“The Art World in Montreal, 1960-1980”
McCord Museum, Montreal
December 7, 2017, to April 29, 2018
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, MAR. 2018
You could not ask for a more compelling immersion in the Montreal artworld (albeit yesterday’s) than through the splendid images in this exhibition. Gabor Szilasi has been a critical voice in straight photography in Canada for over 50 years. This exhibition of 43 black and white photographs from his personal archive is a must-see. Approximately 40 of them have never been published and were printed especially for this occasion.
Szilasi, who was born in Hungary in 1928 and immigrated to Canada in 1957, began to photograph the many art openings that he and his lifelong companion, artist Doreen Lindsay (who he met at a vernissage of Nancy Petry in 1961) regularly attended almost from the moment he arrived. Over the next few decades, he produced an extensive photographic record of the men and women who made up Montreal’s visual arts community. Many of them now figure prominently in the textbooks and are recognized as revolutionary figures in Canadian art history.
It should be noted that Szilasi has long been recognized as being one of this country's best-known and most respected living photographers, and the subject of many exhibitions and books on his wider corpus. But the unusual and thematic reportage aspect of his work we see here (apparently not limited to the decades in question but extending considerably after, if perhaps less expansively) has been neglected and is deserving of the most careful critical scrutiny.
The photographs capture a significant artworld in its glorious heyday. But, more importantly, they are further distinguished by the photographer’s unique vision, his innate curiosity – and, well, his humanity. Szilasi is an aficionado of the human face. His casual authority behind the viewfinder is predicated upon an optic possessing the uncanny ability to capture the essence of things seen. He identifies and seizes upon what is specifically interesting to him with rare candour. He seeks out expressions, gestures, constellations of conversing figures, the whole dialogical business of what art openings are all about: venues less for looking hard at art than welcome opportunities for socializing with and celebrating the artists and their circles. Here are community get-togethers for workers in the culture industry replete with the wannabees, hangers-on and devotees.
Taken at vernissages and other artistic events held in Montreal between 1960 and 1980, the images are presented here in chronological order. The timeline is intrinsically interesting: here was an art scene unfolding in Quebec at a time of great creative ferment and sociocultural upheaval. Specifically interesting is the perceived evolution of cultural and personal styles from the 1960s through the 1970s. From the unfettered Hippie era through to something more restrained (resigned or cynical?), the images record tantalising networking strategies frozen amidst a flurry of temporal shifts.
We see visitors to the Paul Emile Borduas exhibition, founder of the Automatiste movement and author of the legendary Refus Global manifesto. As well, there is the painter Guido Molinari, founder of l’Actuelle (Canada’s first gallery dedicated to abstract art in conversation with the artist Irene Whittome at the opening of her exhibition at the Galerie Martal in October of 1973.
There is a lovely photograph of Leonard Cohen playing harmonica at his friend Morton Rosengarten’s 1966 vernissage (that is also the first image we see in the current Cohen show at the MAC, also covered in these pages). Arthur Lismer, a painter, teacher and member of the Group of Seven, is photographed at his own opening in 1963 at the Agnès Lefort Gallery.
We see painting luminaries Charles Gagnon, Yves Gaucher, Jean McEwen and that young maverick Marion Wagschal (her slipping out of a crowd at Vehicule in 1972). A huge shaped abstract by Claude Tousignant is backdrop to sundry attendees at the opening of his exhibition at the Galerie Sherbrooke in May, 1969, And Molinari is caught chatting up Judith Terry, Rita Letendre explains one of her works at the opening of her exhibition at the Galerie Gilles Corbeil in the November of 1980 and there so many others that pique our curiousity.
The exhibition is but the tip of the iceberg of an expansive archive consisting of over a hundred rolls of film, or approximately 3,600 negatives. Equipped with his trademark Leica rangefinder camera, this analogue photographer shot, printed and archived the images. Contact sheets are included as well as items like his Leica M4 (a glorious artefact this, and in what seems remarkably good repair) and 35 mm Summicron lens, his negatives and notebooks.
Curated with great sensitivity and brio by photographic historian Zoe Tousignant (the daughter of the eminent abstractionist Claude and his partner the noted translator Judith Terry, and sister of the ubiquitous cultural critic Isa, all of whom appear in a number of the images in the archive), this exhibition was both eye-opener and seductive entrée to seasons in the life of the Montreal art world.
Zoe Tousignant wisely chose to embrace the emotional life of the images rather than objectively treat them as cold documents (which would have been, after all, somewhat impracticable and disingenuous, given her familial implication here). She thus makes an elegant pirouette between what must have seemed to her a remarkable find – a family photo album, as it were, that had lain dormant for decades – and the living palimpsest of a wider shared community to which her family is integral. She deserves kudos for unearthing this previously unseen treasure house of images and presenting it in such a captivating light. This show is nothing less than a revelation for art lovers -- and a voyeur’s unlikely delight. WM
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James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.