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Part of my volunteer job at the National Gallery of Canada also know in French as the Musée des beaux-arts du Canada in Ottawa is the activity called Docent’s Choice.

Each month my colleague docent (guide) and I will chose individually pieces of art we would like to study and present to the public. First thing is to ensure the piece of art is still on display, so I walk the galleries and look for something I would like to present in a mini-lectures 10 minutes. I then study it and the artist who made it. It is a long process for such a short presentation time but it is well worth it. The artists come alive, suddenly you learn about their frustrations and difficulties, their personal lives and their struggles. Many artists were geniuses who early in life displayed a lot of talent, it was either recognized by their family or not, they often travelled or went to schools known in French as Académie des arts where they had to study under teachers who taught a style of painting or sculpture but were not inclined to accept rebellion or new styles. Their life as artists was a job, a career, not something they did as a hobby.

Depending of the historical time they lived in, they were often looked down upon by their patrons and clients who were the wealthy aristocracy. Per example when the Sun King Louis XIV was told that Molière had died, a play write he loved and appreciated. His reaction was indifference, he said ”well he cannot be of any use to me anymore”.

Michealangelo who created so much works of art for the Popes and other Sovereigns was resented by them because he was a prima donna given to temper tantrums. He was kept at arms length. On the other hand Gian Lorenzo Bernini who decorated the inside of Saint Peter Basilica including the great bronze baldachin over the Papal Altar during a 10 year period and would go on to do more major works in Rome was a smooth affable man much liked by the Popes.

In the coming weeks I will be presenting works by Gustave Doré, Thomas Couture, Auguste Rodin, Paul Gaugin and Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Last Summer we had a retrospective on Gustave Doré who is mostly known as an Illustrator, there is the Doré Bible and the illustrations for the stories of Charles Perrault, the Fables by Lafontaine etc… But Doré who was a child prodigy wanted to be acknowledged as a painter, no matter how hard he tried the Critics in the Salon would have none of it and constantly minimized his works with vicious attacks.

In the last few months the NGC bought one of Doré’s painting Memories of Loch Lomond which was done while on a fishing trip to Scotland with the Equerry of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. A very romantic style painting, a style Frederick Lord Leighton would later take up with great success. But poor Doré no such luck. The Critics at the time were stuck in a mind frame, they had conservatives taste and would dictate to Society at large what was acceptable or what was good art.

We still have this frame of mind today amongst the popular press and a certain segment of Society in general. One painting at the NGC which has been controversial since it was bought is the famous Voice of Fire. To this day we still have people coming in going to see it on the second floor as a vindication that Abstract art or Contemporary art is bunk.

Voice of Fire is an acrylic on canvas abstract painting made by American painter Barnett Newman in 1967. It consists of three equally sized vertical stripes, with the outer two painted blue and the centre painted red.

The purchase of Voice of Fire by the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa for its permanent collection in 1989 at a cost of $1.8 million caused a storm of controversy. Some residents mocked the purchase with striped T-shirts and ties that mimicked the painting. A book called Voices of Fire: Art Rage, Power, and the State, edited by Bruce Barber, Serge Guilbaut and John O’Brian, and published in 1996, discusses the issues around the purchase of the painting.

Commissioned for Expo 67, the International and Universal Exposition that took place in Montreal during Canada’s 1967 centennial, Voice of Fire was part of the US pavilion organized by art critic and historian Alan Solomon. The exhibition, American Painting Now featured the work of twenty-two artists installed in the US Pavilion a geodesic dome designed by engineer Buckminster Fuller. Explicitly oriented to Solomon’s directions, Voice of Fire’s 18 foot length was vertical to echo the size of the dome. This was the first time Newman worked on this scale in a vertical format. The paintings were displayed along other symbols of American progress, an Apollo space capsule and red-and-white striped Apollo parachutes, photographs of the moon and large-scale photographs of movie stars.

In the spring of 1987, Brydon Smith, then assistant director of the National Gallery of Canada contacted Newman’s widow Annalee to ask if she would consider lending it to the gallery for a temporary exhibition the following year to coincide with the completion of a new museum building.


In May 1988 Voice of Fire was installed in the newly constructed National Gallery of Canada with little media attention or controversy. It was displayed in a large, high-ceiling space, with only a few other works by American artists Milton Resnick, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Tony Smith. In this display of post-war US art, Voice of Fire “was given pride of place” as the centrepiece. In March 1990, the National Gallery announced its purchase of the painting for $1.8 million, which ignited a “firestorm” of media attention and controversy in Ottawa mostly around the question of if the work was worthy of being called art.

Other artists in their time like Auguste Rodin and Claude Monet had to fight to become established and to shut the Critics up. When Rodin produced his first sculpture The Age of Bronze, Critics attacked him saying that it was impossible for Rodin to have made that sculpture, it was, they said, nothing more than a plaster cast made from the body of the male model, Rodin was a fraud according to them. The model was a young Belgian Soldier and Rodin had made sketches prior to doing his sculpture, his problem with the Critics was based on the fact that he was departing from established academic school of sculpture. Rodin was able to show that it was a true sculpture and this launch his career, he is regarded today as the Father of Modern Sculpture.


The vanquished or the Age of Bronze

Monet had the same problem by presenting a new way of painting, Impressionism. It took him years to become established and accepted. Years of great difficulty, he could not sell his art work, no one would buy them, it was considered bad art. Lucky for Claude Monet he had friends like Edouard Manet who having studied with Thomas Couture was able to introduce Monet to the Salon and finally prominent French Politicians started to show interest in him and he was accepted.

It is to my mind a continuous battle for artists to push society out of its comfortable way of thinking. Think of the 1200 artists, many great names of the XXth century who with the rise of the Nazi Dictatorship in Germany found themselves on the list of Degenerate Artists whose works were confiscated or destroyed.

So in my presentations I try to introduce certain ideas and concepts, to let people think about what they are looking at and maybe gain a new appreciation for the artist and the work they are looking at. I honestly believe that art is a wonderful way for people to understand where they are now and what happened before. You can gain so much from looking at Art and trying to understand the world. I always say to visitors, look at the colours and the forms for abstract art, look for the emotions it evokes in you. For other art such as portraits, the eyes, the faces, the hands, it will help you understand if the painter is presenting a moral lesson or being a Society artist flattering his clients. In landscapes look at the sky, the composition and the play on light. It will help you understand the message of the artist.

Here is a video made by the BBC in 1992 with Sister Wendy Beckett. Who is an Art Historian. The Nun who knows about art.  Sister Wendy said; If you do not know about God, art is the only thing that can set you free.


She is also a great friend of Chef Delia Smith. I love the BBC World Service and BBC 4 they have such great programming, like the one by our dear friend David Nice on Art Desk. You can find on You Tube more about program recorded for the BBC on Art by Sister Wendy. It is delightful.

This second video is very interesting in how she interprets the paintings she is showing  you.