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Mystical Landscapes

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The Sun by Munch The Sun by Munch

“Mysticism will always be with us,” declared Edvard Munch whose large canvas The Sun (1910-1913) dominates an entire wall in an exhibit currently on show at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It was created to inspire students in the wake of his nervous breakdown.


The title of the exhibit is Mystical Landscapes which immediately prompts the question as to what mysticism is. For this I turn to remarks by the English metaphysician Thomas Whittaker, who wrote this in 1934 about the great philosopher Spinoza.


“It has been disputed whether Spinoza himself was a mystic. If the state of the mystic is a peculiar experience attained by shutting off all grades of articulate knowledge, he was not a mystic; for the highest grade of insight includes a kind of knowledge.” Anyone who approaches this exhibit with what Whittaker called “definite thought” will derive the 'kind of knowledge' intended by the AGO curator of the exhibit, Katherine Lochnan.


While many will argue at the degree of mysticism inherent in any particular canvas, each one deserves a careful look. That is not always easy as relatively small paintings in subdued colours are sometimes juxtaposed with larger ones that are bursting with colour.


A case in point comes at the very beginning on the show, which comprises several large rooms showcasing 37 artists, often with two or more paintings from each. Try to block out Farewell to Gauguin by Paul Serusier from 1906, that sits just below Breton Landscape by the obscure Danish artist Mogens Ballin (1871-1941). It consists of various shades of dark green, very dark blue and black, with a startling golden yellow sky. All evocative of a mystical landscape.


Trees figure prominently in the exhibit. A message on the wall in the first room tells us that “trees are painted in symbolic colours” without explaining what that means. It can mean different things at different times, with blue for serenity and yellow for intelligence being two that seem to be widely employed. Look at Woman Asleep in the Enchanted Forest by Maurice Denis in 1892. It is very Arthurian, with a white horse and figure of a man in the background. Denis was attracted to ancient Celtic Christian traditions of Brittany, and the viewer has a unique opportunity of seeing this as six canvases in both private and public collections are here.


Poplars by MonetPoplars by MonetMore trees are evident in Poplars by Monet, and Blue Trees by Gauguin. They should have been hung side by side. Both feature tall narrow trees with curves in their trunks, not too far above ground level. The ones by Monet are yellow and brilliantly lit. A critic at the time (1891) saw them as “a modern temple of the sun.” The Gauguin canvas is from a gallery in Copenhagen, the Monet is on loan from Philadelphia.


A show stopper is a selection of four paintings by the gay artist Eugene Jannson. His use of curvilinear clouds in his Stockholm landscape paintings of 1898 and 1899 is quite hypnotic. The paintings are large blue canvasses with whorls of bright, white light cast by gaslights. Commentary with the exhibit says they represent a “mythical quest for a truth beyond experiences.” A third canvas, Hornsgatan, also features gaslights, but this time in rows. The fourth is, in my opinion, the best. It is Evening Mood Lidingo of 1900, on loan from Cleveland.


Done largely in green and brown with a resplendant reddish sky glow that again allows him to express the curvilinear shpae of clouds. The canvas is dominated by billowing trees that resemble a dust storm. Venus is in the sky at left.


Some paintings on show generate a visceral reaction. I heard one young woman say to her friend, “it's too dark, let's go back to the Monets!” She was looking at the deeply disturbing The Pool of Blood by de Nuncques.


The 1958 painting Jotunheim by Jens Willumsen, on loan from a Danish museum, sports the most extraordinary frame I have seen. It looks to be inspired by Gauguin, with figures of people and foliage. Mountains surmounting it continue upwards the peaks in the wooden canvas.


I found Cosmos by Marsden Hartley to be a weak entry in the collection, just a mountain covered in bright foliage with 4 white clouds above. A far better choice is in the AGO collection: an untitled mountain landscape by Lauren Harris that shows rays of light and knowledge descending onto a fabulous peak.


But the exhibit does end on a high note with Crystal Castle at Sea by Wenzel Hablik, on loan from Prague. Done at the beginning of World War I in 1914, it conveys his vision of a post-war utopia through the prism of a crystal castle.


A great and thought-provoking exhibit! Go see it before it ends Jan. 29, 2017.


Photo credits: The Sun by Munch: The Oslo University, Oslo, Norway

Poplars (Autumn) by Monet: Philadelphia Museum of Art











Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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