MNEMOSYNE: When Contemporary Art and the Art of the Past Meet
Until May 20, 2018
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
1380, Sherbrooke Street O, Montreal, QC, H3G 1J5
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, JAN. 2018
Mnemosyne is the muse of memory and recollective appropriation. In ancient Greek mythology, Mnemosyne was celebrated as the goddess of memory and the mother of all the Muses, as well as all art. Here, in Mnemosyne: When Contemporary Art and the Art of the Past Meet, she rules over a lively dialogue between modern and ancient European art and contemporary art from Quebec and Canada.
The exhibition is based on the approach outlined by German art historian Aby Warburg (1866–1929) in the Mnemosyne Atlas. Warburg’s aim was to constitute a compelling narrative of art history through combinatory experiments that would shed light on symbols and atavisms and their interactions. The method he developed is a cartographic ‘thought-space’ that was part memory palace and part Hall of Mirrors, all leading to a syncretic vision of the whole.
We were informed that the contemporary works exhibited in the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion at the MMFA, including installations, sculptures, paintings and photographs by 14 contemporary artists from Quebec and Canada, were each ‘freely associated’ with historical paintings in the Museum’s international art collection presented in the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace. Now, free association has its limits, but its invocation resulted here in some fortuitous and inspired pairings.
While the pairing of Vancouver artist Rebecca Belmore and Jean-Joseph Taillasson (1745–1809) was decidedly a mixed blessing at best, the Belmore work, entitled Mixed Blessing (2011), was a powerful testament to and indictment of the systemic marginalization of Indigenous peoples. Her kneeling figure seems rather more resonant today than the subject of Taillasson’s Saint Mary Magdalene in the Desert (1784) with its namesake penitent Mary Magdalene (of Catholic iconography). The long, black hair of the Belmore registered as symbolic of Aboriginal freedom, speaking to the violence that native cultures were and still are being subjected to in our blighted, oppressive world.
Catherine Bolduc’s splendidly eerie Escape Attempt (2016) was fittingly paired with Jacques Linard’s (1597–1645) painting of spider conch and other natural history specimens, Still Life with Shells and Coral (1640). A graduate in art history and visual arts, Catherine Bolduc is a resolute seeker of truth, and she has been building a corpus over the last many years that is virtually unprecedented in its constructive fervor and love of exotica.
Dan Brault’s Lingering in Time’s House (Vanitas) (2016) has all the brash hoopla and feverish apparitional life we have come to expect. The presence of the hovering skull is like a death’s head moth, set cameo-like in the chromatically hot and shape-fraught space, and it finds a lovely counterpoint with N. L. Peschier’s (1659–1661) Vanitas (1660), with its human skull set amongst a conflation of sacks of coins, hourglass, balance and sundry deeds and papers. In both paintings, the skull eloquently reminds us all of the relentless passage of time.
The work of Kim Waldron (Animal Heads from 2010 and Méchoui from 2013) is wonderfully paired with a work by Jan Fyt (1611–1661). Waldron is something of a phenomenon in these parts for her wherewithal, secret industry, deadpan humor, and pathos. This pairing is almost a supernatural paean to the timelessness of the taxidemist's art. Jan Fyt, in Still Life with Fruit, Dead Songbirds, Partridges and Hare, with a Cat and Parrot (circa 1650) cites bounty in a positive light, not unlike the latter-day rendering of Waldron--who learned every step involved in the production of meat sold in supermarkets, and then executed the work exhibited here. A fearless contrarian, unafraid of controversy and unfamiliar experiences, she learned to slaughter and butcher animals to earn certification and had their heads professionally taxidermied and mounted; she later cooked feasts of various dishes for family and friends with the meat. By all accounts, the repasts were scrumptious.
Karel Funk’s Untitled No. 54 (2012) in tandem with Valentin de Boulogne, called Valentin Coulommiers en Brie (1591–1632), King David with a Harp (about 1626-1627) demonstrated that habadashery never grows old. The hugely minimal N.E. Thing Co. work Untitled (1968) meets one of the more minimalist and ephemeral of Claude Monet’s oils, A Cliff at Pourville in the Morning, (1897) and the 300-year gap between the work of Jack Chambers (1931-1978), Olga near Arva (1963), and that of Claude Gellée, called Claude Lorrain Chamagne (1604-1682), The Daughters of Helios Searching for Their Brother, Phaeton (1658) is a seemingly measureless abyss somehow meaningfully--or mystically--bridged in their respective works.
Marion Wagschal, one of this country’s most important painters, is represented by her magnificent work Birthday Party (1971). It is paired with Jacques Sablet the Younger’s (1749-1803) Family Portrait in front of a Harbour (1800); they resonate together with rare, almost hyper-realistic attention to detail and otherworldly joie de vivre. Edmund Alleyn’s remarkably still and hallucinatory Invitation to the Voyage (1989-1990) finds its salient and eloquent ancestor in Eugène Isabey’s (1803-1886) rather more robust The Burial at Sea of a Marine Officer serving under Louis XVI (1836).
The stunning technical virtuosity and limitless imagination of Pierre Dorion, as seen in his Vanity (2004), is matched with Pieter van Roestraten's (1630-1700) Still Life with Candlestick (between 1660 and 1685), the former showing off some tasty conjuring tricks that the latter might have emulated had the time-frame been reversed.
Michael Snow’s Still Life in 8 Calls (1986) is one of the artist’s most important unified sculptural installations and certainly one of his advanced hologram-based works, and is paired perhaps less successfully than other works in the exhibition with Salvador Dalí’s early Still Life (1924). Similarly, other pairings seemed more arbitrary or less justified and compelling in their mien, as in those historical examples used in relation to the work of contemporary artists such as Karine Payette, represented by The Other Saturday Morning, (2017), Manon Labrecque’s Apprenticeship, (2015) and the sadly deceased artist Mathieu Lefevre (1981–2011), Rotten Tomatoes (2011) all deserve special mention for their high levels of formal invention and experimentation. (A special note about Lefevre--he was a prolific and highly promising artist who was killed when he was struck by a truck in New York; the three-dimensional trompe-l'œil work exhibited here works as a loud, poetic, and unruly punctuation to his creative lifetime.)
In this quirky but poetic repurposing of the Mnemosyne Atlas within the confines of this exhibition and the various collections of the MMFA, we are ushered into a proverbial Hall of Mirrors. We saw some very compelling contemporary works of art seemingly gaze laterally at earlier works which co-existed with them somewhere outside of time in a dynamic thought-space that folded time and space just as readily as it welcomed the viewer into the conversation. As the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer once argued: “In our daily life we proceed constantly through the coexistence of past and future. The essence of what is called spirit lies in the ability to move within the horizon of an open future and an unrepeatable past. Mnemosyne… rules here as the muse of spiritual freedom.” 
So, too, the works in this exhibition operate under the aegis and abiding influence of Mnemosyne and, through free association, it is the myriad, migratory workings of this muse that trace pathways between historical and contemporary works of art. Mnemosyne reciprocally invigorates the contemporary work through its predecessors ably, just as its predecessors are in their turn renewed by the art of our own time, with, of course, certain unavoidable exceptions that invalidate neither the considerable scholarship nor intuitive logic at work here.
Curated with panache, humor, and brio by Geneviève Goyer-Ouimette, the Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Curator of Quebec and Canadian Contemporary Art at the MMFA, this exhibition was a reminder of the strong and salient programming that has a been a hallmark of the Montreal Museum of Fine Art in recent years under the leadership of its gifted and driven Director and Chief Curator Nathalie Bondil. WM
1. See Christopher D. Johnson: “About the Mnemosyne Atlas.” Begun in 1924 and left unfinished at the time of his death in 1929, the Mnemosyne Atlas was Aby Warburg’s courageous and sadly truncated attempt to map the “afterlife of antiquity,” to show how powerful images and symbols that emerged in Western antiquity would reanimate later imagistic discourse, permitting viewers to acquaint themselves with the implicit “polarities” that govern the Western tradition from its earliest beginnings.
2. Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 10.
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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.