One Way We Survive:Douglas Ord’s View of the National Gallery of Canada

By David Banerjee | December 9, 2003

National Gallery of Canada: Ideas, Art, Architecture byDouglas Ord, McQuill-Queens Press, Montreal, May 2003 496 pages, with bibliographical references and index, Cloth, $49

Convincing Canadians that their artistic heritage is fascinating, complex, and profoundly weird is difficult, especially when you’re attempting to do it in the context of a building that few Canadians are aware of. Douglas Ord’s recent book about the National Gallery of Canada succeeds as a highly engaging and thoroughly-researched explication of the Gallery and its history. It also presents an insightful yet accessible commentary on North American art, past and present. The National Gallery of Canada: Ideas, Art, Architecture outlines the strange saga of Canada’s quest for a permanent home for our visual art, from the perspective of the building itself, its history as view through the context of its directors, through the art housed in the Gallery, but most importantly through the ideas that have moulded the building and the art it holds.

Ord begins with a tour of the building, first in light of its physical surroundings and the building exterior. In doing so, he shows that he is not shy of political topics, comparing the architecture of the Gallery and its neighbour to the south, the American Embassy, as a metaphor for the differences between the nations. The differences, and how they are manifested in art, is a theme that runs throughout the book, most often in the context of how American painting has shaped Canadian art.

Ord then takes us on a tour of the Gallery’s interior, and introduces another major theme: the building’s architecture and its symbolic value. Still in line with ideas, he discusses the impact of Lawren Harris through the Group of Seven, and the curious theosophist ideas that inspired Harris’ continental vision of "spiritual flow from the replenishing North," and the art that shapes "the forming race to the south". The final chapter of the first part, called "Inviting in Plato", sets the context for another of the major themes by examining beliefs on judging artistic merit through received wisdom and standards.

Ord presents the Gallery as an ideological battleground for ideas about how we judge art, starting with the Its first director, Eric Brown. By examining Brown’s devotion to Christian Science through his memoirs and journals, Ord uncovers an agenda to seek the “betterment” of humankind through art by harnessing Canada’s "National Spirit". Building on Harris and the Group of Seven’s attempt to create a spiritual foundation for Canada through art, the book describes Brown’s moral crusade to prevent “degenerate” modern art from entering Canada. The resulting half century of linking landscape impressionism – especially the Group of Seven – to the very notion of Canadian art is extensively chronicled. Ord explores how Brown’s divinely inspired nationalism was secularized by Vincent Massey in the late forties into a belief in the "Canadian spirit". The book uses this as the context to outline the rise and fall of director Alan Jarvis, and the continued ideological battle between modernism and Americanism. The use of Greek notions of tragedy to describe Jarvis’ career is an example of one of the book’s strongest points: Ord characteristically goes beyond simple historical recollection to provide interesting analyses of the ironies that have been deeply embedded in the institution from its inception.

Almost as involving as Ord’s examination of artistic movements – including analyses of Clement Greenberg and other art philosophers – is the description of the political intrigue that followed from the time of Alan Jarvis onwards, as competing ideas of Canadian Nationalism and humanism and modern art played out in the leadership of the Gallery. Rounding out his theme of artistic values as manifested in the Gallery, Ord describes the almost-twenty year battle between the director "Miss" Jean Boggs and the National Museums of Canada, which was Trudeau’s bureaucratic answer to nationalism in art.

Ord traces the fight for a permanent building from Eric Brown in 1911, to Jean Boggs and architect Moshe Safdie’s 1987 building at Nepean Point in downtown Ottawa. Safdie’s own writing on art is quoted extensively in the book, as Ord explores questions around the new building which, as a work of art in itself, borrows heavily from anti-democratic traditions. Ord examines the implications of this in the context of the Gallery is a home for Canadian art that “has as one of its central functions the critical scrutiny of all other spheres, including the political.”

Throughout the volume, Ord’s prose is highly accessible and the material he presents is engaging for art aficionados and curious generalists alike. The book is well referenced, with an extensive notes section and index. Ord backs any point with detailed quotes from original sources, perhaps a little too much at times. The book is opinionated, but Ord is not overbearing with his point of view. Possibly because he takes pains to also expose the humour, absurdity, and especially the irony that has been a consistent theme in the Gallery’s history.

From the perspective of someone without expert knowledge of art, the book meets several needs: an overview of Canadian art in the last century and the ideas that drove it, an exploration of how these ideas have shaped the Canadian nation-state, a series of sketches of the people whose values have directed the course of our artistic traditions, and a symbolic analysis of the Gallery building itself.

The National Gallery of Canada: Ideas, Art, Architecture is, fundamentally, an examination of the ideas that have shaped both Canadian culture and the institution that has been central to Canada’s visual art traditions. Despite the length, it is an important book for understanding the role of art, especially modern art, in Canada and North America. From the "magical spot" that is the architecturally loaded entrance of the National Gallery, Ord has given us a well-written, enjoyable, and interesting account of ideas and art in Canada.

980 w. December 10, 2003


  • David Banerjee

    David Banerjee is a guy that lives in Toronto, and writes in his apartment. He teaches creative writing courses, but mostly to four year olds who would rather be playing with blocks.

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