Friday, August 28, 2015

AGO: Picturing the Americas. Thursday, August 27 2015

Postcard (1928) by Tarsila do Amaral 
Picturing the Americas, the current main exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), is a fascinating event. The paintings are from the early 1800s to the early 1900s. They depict North and South America from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego off the southern tip of South America.

As a historical record of how the Europeans viewed the New World, it is revealing. The artists were depicting the magnificence of nature in the raw, as it was at that time, including details of the flora and fauna.

Some of the paintings include the earlier peoples, the equivalent of the North American First Peoples. Others show the gauchos of South America, who correspond to the cowboys of North America. Some have pictures of the black slaves who had been imported from West Africa when it was found that the local people wouldn't do the heavy work necessary on the sugar plantations of Brazil. These plantations were based on those of Spain and Portugal, on the Mediterranean. Sugar is still a huge contributor to the Brazilian economy, with well-paid workers.

The narrative on the walls of the Exhibition suggests that many of the pictures were painted to attract Europeans to help open up and develop what was seen as untouched land. The viewpoint of many of the previous inhabitants of the land was also mentioned. To them, the paintings show the European attitude of dominance, and lack of understanding for the first people there. What was seen as empty land, was, in the eyes of those first people, their land which was being taken over by white people from a different world. Unfortunately for them, they didn't have the weapons necessary to protect it.

Perhaps some ancestors of those first peoples are pleased that the Europeans came and rescued them from a more difficult lifestyle. I know that, as a Scot, I am glad my ancestors chose to join with the English rather than continue to fight them off. Scotland benefitted economically as a result.

Black Mesa Landscape (New Mexico 1930) Georgia O'Keeffe
Georgia O'Keeffe is present in the Exhibition. Her Black Mesa Landscape (New Mexico 1930) hints at the huge contribution she made to American Modernism.

Lauren Harris, Tom Thomson, Emily Carr, are all represented as painters of the early 1900s. How different is their work from that of those painters of the 1800s. The contrast comes as almost a shock. They were seeking to depict the inner spirit of the land, not simply show it realistically.

Some of the later paintings contain trains. It is said that these were commissioned by the railroads as advertisement for the thrill of travelling by train to see the natural beauty of wild nature.

This Exhibition is well worth seeing. I enjoyed it for the paintings themselves, as works of art, but I also enjoyed it for the depth of history it demonstrates.

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