Written by Alice McMurtry
The Toronto Reference Library’s latest exhibition Retro Futures, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, captures the imagination in its exploration of science fiction and visions of the future.
The exhibition draws on the Library’s significant Merrill collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy; a treasure trove for any sci-fi fan, the collection boasts 72,000 objects, from pulp magazines to works by Ray Bradbury, Jules Verne, and others.
Themed around the subjects of futuristic travel, habitat, and communication. Retro Futures takes a deep dive into what science fiction authors and artists of the 1950s and 60s envisioned for the future. These predictions and visions range from the whimsically far-fetched to the eerily accurate. People in the early 21st century, would, for example, be able to communicate with denizens of the deep in the oceans. Flying buzzsaws would make for extremely efficient war machines, chopping fighter planes neatly in two. Whole cities would emerge inside spherical space stations on the Moon. Perhaps you would be able to listen to the radio and watch television with your watch? If you wanted to communicate with loved ones, you might be able to do it through the use of giant screens.
Although the exhibition celebrates these futuristic visions and their accompanying optimism, it also delves into the anxieties that gripped artists and authors in the 1950s and 1960s. A small section devoted to robotics explores the unsettling possibility of AI turning against us. The artwork on the pulp magazine covers is striking, capturing a still commonly-felt anxiety about technology getting away from us. To add to this atmosphere of fear and wonder, a recording of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra plays on a loop during the exhibition, a nod to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The exhibition wraps up with a retrospective on Apollo 11, showcasing newspaper headlines from around the world, memorabilia, and photographs capturing the historic event.
Retro Futures shines a spotlight on an important historical moment, one of great discovery and leaps being taken in the scientific field, but also one of uncertainty about the future. The imaginative force behind speculative fiction is powerful, and Retro Futures pays tribute to that, prompting the visitor to ask: what is possible? There have been many great leaps and bounds made recently in the scientific community, from AI to smart technology, and Retro Futures captures the drive of those who have created some of the globe's most innovative technology.
What may be surprising to casual readers is that many well-known speculative fiction authors got their start in pulp magazines of the mid-twentieth century. The pulps, so called because they were printed cheaply on acid-treated wood pulp paper, made speculative fiction accessible to the general public. Authors that wrote for the pulps include some of speculative fiction’s best-loved names, including Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov.
Speaking with Wendy McPhee, the curator at the TRL, she hopes that visitors come away with a better sense of the library’s unique special collections. The Merril Collection, in particular, is recognized as the preeminent speculative fiction collection in Canada. The neat thing about the Merril Collection is that it is accessible to the public at the library’s Lillian H. Smith branch; visitors are welcome to peruse books in the special collection in one of the library’s reading rooms.
The exhibition Retro Futures is on at the Toronto Reference Library until July 28th in their TD Gallery. Free tours of the exhibition with a library docent run every Tuesday at 2 pm.
By Evan McMurtry
Along unassuming corridors and tucked away from the big-name paintings at the AGO, this past summer the gallery mounted an exhibition of prints, drawings, and sculptures titled Käthe Kollwitz: Art and Life. It demonstrated the power of art to be humane and political, while retaining its beauty and dignity.
One of three exhibitions on Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) that celebrate a major donation of the artist's works by Dr. Brian McCrindle, the second exhibition Käthe Kollwitz: Voice of the People is now on view until March 3, 2019. After viewing the first exhibition, I highly anticipate the next two installments.
The exhibition situated Kollwitz art in its context, as a German artist whose life straddled the two world wars, though without going into encyclopedic detail. As the panels pointed out, Kollwitz began her career in the realist tradition: her husband, a doctor, treated the poor while practicing in Berlin, giving her proximity to working class women whom she depicted with sympathy and compassion. Viewers can appreciate her mastery of print media, especially lithography and drypoint.
Kollwitz's son, Peter, died fighting in World War I, after which she was saddled with depression -impacting both her art and her career - which was addressed in the exhibition. At that point her art began to grapple with broader themes, making much use of allegory to personify death in particular. In one print, death is portrayed fighting with a mother over her dead child, however, in another death is also acknowledged as a friend. This -although remote from modern sensibilities- was not far from her reality. Another panel related her imagery to German dance of death woodcuts of the Renaissance. Allegory as a visual device is particularly suited to spotlighting humanity and its failings.
With the rise of National Socialism, as early as 1932 Kollwitz had signed the dringender appell, in which the country's leading thinkers (including Albert Einstein) called for the defeat of the National Socialist party in the 1932 German federal election. She was blacklisted by the Nazi regime for being a pacifist and for embracing German Expressionism -what they termed 'degenerate' art- though still allowed to practice her art.
The entire Nazi administration was bent on a crazed crusade of 'purification' against Expressionist art of the Weimar Republic (which they termed 'unfinished' and 'leftist') and against Jewish artists, which was a precursor to the horrors of the Holocaust. Much of the art was purged from German galleries - it went as far as burning large quantities of paintings and other works in Berlin on March 20, 1939, under orders from Joseph Goebbels. Jewish dealers were forced to sell off their collections, often to pay exit fees, a fact that has been demonstrated by the continuing restitution of Nazi plunder to its rightful heirs. Meanwhile, Hitler had his own favoured artists and his cronies had been hoarding looted Renaissance works for his planned galleries in Linz. (This is documented in The Rape of Europa : The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War by Lynn H. Nicolas).
Unfortunately, Kollwitz did not live to see the war end: her house in Berlin was bombed with the loss of much of her art and then she became a guest of Print Ernst Heinrich of Saxony at Moritzburg, near Dresden. He was an opponent of the Nazis and was an admirer of Kollwitz.
Several monographs have been recently published on Kollwitz and we can look forward to more inclusion of female artists at major institutions like the AGO and on the art market.
Kollwitzs' art could be called anti-propaganda; it is about humanity being trampled by tyranny. I noticed a surprising number of people visiting the show and spending a lengthy amount of time viewing the art works. Perhaps this is a reflection of our current times.
written by Evan McMurtry
Imagine, if you will, being a visitor to the Roman forum in the sixteenth-century, bearing in mind all of the ancient literature that formed the European cultural inheritance. What would inspire awe were half-buried, pastoral Roman ruins in a largely rural setting; few of Rome's noble palaces, exuberant churches, and festive squares had yet to be built.
The task of a modern museum professional and that of a tourist - Alice and I have been to Italy recently - is to imagine the city and its ruins not just from one's own perspective, but from that of past eras. Only then will they no longer seem to be a natural and harmonious part of their environment, but instead changing along with evolving urban, national and aesthetic visions.
For example, the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda exists today an ancient and modern pastiche, incorporating a second-century temple dedicated to an emperor's wife, a baroque church designed by Orazio Torriani, and, since 1429, part of a college of pharmacy, which maintains a museum and archives in the adjoining buildings.
Interestingly, in 1536 the previous church had had its chapels and other features removed to highlight the original temple. This was done because of a visit of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who apparently had an antiquarian streak. The wider context of the forum is made clearer in this illustration from 1580 (see below).
The present church was built between 1601 and 1607. It is decidedly understated, which is understandable due to the surrounding temple, and likely took inspiration from the emerging Jesuit style of architecture, which merged practicality and beauty in churches like Il Gesu.
An apse was never built onto the church, as one would not fit within the columns of the original temple.
In an index to a printed panorama of Rome, published by Giuseppe Vasi in 1765, the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda was put in the context of the Forum's architecture, both extant and demolished:
"In the marvellous columns of the temple of Antonino and of Faustina, his wife, that are in this church, which after was a college, in the year 1430 it was Martin V who conceded it to the College of the Speziali who sent their young men, and you can admire between the other paintings, that are in the church, the levite painted by Pietro da Cortona... " [author's translation]
Vasi continues to describe ancient features nearby, "Before this church was the Arch of Fabius the Censor, after which the famous Via Sacra continued on a direct line to end at the Colosseum. She had such a name, because in effect Romulus and Titus Tatius, King of the Sabines, gave each other the seat of friendship. Next to it..."
Vasi knew of the Arch of Fabius through ancient inscriptions that were found in 1540 and 1543 (though later lost), and/or through several references in the works of Cicero (A New Topological Dictionary of Ancient Rome p. 154).
Overall, the task of Torriani was to balance tradition and innovation, which is achieved with dramatic effect in San Lorenzo in Miranda. Moreover, he needed to enhance the aesthetic vision of his patron, whether it be a antique Arcadian landscape or an urban space devoted to pilgrimage and festivities.
Next time you visit some far-flung destination, be aware of the historical mosaic that our present culture is built on.
written by Evan McMurtry
Let's face it, when confronted with Baroque art at any art gallery it can be daunting. What am I supposed to draw from this style of art? Not to mention the fact that museum labels only give select facts about a work of art. The reality from a historical point of view is that an art gallery can only give us fragmentary glimpses of the past.
The question, 'What is baroque art?', or better stated, 'What makes baroque art different from other periods and movements?' has several stock answers.
Firstly, it is art in the service of power. This answer goes that the early seventeenth century was fraught, politically and militarily, with the Thirty Years War and democratic inklings in many regions of Europe. As a response, many patrons sought to bolster their claims to power. In short, it was the birth of artistic propaganda.
Secondly, it is art as theatre. This answer goes that artists now highlighted the dramatic moments in a patron's career, all leading to the apotheosis of said patron. In addition, the art is now set in a mis-en-scene, that is stage like in order to present the drama clearly.
I would take this one step further: modern theatre has the concept of a 'fourth wall', in which the spectator's suspension of disbelief is maintained by a wall between the stage and spectator that is never breached. The exception would be comedy and pantomime, which feel free to break the fourth wall: think of Monty Python's Flying Circus referencing the viewer or the production qualities.
This brings us to Rome, Italy, where the 'fourth wall' is constantly breached, with pilgrims and worshipers being drawn in, during any Jubilee Year by the hundreds of thousands. In addition, it was a site of ceremony, grand banquets, and ritual for visiting diplomats and ambassadors from all over Europe, which occurred during the cataclysms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Moreover, in the seventeenth-century it was the entire city of Rome - not merely the Vatican - as it was the era before most of Rome was annexed by the Italian Republic.
So, Rome wasn't a few paintings in a gallery, but a myriad of sculptors, masons, chefs, among others, all building a magnificent edifice in the heart of Christendom, all under the guidance of learned patrons and intellectuals.
Rome had been remade as a theatre by successive popes since the fifteenth-century, however, according to scholars this process accelerated during the Thirty Years War when the city became a hub of diplomacy. According to historian Mario Rosa (Court and Politics in Papal Rome: 1492-1700 eds. Signorotto and Visceglia), in the Rome of Pope Gregory XV (pictured below in a bust in the AGO collection from 1621) learned societies flourished under the patronage of cardinals, such as the Accademia dei Virtuosi, in which men of letters met to debate the new philosophy of governance of the day, the so-called Reason of State. As it was seen as a potential justification for aristocratic tyranny, they sought to temper this with guidance from Scripture.
For instance, one official argued that the example of King David could invoke vengeance upon a subject under certain conditions, which in turn was denounced by Agostino Mascardi as '''the vainest of conceits' to express 'paradoxes representing a danger to morals'" (84) during an address to the Accademia dei Desiosi. It was through conversations with such learned men that a cardinal or prelate would possess modesty, affability, courtesy, and concern for the poor, according to Gregory XV (96). His nephew, Cardinal Ludovisi, became a patron of artists, most famously Guercino, who painting his Chariot of Aurora on the ceiling of Villa Ludovisi.
Gregory XV's papacy was shortlived, to be succeeded by Urban VIII. A noted poet, canon lawyer, a major patron of artistic projects throughout Rome (see image (left) of Bernini's portrait, which recently was lent temporarily to the AGO from the National Gallery of Canada).
Peter Rietbergen (in Power and Religion in Baroque Rome: Barberini Cultural Policies) describes how Rome was lit up with fireworks upon the occasion of election of a new emperor, paraphrasing the chronicler Giacinto Gigli: "a huge "theatre" had been constructed outside the Cardinal's dwelling... surrounded by an arcade of 40 arches, each crowned with a short inscription extolling Ferdinand's many virtues; odoriferous water sprouted from fountains on the piazza within this arcade. The first of February a banquet was offered to members of the Sacred College, and to the resident ambassadors, while the people were given free wine. The imperial ambassador acted likewise, with fireworks and other festivities" (183-184).
Ultimately, these diplomatic efforts dragged on and on as the Thirty Years War was fought up until 1648 to a stalemate, and France emerged as the strongest Continental power under Louis XIV.
However, this did not put a damper on the renewal of the Rome as the world's theatre, especially under Alexander VII (see preparatory drawing below by Pietro da Cortona for a painting that Alexander commissioned on the occasion of da Cortona's papal knighthood. For another later study see also https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/search#/8/collection/904519/the-guardian-angel). Piazza Del Popolo, the Scala Regia, Sant'Andrea al Quirinale, and St. Peter's Square were all completed under his tenure. By the end of the seventeenth-century Rome was completed in its intended form, only to be partly annexed by the new Italian Republic in 1870 during the unification of Italy.
So, whereas Rome had been mostly cow pasture during the Middle Ages, sparsely populated and in ruins, successive patrons seized the opportunity to renew the urban fabric as a theatre of the world.
written by Alice McMurtry
What is intangible cultural heritage? Intangible cultural heritage encompasses the expressions, oral traditions, social practices and rituals, and traditional craftsmanship of particular cultural groups. How do we begin to preserve these traditions, and how can they be incorporated into more standard ideas of heritage preservation and conservation? We have innumerable policies regarding conservation of artifacts and historic buildings, but intangible heritage is just as important because it is living history. UNESCO drafted a treaty, the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003, but it is necessary to continue to dialogue about this aspect of our shared history. .
As stewards of Ontario’s cultural heritage, the Ontario Heritage Trust hosts many cultural events throughout the year. Next week, on November 22nd, join the Trust in a dialogue on intangible cultural heritage, with an engaging symposium held at Wychwood Barns. Gathering professionals, practitioners, and performers together with panel discussions, skilled trades demonstrations, and a variety of performances, this is an event not to be missed. Here, you will be able to listen to lively dialogues on intangible heritage in the digital age, the transfer of intangible heritage between generations, and the dynamics of cross cultural exchange. Listen to a performance by renowned musician Nick Sherman (www.nicksherman.ca/), and participate in an interactive story-performance with poet Nadine Williams (http://www.nadinewilliams.ca/).
The event will run on November 22nd, from 9.30 AM to 4.30 PM. Tickets are $30 for students, and $50 for general admission. Lunch and refreshments are provided throughout the day. Please see the OHT’s website at www.heritagetrust.on.ca/en/index.php/calendar?e=15286&d= to learn more about the event and to register.
An engaging lecture by Wade Davis, noted scholar and cultural historian, continues the conversation on intangible heritage on December 7th at Isabel Bader Theatre. Tickets are available at the OHT’s website (see the link above).
By opening up a conversation on intangible cultural heritage, we allow for the sharing of stories and experiences between diverse communities, ultimately enriching us and preserving traditions for the future.
All photos copyright the Ontario Heritage Trust and other owners.
By Evan McMurtry
Having worked at Burwick House at Black Creek Pioneer Village, interpreting the upper middle-class mansion to visitors, I remember telling some bewildered visitors that the red dye used in fabrics and in paintings came from ground up beetles, called cochineal. While visitors would often recoil in disbelief, they would be further astonished to hear that cochineal is today being used as a colouring in food, because it does not contain harmful toxins as synthetic red colourings.
This anecdote illustrates that what is old is new again and indeed the use of natural dyes has made a comeback in recent years. This is welcome for many reasons. Firstly, the environmental impact of natural dyes is far less profound and, secondly, materials can be locally sourced, which makes them more responsive to their environment and easier to access. Furthermore, while synthetic dyes do not lack vibrancy, or style, or novelty, it’s simply that they’re too easy from an artistic standpoint: add the chemicals to whatever you’re working on and it’s done. With natural dyes, a skilled artisan can experiment, sense, and ultimately master the properties of the artform. This, to many people, lies at the heart of artistic expression.
Proof of the comeback of natural dyes is now evident at a show at Craft Ontario. Titled Chromatic Geography: Natural Dyes in the 21st Century, it features 14 craftspeople and studios that are exhibiting various textiles and works on paper. Overall, the show is informative, well-presented, and inspiring to people who are interested not only in material history, but also in the present and future of craft.
In the textile work of Mackenzie Kelly-Frere, Codex 5, earth-tones are not avoided at all cost, rather, according to her statement: “Plant sourced colour has an analogous connection to landscape and the natural world.” Kelly-Frere continues that sources of inspiration include, “sun bleached straw in wind swept snow and faded red barns”, as her ‘phenomenology of colour’ is present in memories of the prairies. Another work, Ocean Rug, by the MATSON + PALMER duo Jane Palmer and Christy Matson, is heavily saturated with plant-based indigo.
What fascinated me the most, however, was the work of Jason Logan under the name Toronto Ink Co. His Ink Tests, as the title suggests, are swabs of various colours mixed together on paper, which show the main d’artiste in the production of his dyes.
Overall, while not an expansive show, Chromatic Geography is well worth the visit to Craft Ontario’s headquarters on Queen Street West, not only for the quality of the exhibition, but there is also a very nice gift shop and helpful people on hand to answer any questions
The exhibition runs until Saturday, August 26th. Craft Ontario is located in the Queen West neighbourhood at 1106 Queen Street West. Their gallery and store hours Monday, 11am-6pm, Tuesday to Wednesday 10am-6pm, Thursday to Saturday 10am-7pm, and Sunday 11am-5pm.
Photographs courtesy Craft Ontario and Alice McClintock -
written by Alice McClintock
A note from the authors: after a bit of a hiatus, we are back! Stay tuned for more regularly scheduled postings.
Marriage is a journey. Those of us who are getting married or have been married for a time hear this statement a lot. It is the actual wedding day, however, that has become a splashy affair; the average couple in the States spends about $30,000 for the occasion.
In the lakeside town of Cobourg, the exhibition Betrothed, mounted by the Art Gallery of Northumberland in partnership with Stephen Bulger, showcases a myriad of photographs capturing weddings in all of their festiveness and solemnity.
Spanning almost a century of photographs; from nineteenth century tintypes and daguerreotypes to the celebrity weddings of Elizabeth Taylor, Mick Jagger, and Marilyn Monroe, Bulger’s is an impressive collection. The original intent behind the collection was to document the evolution of photographic technology: in 1830s and 1840s daguerreotypes were gradually replaced by cheaper alternatives; the ambrotype and the tintype, to the silver gelatin photographs of the twentieth century. Offering a wide dearth of material, there are around 500 photographs amassed in this collection.
The Art Gallery of Northumberland has taken a measured approached to the layout of the exhibition, especially in its interpretive simplicity. Rather than overwhelming the viewer with lengthy text panels, each gallery wall is given a theme, be it pre-ceremony photographs, images devoted to the ceremony, reception images, and celebrity weddings, among others. The photographs remain the main focus.
Perhaps the most intriguing are the images of anonymous couples, as they leave viewers with so many open-ended questions about the circumstance surrounding these unions. I was caught wondering what sorts of stories lay behind these photographs. It is not only Western wedding traditions that are documented; there are several photographs from various countries in Asia and Africa, many of them using early technology, that give us a glimpse into different traditions from around the world.
The AGN suggests, too, that such an exhibition tackles the popular argument of whether or not the medium of photography can be considered high art, since it has been used commercially for much of its existence. The contrast between the daguerreotypes of the early nineteenth century and the shots of celebrity weddings is decidedly marked, leaving the viewers to ponder the validity of such an argument.
Off in a small side gallery, the Paul Kane Gallery, there is an unrelated exhibition of historical photographs of Cobourg, on loan from the Northumberland County Archives. Highlighted are the business interiors in the early 1900s, offering us a glimpse of the historic town of Cobourg.
Betrothed is a must-see treat if you are venturing east of the city. The gallery is open from Wednesday to Friday from 10-4, and Saturday and Sunday from 12-4, and is located in historic Victoria Hall, on King Street. The exhibition runs until June 18th.
Images are courtesy of the Art Gallery of Northumberland and the authors.
Written by Alice McClintock and Evan McMurtry
A few weeks ago, we had the great pleasure of heading out to a hidden gem of a museum in Oakville. Howard Iron Works is an expansive printing museum, with a myriad of artifacts and pieces all related to the history of printing. Howard Iron Works is primarily a business for offset printing equipment, but husband-and-wife owners Nick and Liana Howard are devoted to restoring and preserving printing presses from the nineteenth century up until the mid-twentieth century. We had a conversation with both Nick and Liana, who spoke about the difficulty of salvaging these presses and artifacts, and the fact that they take great pride in preserving these pieces of technology.
In our conversation together, Nick and Liana said that they often rescue presses from old factories, garages, and the like, Liana emphatically stating: “sometimes the cast iron was rusted, sometimes we found mold growing in certain places”. What happens is a real labour of love; the presses are cleaned, polished, and sometimes repainted according to specifications from the time. While some historians disagree with this treatment of the presses, preferring to leave the ‘patina of history’ intact, Nick in particular said that he wanted to emphasize the quality of the machines as they were when they were being used on a daily basis.
The museum is still in its early stages; in an email correspondence prior to our visit, Nick said that the museum was always in a state of flux, and agreed that any museum is a work in progress. Ultimately, what the Howards hope is to get their private museum fully off the ground, with experienced interpreters demonstrating on the equipment, and a more complete showroom. They’re not far off from their goal, having an impressive showroom of around one hundred presses and other artifacts.
What struck both of us is that the museum follows a relatively uncommon governance model, being a privately owned and operated enterprise. The Howards agreed that a positive of such a model is less red tape and less time spent writing grant applications. There are no strings attached to grant money, such as is the case with Community Museum Operating Grant funding requiring museums to have various collections management policies in place. Not having a de-accession policy that bans selling items from the collection, for instance, means that Howard Iron Works can and does sell its restored presses to clients in the U.S. and elsewhere. The Howards expressed a concern, however, that after they are gone there will be no one to carry forward their work and maintain the collection, since they are the sole driving force behind the museum.
Rather than leave the accumulated wear-and-tear of the centuries present on the presses, the Howards work with a skilled team to restore the presses to their original lustre, including gold leaf details and bright paint. We found this an interesting approach, prompting the question of what is more historically accurate; the dirt and grime of years of neglect or a showroom quality press as it was meant to be seen and used in the nineteenth century? As museum-goers, do we look for the patina of history on each artifact, or do we appreciate the beauty of a fully restored object? Which, if either, is more authentic?
Regardless of questions of historical subjectivity and the “patina of history”, what really comes across at the Howard Iron Works is Nick and Liana’s sense of pride in their work, and a sensibility that chronicling printing history is much more than documenting a series of technological advances. One aspect of the museum that appealed to both of us was the inclusion of group photographs of members of the Typographical Unions; seeing images of those who regularly worked with the equipment displayed brought an important human element to the fore.
Howard Iron Works follows the trajectory of one of the most complex and absorbing parts of human history, with a rich, wonderfully restored collection.
The Howards are always happy to receive visitors who have an interest in the printing industry. Their impressive collection is located in Oakville, a few blocks from the Bronte GO station, and is free admission. The museum is currently open by appointment only, from 10 AM to 4 PM, Monday to Friday. You can learn more about the collection and the museum at www.howardironworks.org.
All photographs property of Howard Iron Works.