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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

March 2, 2016: Montreal Memories: The Museum of Fine Arts



[Late last year, I had a chance to spend a few days in Montreal, my first extended visit to the city. Among the many reasons I loved it was the plethora of compelling spaces and ways through which the city remembers its social, cultural, and artistic histories. So this week I’ll CanadianStudy a few such spaces, leading up to a special post on a few Canadian colleagues!]
On the pavilion that artistically complements the McCord and Pointe-à-Callière Museums.
Like many fine arts museums, including Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (usually referred to as the MFA, and the fine arts museum with which I’m most familiar), the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is divided up into distinct wings (known in this case as pavilions) that feature art and objects from across the world and throughout human history. There are extensive pavilions dedicated to Archaeology and World Cultures, to both Early to Modern and Contemporary International Art, and to both Decorative Arts & Design and Photography & Graphic Arts, among other sections. As a result, it would take multiple visits to truly experience and appreciate all that the museum features; in keeping with our trip’s Montreal and Canadian focus, we spent the majority of our time in the Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion, home to the bulk of the museum’s collection of Quebec and Canadian Art. And I’m very glad we did, as in both its structure and its specific collections the Bourgie Pavilion offers a unique and compelling vision of Canadian history and identity.
The pavilion’s structure (described at length in the sections of this web page) is particularly striking and engaging. Five of its six floors move visitors across the region and nation’s chronology: in reverse historical order, from the ground floor up, visitors move through Expanding Fields (1960s-1970s), The Age of the Manifesto (1940s-1960s), Toward Modernism (1920s-1930s), The Era of Annual Exhibitions (1880s-1920s), and Founding Identities (1700s-1870s). The top floor is dedicated to Inuit Art, a choice that does replicate both the separation I highlighted in the McCord Museum and the sense of First Peoples as past I found in Pointe-à-Callière, but one that also allows for an impressively extensive collection of Inuit works and artists (both historical and contemporary, I should add). I can’t quite describe the experience of ascending through those floors and moving back in time across those moments, but it was most definitely more than just a sum of the parts, offering both compelling glimpses into the influences and shifts across time periods and a fascinating method for engaging with a place’s and people’s histories through art.
Because that overall experience of the pavilion resonated with me so potently, I don’t remember any individual work or item from any one of those floors with the same clarity. But the floor and period that struck me the most was the Era of Annual Exhibitions, which told its own compelling historical story (that of the founding of The Art Association of Montreal, a direct precursor to the Museum of Fine Arts that began presenting annual art exhibitions in the spring of 1880) through the work of such prominent artists as painter Ozias Leduc and sculptor Alfred Laliberté (among many others). Too often, I find that art museums present individual works and artists relatively devoid of context (other than the details provided in the accompanying labels); while I understand how that can allow us to focus on the works themselves, the AmericanStudier in me really wants to engage with the contexts alongside those works. And if the overall structure of the Bourgie Pavilion represents one impressive layer of historical context for Quebec and Canadian art, it also helps create, within an individual collection like that housed on the Era of Annual Exhibitions floor, a complementary, more specific and equally engaging such context. All of which add up to one of the most interesting fine arts museums I’ve encountered!
Next memory tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Sites of collective memory you’d highlight?

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