With its latest Acadian acquisitions, the National Gallery is finally recognizing New Brunswick
Paul Gessell, Postmedia News | October 16, 2014 12:06 PM ET
Artworks offering a new take on Acadian history, including the 1755 Expulsion, have entered the collection of the National Gallery of Canada in a move that may help silence New Brunswickers’ perennial criticisms of the federal art institution in Ottawa.
The gallery will hold a media preview Thursday to reveal a list of contemporary art acquisitions, including photographs and aboriginal works, from the past two years. The acquisitions include 14 works by Mario Doucette, a high-profile Acadian artist from Moncton whose paintings and drawings re-imagine Acadian history and myths, including that of Evangeline, the famous fictional character created by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
At least some of Doucette’s works will be included in the gallery’s third biennial, whose purpose is to exhibit some of the new acquisitions. Shine a Light: Canadian Biennial 2014 opens to the public Oct. 17 and continues until March 8, showcasing work by such A-list artists as Toronto’s Shary Boyle, Vancouver’s Geoffrey Farmer and Nunavut’s Shuvinai Ashoona.
One of Doucette’s cartoon-like but hard-hitting works in the exhibition is a pastel, acrylic, ink and coloured pencil scene on paper titled The Acadian Deportation (after Sir Frank Dicksee). The picture depicts Acadians being shipped abroad. The deportees are portrayed like martyrs or saints being tormented by uniformed British soldiers.
Most art in Canada about the Acadian expulsion tends to be by British artists from the far past, such as Dicksee, who depict the Acadians as pitifully docile and the British soldiers rather kindly, as if guiding the deportees to a better life. The acquisition this year of Doucette’s work was welcomed by the Acadian Association of Professional Artists of New Brunswick, which has long complained the National Gallery has not been collecting nor exhibiting any Acadian artists.
“We are delighted to hear that the National Gallery of Canada is finally beginning to collect contemporary Acadian art,” Carmen Gibbs, the association’s director general, said in a statement. “It seems that the door is opening onto a larger horizon and that Canadian contemporary art includes art from all regions of the country.
History and art both tend to be shaped by the victors. Being an Acadian himself, Doucette has assumed the role of removing what he sees as fictions from his ancestors’ history, sometimes by re-working centuries-old paintings of Acadians by British artists.
Few, if any, self-identified Acadian painters are in the National Gallery collection. And a check with gallery curators certainly identified no works by Acadians about the Expulsion, known in Acadia as Le Grand Derangement, when thousands were deported by the British from what are now the Maritime provinces to the United States and other countries. Doucette said in an email interview that the National Gallery had been eyeing his work for several years: “They had travelled to Moncton a few times for studio visits and had always expressed interest in my work.”
The National Gallery’s interest, Doucette said, pre-dated the positive international exposure he and some other New Brunswick artists received for being part of the massive Oh Canada contemporary art exhibition that opened in 2012 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams and is now touring Canada. That exhibition, which included a version of the aforementioned The Acadian Deportation, has raised questions as to why Americans seemed to be offering more love to New Brunswick art than was the National Gallery.
The Doucette works acquired by the National Gallery are on paper and are characterized by the artist as “colour studies.” Other versions of these works, in different sizes and media, are in a current exhibition ending Nov. 1 at Division Gallery in Montreal. Division facilitated the sale of Doucette’s work to the National Gallery.
“Poised between the real and imagined, his work questions our collective memory and gives voice to those forgotten by history,” says Division Gallery. “He asks us to reflect on how events are perpetuated depending whether chronicled by the vanquisher or the defeated. Doucette’s works operate within the classic historical painting genre, a tradition that gives credibility and authority to his subjects, even as his naive, whimsical touch contrasts with the form.”
The Doucette acquisition comes at a time when relations between the National Gallery and New Brunswick are frosty, in part because of the paucity of New Brunswick works in previous acquisitions and biennial exhibitions. Also, tempers flared earlier this year when news surfaced the National Gallery had decided against taking a touring exhibition of paintings by Salvador Dali, Lucian Freud and other masters from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton. The National Gallery was accused of breaking a promise. The gallery claims it never made a promise. The Beaverbrook exhibition is currently at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
In the National Gallery’s first biennial in 2010, there were no acquisitions from New Brunswick, prompting the then premier, David Alward, to raise the issue with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. As well, New Brunswick arts groups complained loudly. In the 2012 biennial, once again there were no New Brunswick works in the exhibition although a lone photograph by Moncton’s Jaret Belliveau was acquired but not exhibited.
‘Perhaps the National Gallery should consider appointing a New Brunswicker to sit on its board of trustees to help ensure that its programs better represent the entire nation’
The National Gallery regularly sends curators to all parts of the country, including New Brunswick, to do studio visits, seeking potential acquisitions. The goal, says Marc Mayer, gallery director, is always to find the best quality work, regardless of an artist’s ethnicity or hometown. The gallery still has a way to go to satisfy all of its critics in New Brunswick.
Terry Graff, director of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, welcomed the “important acquisition” of Doucette’s work by the National Gallery but then went on the attack. “I have to wonder why it has taken the National Gallery this long to recognize the work of an Acadian artist, and why many of the pioneers of Acadian contemporary art have been consistently overlooked or ignored,” Graff said in an interview.
Graff seemed particularly incensed that Claude Roussel, seen by many as the father of contemporary Acadian art, has been overlooked by the National Gallery.
“Besides Roussel, I have to wonder why the National Gallery has not acquired representative work by other major Acadian veteran artists like Roméo Savoie, Marie Hélène Allain … etc. But I also have to wonder about its lack of interest in many non-Acadian New Brunswick artists. Perhaps the National Gallery should consider appointing a New Brunswicker to sit on its board of trustees to help ensure that its programs better represent the entire nation.”
Graff also criticized the National Gallery for “misleading” people into thinking its exhibition this week is a true curated biennial from across Canada rather than just an exhibition of recent acquisitions.
“Obviously, ‘Canadian Biennial’ sounds more prestigious than ‘Recent Acquisitions,’ even though a spade is still a spade.”
Shine a Light: Canadian Biennial 2014 runs to March 8, 2015 at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. For more information, visit gallery.ca.