ART

A visual feast of past and present

RUSSELL KEZIERE April 21 1986
ART

A visual feast of past and present

RUSSELL KEZIERE April 21 1986

A visual feast of past and present

ART

As Expo 86 brings the hordes of tourists to British Columbia, the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) is attempting to lure them away from the fair’s high-tech wonders with two new shows—one of traditional fine art, the other of works by contemporary West Coast artists. On April 6 the gallery launched The Dutch World of Painting, a selection of 100 16thto 19th-century works ranging from Jan Abrahamsz Beerstraten’s detailed view of the Amsterdam town hall to a Vincent Van Gogh portrait of a pipe-smoking peasant. Organized by the Netherlands government Office for Fine Arts and sponsored by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, the opening night was a gala of black ties and plunging necklines, with Princess Margriet of thé Netherlands in attendance.

The next day the VAG celebrated the opening of Making History: Recent Art of Pacific Canada—a showcase for works by 44 B.C. artists.

But the story behind those two glamorous openings is one of turmoil and transition—of a gallery coping with controversial federal funding policies and its own thwarted programs.

The VAG’s original plans for Expo year called for a blockbuster exhibition of contemporary Canadian art. The project’s apparent cost of $240,000 represented more than half the exhibition budget available from the Canada Council at the time. But the gallery pursued its grand scheme, despite the fact that last year the council changed its funding policies, requiring such galleries as the VAG to apply for money on a project basis rather than providing institutional block grants. To gallery officials’ surprise, the council rejected its funding application, along with a flood of other major galleries’ proposals. Throughout 1985 many institutions saw their programming budgets seriously curtailed by the council’s new policy, leading 36 of them to protest by boycotting council funding selection juries. Under pressure, the council set up a task force to study proposals about visual arts funding. Chaired by artist Ken Danby, it will report in September.

Meanwhile, to adapt to its reduced financial circumstances, the VAG

struck an agreement with Expo’s B.C. Pavilion for a share of its exhibition budget. The gallery also took the unusual step of using its own acquisition fund to help mount Making History— buying instead of borrowing most of the works on display. Then, six months ago it began an attempt to organize a second major show, of Dutch art, and

lobbied strenuously for corporate and Dutch government sponsorship.

The Dutch were keen to co-operate. KLM was seeking a high-profile way to advertise its recently obtained landing rights in Vancouver. As well, the Dutch government proposed to promote tourism by building a model in front of the gallery: a scaled-down replica of the Dutch town of Coevorden, home of the Van Coevorden familyancestors of British explorer Capt. George Vancouver. After local protests that the village would be in bad taste, both parties agreed to reduce the village to a single $l-million model of Castle Vancouver, the Van Coevorden ancestral home, to be built across the street from the gallery.

With its carousel and waitresses in wooden clogs, Castle Vancouver is proving at least as popular as The Dutch World of Painting. Indeed, some visitors will be disappointed by the exhibition. It includes only one portrait apiece by Rembrandt and Frans Hals, and in-

stead offers an abundance of group portraits and pastoral landscapes. Rather than showcasing masterpieces, guest curator Gary Schwartz has organized the show around little-known works that illuminate history. The resulting exhibition is ambitious—despite the fact that it was assembled “rather late in the day for a project of this magnitude,” accord-

ing to the catalogue foreword.

The show’s strength lies in the insights it offers into the values of Dutch society. By the 17th century Holland’s rising merchant class was taking a pragmatic view of art. In sharp contrast to the heavily religious preoccupations of baroque Italy, Dutch painting was inspired by the spirit of scientific inquiry. Werner van den Valckert’s The anatomy lecture of Dr Sebastiaan Egbertsz. de Vrij (circa 1560) depicts five sober but pleased medical students examining a skeleton and celebrating their newfound comprehension of the human body.

The early Dutch capitalists also discovered that they could auction art in much the same manner as linen or grain. By turning art into another commodity, they sparked the growth of prolific painting workshops, which mass produced many of the portraits and street scenes in the show. Although such little-known paintings predominate, the show does feature

works with an enduring appeal: Emanuel de Witte’s Interior with a woman playing the clavecin to a man in bed (circa 1660) is a serene image filled with afternoon light playing off mirrors and hallways. It shows a temporary truce in the battle of the sexes: while a maid mops the tiled floor, a woman plays music to a man who rests

sentation and many works that represent the most interesting elements in local art. One is Jeff Wall’s Bad Goods (1984), a mural-sized, backlit color transparency featuring a large photograph of abandoned supermarket crates containing lettuce. A native Canadian looks on from the corner—a commentary on waste and

in bed, his unbuckled sword balanced on the chair beside him.

Such works were created by artists who could paint only through the support of appreciative patrons. That is as much a fact of life in 20th-century Vancouver as it was in 17th-century Holland. The VAG was in a position to become a patron of local art because of its large acquisitions fund: after the profitable 1983 sale of its old headquarters on West Georgia Street, the gallery set aside a sum of $4.3 million as an endowment for acquisitions. The interest generated by that amount, almost $500,000 annually, has given the gallery a secure budget that is the envy of the Canadian museum world.

With the help of the fund, former National Gallery curator and recently appointed VAG chief curator Willard Holmes hasi mounted Making History —and provided major support to the British Columbia art community. Included in the show are many artists who lack commercial gallery repre-

racism in the consumer society. Canada’s foremost champion of Haida culture, William Reid, is also represented in Making History. His polychrome red-cedar floor sculpture Phyllidula—The Shape of Frogs to Come (1985) is an exquisite mythical creature with a distended tongue.

Making History is an inadequate his£ torical survey of con| temporary B.C. art. “ It has had to omit important early I works by such lead8 ing B.C. artists as £ Alan McWilliams £ and Liz Magor beg cause they are alu ready in the hands of eastern collectors—a sign of how weak the VAG’s support for local art has been in the past. Still, the show is an expression of creative vitality. The VAG now faces a double challenge: to find new ways of supporting exhibitions following revisions to the Canada Council’s funding policy—and to continue the all-important work of recording B.C. art history.

— RUSSELL KEZIERE in Vancouver