Monet is something I’ve been told is in demand all the time for people to see, but is it more about the cachet or whatever around the artist, or is it the actual object. And so I was trying to play with the hierarchy — of why something if it’s worth $50 million makes it more important? Does it really? . . . For me, I could be just as connected to something if I don’t know the artist,” said Edmonds.
Levy’s donations reflected his art interests: artists are predominantly European, and almost exclusively white. Edmonds, throughout her career as a curator, has questioned why galleries and exhibits didn’t seem to reflect perspectives beyond the western canon. Without curation, dominant voices within the art canon remain unchallenged, despite representing very few experiences captured in the visual form. This prompted the curator to consider how to include more works from the long history of non-western visual arts in the newest presentation of the Levy collection.
The latest exhibition of the collection, it is from here that the world unfolds, which opened Aug. 24 and will run through Dec. 14 2019, prompts viewers to reconsider the familiar art works.
In this exhibition, the big names in the Levy collection are accompanied by artworks that speak to the gaps of a history without much diversity. Contemporary, modern and historical works come together to create an aesthetic experience that contradicts the elitism of the art world. It doesn’t pretend to represent all of art history, but nods to what is missing.
Reflecting on her curatorial practice, Edmonds says, “it was a great opportunity for me to bring together a show . . . from a lens that critiques that canon but still does so respectfully — these are amazing artists — but trying to put a spin on it that’s questioning the way that art has been presented in that linear, universal, humanist way.”
The exhibit, titled it is from here that the world unfolds goes against curatorial convention by avoiding linearity. It doesn’t present a history. Instead, it presents moments in time, space and aesthetic perspectives that speak to one another and to the viewer. That’s what Edmonds thinks that art spaces should be about — a conversation between the art, creator and the person experiencing it.
“The museum, the library, those are kind of the few spaces left that you can congregate to talk about ideas, or to engage in ideas. And I think that specifically within the university, we should be having an engaging conversation around art and ideas … I wanted to take a collection that was maybe more historic but bring it into the 21st century.”
The MMA holds a unique position compared to other galleries and museums in Hamilton. Situated on McMaster’s campus, the MMA has a responsibility to the students, staff and community members who live, work and study here. Edmonds wants students to feel comfortable coming through the front doors. The rules and etiquette of galleries-past do not need to deter visitors. No longer should art spaces exist as stuffy and exclusive places, they should exist for everyone, equally. At the MMA, the quiet is welcome, but not mandatory. As long as you don’t touch it, the art is yours to engage with however you like.
As the world moves faster and public spaces are closed, the museum is one of the last few spaces that exist for the public good. It is one of the few places that are quiet, free of charge and open for all.
Museum goers can expect to see historic works alongside yarn-like sculptures and red squares. If the viewer finds themselves frustrated, then Edmonds says: good. She wants to set up questions without answers and evoke feelings from viewers. Even negative emotional reactions are good, because it means the art is speaking to someone.
For students, the MMA could be a space to decompress or learn something new — but it’s up to you. Edmonds encourages on-lookers to take what they want from the exhibit, even if there isn’t any further engagement beyond viewership.
Visiting it is from here that the world unfolds, time periods and emotions collide. Looking at the giant canvas of Wailing Women (1990) by Ken Currie along with Sun Ra’s chaotic jazz accompaniment, there is a confrontation of eras and aesthetics. The interplay is jarring, and be advised, so is Currie’s painting of a mob of dismembered women. But it is also a reminder of the non-linearity of the exhibit.
Just around the corner from Currie’s work is a set of 16th century religious icons beside a mid-dentury mixed-media piece that is almost erotic and references a variety of eras. The exhibit is jarringly ahistorical, but purposefully so.
Museums are places for the free flow of ideas and dialogue around art and the world in which it is created. The MMA is a place to see important works from the European art canon, but it also gives students, staff and community the opportunity to think about dominant narratives in the art world. Levy’s legacy is held in trust for present and future generations, and will continue to spur creativity and criticism for years to come.
By: Alex Florescu
If you were an art museum director and you were deciding on an exhibit theme, what would you pick to be your display? Of all the options under consideration, would books be one of them? Probably not.
The McMaster Museum of Art strays from the norm, having an entire exhibit dubbed The Art of the Book. All of the books come entirely from one source – Rabbi Baskin, a generous benefactor who donated over 1,000 volumes to the university museum. It is entirely because of his contributions that visitors to the museum can view the 16th-century Spanish imprints that cover the exhibit walls, or be close enough to touch an 1876 edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Adding to the collection are prints by private press editor Leonard Baskin, the Rabbi’s brother.
It is these prints by Baskin that seem to be a dominant and reoccurring presence in the exhibit. Two of his prints stood out to me, with the first one being a simplistic ink drawing of a flower with detailing around it. What I loved about the piece is that the details have not been drawn on. Instead, the background has been inked in black, while the flower and other parts of the “drawing” are starch white, unchanged from the original piece of paper.
The second of these pieces is a large mural of a man, created solely by overlapping black lines. What is remarkable is that when looking at this mural, it seems as if the pen was never lifted from the paper. Rather, it appears as if the entire piece was created in one continuous motion. While it is essentially just an outline, the man portrayed has impressive form and three-dimensionality. The varying thickness and repetition of black inked lines make the man’s calf muscles look as if they are bulging and his face appear to be hiding half in the shadows.
The books themselves were interesting, mostly because they are incredibly antique. The careful detail that went into the calligraphy and penmanship of these volumes is evident, and the illustrations are simplistic but beautifully done. While they are encased behind glass and cannot be reached, you get the sense that they are so old that they could crumble the second you touched them.
While there were prints and books that I found fascinating, there were also other pieces of the exhibit that did not impress me as much. Many of the prints featured grotesque half-animal, half-human composites that were slightly too morbid for my taste. Some of them had deformed faces, with misplaced eyes and mouths. Others were entire bird bodies that also happened to feature human anatomical parts. While they weren’t necessarily pieces of art I would put up in my own home, I could definitely recognize that to others, the pieces would have meant a lot more.
While The Art of the Book isn’t exactly my favourite exhibit, it features many interesting pieces – especially for a literary nerd fascinated by old copies of classic novels. On the other hand, the prints that hang on the wall definitely offer something for those into modern art; and if none of the above interests you, then it wouldn’t make for a bad place to curl up and do your readings for the day.