Walking into the Art Gallery of Ontario last Saturday, I was abuzz with anticipation. The lobby was packed, a winding line of bodies culminating in the shapeless crowd that reached almost all the way to the front doors. Luckily, I had been advised to purchase my ticket ahead of time and so moved forward.
“Are you here for Mystical Landscapes?” a smiling AGO employee asked, seeming to already know my answer. “Right this way, up to the second floor.”
I followed a line of other art enthusiasts up the museum stairs, guided by large signs that directed me toward my destination. For the last few weeks I had been looking forward to coming to the Mystical Landscapes exhibit—the one that boasted, “masterpieces from Monet, van Gogh and more!” on its advertisements. Organized and executed by the AGO and the Musée d’Orsay of Paris, this new collaborative collection was the culmination of 37 different artists across 14 different countries. Each of the works were said to manifest the mystical each artist found in their quest for a new spiritual experience. As a compilation of paintings and paper pieces that rarely, if ever, visited Canada, it felt like a chance of a lifetime to see some of the world’s most famous works by some of the world’s most famous artists.
Armed with my handy audio guide, I wandered the exhibit’s maze of masterpieces. The rooms, dim with deliberate lighting, were simple in layout. The art decorated the walls alongside a simple introduction to the room’s theme, each bleeding seamlessly into the next. Transience, the divide between reality and perception, alienation, the fears of the Great War, and the wonders of the cosmos, all came together to tell the story of the “spiritual crisis” experienced by those living through the 19th and 20th centuries. Amongst the rise of urbanization came the personal disenchantment with organized religion and the rejection of modernity’s looming attendance. These feelings of disillusionment and alienation caused artists to abandon depictions of holy figures and biblical imagery, and instead began the search for meaning and the spirit in the quiet majesty of nature—a search that is portrayed and felt through their rendering of the natural world.
In featuring pieces such as Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone at Arles, Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (Nymphéas), and Edvard Munch’s The Sun, amongst other works by Georgia O’Keefe, Emily Carr, and Paul Gauguin, the exhibit acts not only as a lesson in art history, but also as a hall of fame. Of particular personal interest was the room dedicated to the work of Monet and the spiritual wandering that led him to Buddhism. In a series of paintings hung side-by-side is Monet’s study of the transformative power of time and the transitory nature of life. Through painting the same subject during different times of day or in different seasons, Monet demonstrates the fluidity of being and in so calls into question the existence of permanence. While his famous water lilies are a huge draw for this exhibit, for me, these quiet musings on the evanescent nature of existence held the most intrigue and enlightenment.
An illuminating experience, I emerged from the maze with a sense of calm and a greater appreciation for the works I had known without really knowing. This exhibit will be running at the AGO until January 29th 2017. Tickets are $25 for adults, with a special student price of $16.50. Wednesday nights between 6pm and 9pm, admission is only $12.50! You can purchase your tickets on the AGO website, allowing you to skip the line and evade the crowds. Your spiritual journey awaits.