The National Gallery of Canada opened its current building in 1988 with an Edgar Degas exhibit that included many of the French artist’s iconic ballerinas. Since then, the intersection of dance with the visual arts has not figured prominently in the venerable Ottawa institution. But that changed with an exhibition of 75 works belonging to the gallery, Movement: expressive bodies in artwhich explores the links between art and dance, as well as other aspects of movement.
Among the works, from the 17th century to the present day, there is only a Degas ballerina, a charcoal and pastel drawing entitled barre dancer, circa 1900. This lonely piece looks lonely. The gallery has several other drawings and prints of dancers by the Impressionist artist but, unfortunately, they remain in storage vaults.
Other European Impressionists and Old Masters barely fit into this exhibit, which has few paintings or sculptures. Instead, it is dominated by 20th century prints and photographs. The main curator of the exhibition is Andrea Kunard, Senior Curator of Photography at the gallery.
Indigenous works are featured, as well as many European and American pieces, although few are by non-Indigenous Canadians. An exception is long arms, a 2015 clay sculpture by Sarah Anne Johnson of Winnipeg. This delightful work depicts two lovers embracing with arms so long that they encircle both bodies, from head to toe. That’s passion!
The exhibit opens with a five-minute film by Manitoba native Kent Monkman, Dance to Miss Chief, a playful 2010 critique of the German fascination with pre-contact Native life in North America. The artist’s drag character, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, leads a cast of costumed warriors in a pow-wow-disco number. Difficult for the more conventional works of the following rooms to compete with the energy of this mischievous film.
Since the exhibition is largely about dance, musical accompaniment in other rooms could have enhanced the visual experience. For example, adding Inuit drum recordings in the Inuit art room would be perfect.
Additionally, a filmed performance including dance or other movement-based works would have added life to this surprisingly sedentary exhibit. Doesn’t the gallery have images of Quebec superstar Françoise Sullivan, her world-famous Refus, dancing in the snow? Or how about one of Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore’s memorable performances?
In addition to perennial scene stealer Monkman, other native highlights include Brian Jungen Powerful hooda 2019 build of cut-out Nike Air Jordan sneakers transformed into a life-size Plains War bonnet and Daphne Odjig’s painting from 1978, powwow dancer. Plus, there’s Inuk artist Katherine Takpannie Our wives and daughters are sacred, a series of four photographs of a woman dancing in the middle of a red cloud. Takpannie’s play honors missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The oldest work in the show is the racy Balls of Sfessania, a 1622 work by French artist Jacques Callot. Sfessania is an ancient dance form in parts of Italy, in which two people engage in elaborate and sometimes lewd movements, pushing and shoving each other with spears and swords. Look closely at the 24 miniature prints, framed in sets of six. There’s a lot going on.
This exhibition seems to be the gallery’s main novelty for the fall season. If anything else is planned, the staff is keeping quiet for now. Usually the gallery offers something more spectacular – Pablo Picasso, Emily Carr or another strong magnet to attract crowds. But blockbusters are expensive, and the gallery isn’t teeming with cash, as the pandemic has continued to pay customers for much of the past 30 months.
Marc Mayer, a former gallery director, said that organizing an exhibition drawn from the institution’s collection was the best plan for difficult times. Such exhibits cost far less than importing a Van Gogh exhibit from Europe or staging another Tom Thomson extravaganza. Movement: expressive bodies in art is a pleasant experience, although it is rather tame. That may be all the gallery can afford at the moment. ■
Movement: expressive bodies in art is at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa from September 2, 2022 to February 26, 2023.
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