Grad-about Misadventures: art, rain, libraries, scones.

Having forgotten that Parliament would be extraordinarily busy today, I opted not to poke around the grounds (despite that I rather like old buildings, and was impressed by them  from a distance). I made my return to the American-European wing of the art gallery instead. Starting with late medieval religious art and moving through to the modernist stuff was a bit like walking through an introduction to western art text (in a pleasantly informative way). It was quite a lot of fun to watch the changes in painting styles: the development from medieval types to representations of individuals, large portraits of cardinals and royal patrons replaced with portable diptychs of not-so-famous wealthy merchant couples, religious to secular subject matter (though classical subjects show up fairly consistently throughout the years), the appearance of children as common subjects in the 1800s, the rise of mannerist and then rococo business to uncluttered neoclassical style, the appearance of new technology (paintings of photographs and photographic equipment), new literature (especially Shakespeare and Tennyson) new institutions (the Royal Academy under Joshua Reynolds), and moments where complete and distinct breaks in styles appear (impressionism, symbolism, and cubism are the most obvious moments).

I suppose I was a bit unfair when I characterised the representation of animals as unthoughtful types in medieval art, forgetting that the use of stylised and representational types rather than realistic and individual figures was the technique of medieval art (for humans and animals alike). Indeed, one of the reasons that Caravaggio was so innovative (and scandalous) was because he started painting stock religious characters according to real models (with all the bodily “flaws” that real models have) — a practice that tainted the spiritual quality of the figures in ways that the use of types refused.

To continue my incredibly unthinking list of “things I liked in the art gallery”, I rediscovered how much I like the Flemish style in the northern Renaissance: the technique of painting with oil on wood produces vivid colours, the portraits generally convey a lot of individual character, and everyone’s wearing those flat Flemish hats with the long feathers in them. I also played “spot the momento mori” (of which there were many, and some unreservedly gruesome, including at least one sculpture displaying rotting flesh and viscera), “translate the Latin” (nothing unremarkable there), “guess what Mr van Wealthy Merchant is saying to his wife” (but all the Flemish merchants unaccountably had British accents), and “Guess who all these Roman people are” (usually unhappy Ovidian maidens).

I still couldn’t bring myself to like much 18th-century British portraiture and landscape (with apologies to John Constable), but did very much like Vigee-LeBrun, who’s always taught as one of the few remarkable female painters of the Rococo period, but who has, until today, never appeared very remarkable: one of the many times that seeing a reproduction gives quite a different impression from seeing the work itself.  I found the same disjunction in viewing most of the sculptures in the gallery — especially the Calder and works by Clodion, and J.L. Gérôme‘s amazing sculpture of Caesar crossing the Rubicon (the photo of Calder’s work doesn’t capture the movement of the mobile itself, while the photo of the Gerome really can’t convey the sense of movement one has walking around the sculpture of Caesar on his horse).

And then I found Turner and Monet again and decided I really like pictures of seasides and harbours (though I was most taken with the colourful autumn scene of Monet’s Jean-Pierre Hoscedé and Michel Monet on the Banks of the Epte).

Finally, there was J.B. Oudry, who I’d never ever been introduced to in art history classes, but whose “portrait” (as the NGC charmingly identifies the painting) of two cats cheered me in the absence of my own pair. (Besides some pigeons and squirrels, Ottawa’s not a town where animals are a common sight.)

After the two-and-a-half hour stroll through the history of American and European art, I continued the day with lunch in Major’s Hill Park, which turned out to be a bit of folly given that ominous dark clouds were taking up most of the sky. And of course, it rained. And deservedly I ended up walking through the muddy park grounds in the wet. Having brought no such thing as a coat with me I stopped to buy one (alright, I’d sort of planned to stop and buy a coat anyways, if I could find one I liked, which I did; I’m really not so very whimsical after all).

Finally, I made my way over to the National Archives (humming Gilbert and Sullivan’s finale to Iolanthe as I passed Parliament[i]), where I registered for a  library card.

Me and my library card: a moment of triumph.

I read in the archives for an hour: it was silent, and I’d stored most of my belongings in a locker, so I felt undistracted and uncluttered for the first time in several days. I’ll go back tomorrow, I think.

Before long it was 3.45, and A. had come to collect me for scones and coffee, and walking all about the downtown (including the ByWard Market area where there is both a stationery store and a relief known as the “Woman Wall”). I was most amazed to actually see the locks of the canal — which are quite small, and hand-powered(!). I also learned that librarians have the most access to all sorts of collections and have decided that for the good of research I ought to befriend as many librarians as possible in future.

I’ve walked to the point of nigh-collapse today, and shall to bed early. Tomorrow I think I’d like to tramp around the U of O grounds in addition to spending a couple more hours at the archives. Let’s hope I wake up in time!

24 August 2011 ~ Ottawa

End Notes.

[i] finale to Iolanthe. Because it’s about a young lad being enchanted by faeries and going into Parliament you see. And the chorus goes “Into Parliament he shall go / Backed by our supreme auTHORity / He’ll command a large maJORity / Into Parliament, into Parliament, Parliament Parliament he shall go / Into Parliament he shall go.”


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