Art Talk: Persuasive Visions

Persuasive Visions

When my friend whispered to me that the art show we were viewing at the Seattle Art Museum put the Vancouver Art Gallery to shame, I had no idea I would have the chance to make a fair comparison within just a few weeks.

Persuasive Visions: 17th Century Dutch and Flemish Masterworks and Contemporary Reflections opened in Vancouver in June and I was quick to go see it. What an opportunity, I thought, to compare SAM’s exhibition of Dutch masters with VAG’s exhibition of Dutch masters.

Now, I should explain: I have a love–hate relationship with the Vancouver Art Gallery. I really, really want to support it, but …

For one thing, every time I step inside its doors, I always seem to have a run-in with gallery staff (no photography allowed in the atrium!! put that pen away!!) like I’m some errant school child. It gets really old really fast. When an overzealous security guard chose to skulk after me from room to room (to make sure I behaved, I’m assuming, after he caught me with my camera in the atrium), I felt violated. On that particular visit, I left the gallery only minutes after my arrival, and I didn’t go back for several years.

As for the exhibitions, I always leave the gallery thinking, “That could have been so much more.”

With Persuasive Visions, I was surprised, but also confused. I’ll get to my confusion in a minute.

I was surprised by how much seventeenth century Dutch art the exhibition did contain. When the Vancouver Art Gallery markets their exhibitions with the word “contemporary” in the title, it usually means about 90 percent of the modern stuff and 10 percent of the old (read: good) stuff. At least, this has been the case with many of its previous exhibitions. And so, with this exhibition, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of Dutch masters on display, and also by how many of them belong to the Vancouver Art Gallery.

(An aside: the Vancouver Art Gallery has a massive art collection, but, due to space limitations, can only exhibit about 3 percent of its collection at any one time. When a friend from Brooklyn, USA, visited me and I sent her off to the gallery, her first comment upon returning to my place was, “Don’t they show any of their own art? Or is it all only temporary exhibitions?” I explained to her the difficulty about the space limitations. The Vancouver Art Gallery has recently been granted a 99-year lease from the City of Vancouver and, if the fund-raising campaign goes well, will break ground sometime this century on a new building that will massively increase its exhibition space.)

Back to Persuasive Visions. Who knew the Vancouver Art Gallery had so much seventeenth century Dutch artwork? What a treat it would be to see these paintings on permanent display.

Now, on to my confusion. I was confused by the contemporary works the art gallery chose to display alongside the seventeenth century art. I’m a big fan of Jeff Wall’s photographs, but I didn’t see the connection to Dutch landscapes. I also appreciate contemporary portraits like those of Thomas Russ, but felt the juxtaposition of them alongside the portraits of Dutch sea captains and their wives a bit jarring.

So I called a friend. An artist friend, that is. “Help,” I said. “I don’t understand how this show was curated.”

My friend tells me the Art Gallery of Ontario is doing the same with its exhibitions, this mixing of old and new. “Then and Now,” she calls it. Jeff Wall is known for his use of light, as are the Dutch landscape artists, although she could understand my confusion. And the deadpan photography of Thomas Ruff is characteristic of the current school of German and Dutch photographers, so the Vancouver Art Gallery made a deliberate choice to compare seventeenth century Dutch portraiture to contemporary Dutch portraiture.

My friend’s explanation helped, and I decided to go see the show a second time and ponder her comments. The exhibition made more sense to me upon re-viewing, but, to be honest, I prefer the Seattle Art Museum’s curation to what the Vancouver Art Gallery is doing.

Persuasive Visions fills four gallery rooms, with each room focused on one type of painting: seascapes, still lifes, portraits, and landscapes. Many of the paintings from the Vancouver collection are covered in dark varnish, which requires you to step quite close to examine them in any detail. The Jeff Wall light boxes placed in the same room as the landscapes only makes the varnish-covered landscapes look even darker.

The last time the Vancouver Art Gallery showed an exhibition of Dutch Masters was back in 2009, when one Vermeer and a handful of Rembrandts on loan from the Rijksmuseum (then under renovation) went on a North American tour. That may have been the time I got chased out of the gallery by the overzealous security guard. This time? People were taking photos left, right, and centre with their iPhones, and nary a peep to be heard from any of the security guards.

Persuasive Visions: 17th Century Dutch and Flemish Masterworks and Contemporary Reflections is on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery until September 15.

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4 responses to “Art Talk: Persuasive Visions”

  1. MR says :

    Really interesting blog entry, Elizabeth. I’m not a big fan of curated exhibitions which require the viewers to have a degree-level knowledge of art and art history. Art exhibitions should be accessible rather than elitist. However, your friend’s explanation made the exhibit sound intriguing. Too bad the VAG didn’t think of explaining their rationale for the pairings.

    • Elizabeth says :

      Thanks for your comment! I think the art gallery tried in its explanations posted on each room’s wall to explain what it was doing, but either the words went way over my head or I didn’t read them carefully enough. At any rate, it wasn’t until I talked to my friend that the exhibition started to make sense to me.

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