CELEBRATING THE SOCIAL ARTS IN THE MUSEUMS OF OTTAWA: Denis Schneider


, October 24, 2019

Here I am once again, back from my stay in Ottawa, anxious to take you on a tour of the city’s magnificent museums dedicated to: art, science, history, nature, aviation, and war. These modern-day temples retell, each in its own way, the story of mankind. But I also longed to revisit this flagship city, steeped in the remembrance of the social virtues of Turtle Island (the historical focal point of the continent where the various North American indigenous tribes would meet together). In 2016, during the Anthroposophical Society’s “Encountering our Humanity” conference, it was Douglas Cardinal, a master builder of indigenous origin and the architect responsible for the Museum of History in Gatineau, who led us to discover this palette of inclusive colours. This great artist was initiated in indigenous spirituality by tribal elders and is a devotee of Goethean phenomenology, linked to anthroposophy. He examines his own work with great awareness and questions the future of the indigenous peoples and that of mankind as a whole. In this respect, he brings to mind the same crucial questions Paul Gaugin asks in his masterpiece (to be addressed further on in this article) Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?

In his architectural creations, Douglas reveals the possibilities of a new social art. Indeed, he celebrates the art of creating a space with others by imagining meeting spaces conducive to co-creation, through linking one’s own personal initiative with the initiative of others. International recognition has come his way: he received the First Nations’ Award of Excellence in 1995; in 1999 he was awarded the Medal of Honour from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, the highest honour given to a Canadian; he designed the National Museum of the American Indian located on Washington DC’s National Mall; and he has completed many other important projects. You can visit his website to see pictures of the “new temples” he has designed based on principles derived from organic forms. And you may even see there a sympathetic gaze from an older sibling – the Goetheanum itself! http://www.djcarchitect.com/

 

Friday morning, August 23, 2019: Science and Technology Museum

Before entering the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, I was awe-struck as I found a constellation of extraordinary technical creations on display all around me. I knew then and there that I had to see everything – a vast array of machines and devices posing proudly under the electric lights, as if lit by the sun itself. Exhilarated, and then surprised, my gaze was next drawn backwards towards the inner rooms, where I began to ponder on how innumerable human hands had created these objects throughout history. Each object suddenly seemed to be enveloped in the aura of those hands. What good would the brilliant ideas of the inventors have been without those wise, thinking hands?  How would those hands ever have been able to create without investing something of the forces of the heart and a will to produce the best possible object? This became obvious to me as I realised that without this inner commitment, the results would have been but mediocre. I was moved with gratitude as I acknowledged these objects, all created before the era of digital technology and robotics. My heart opened wide to embrace them all.

And then, turning around suddenly, I was dumbfounded as there appeared before my eyes and in my thoughts the grim reality of the sale of Air Transat, an airline serving international and domestic as well as charter flights. This sight would stay with me for the entire weekend, as if floating in the air above the museums, my hotel, and even the city streets. How was it that this valuable Montreal-based creation specialising in organised vacation travel could have been so cruelly disfigured? Was a thought ever given during the transaction to the diligent workers, to their sense of belonging to the organisation, and to their expertise (for example the mechanics, who were trained not only for their specific tasks but also were fully aware of the workings of the entire plane)? Have we forgotten the other fields of expertise and service without which nothing of this, if we look at the whole picture, would have ever taken flight? Was this facet of the countenance we opened to the wide world destined at the outset only to line the pockets of the shareholders (with their noses in the air) and therefore destined to inevitably crash nose first and disappear? Or go elsewhere? A sad example indeed of anti-social art! Unable to digest these feelings, I forced myself to draw a mental picture of my soul becoming calm, accepting the fact that the humanising process of the economic sphere will take time. I embraced the living image of the caterpillar and the butterfly.  The creation ex nihilo will yet come. I would not let any theory be forced upon me, whether from above or from below. Taking a completely horizontal perspective, I traced the outlines of a responsible, conscientious thinker, sharing those lines with everyone. “Everything I have too much of, you have to little of, and this sometimes involves even your most basic needs.”  I was pursuing the creation of a true WE, made up of all these “I’s” that have awakened to the economic brotherhood of the future – an unprecedented social creation built on its own foundations, a possibility in spite of the deterring effect of so much of what is being spoken today.

The special Leonardo da Vinci exhibition afforded me a temporary soothing balm. The images in the painting of the Virgin of the Rocks with the two Jesus children stirred hope in me. The exhibition was conceived as a whole, and highlighted the artist’s thought processes. Even the less than faithful reproductions (colour, luminosity, size) could not hide the soul of each of the works, provided that I as observer could place each one in its rightful spot within my heart and mind – in that inner space where I could find meaning, remaining aware of the fact that they were being displayed in the context of a science museum exhibition. The visitors could be heard conversing as they stood gazing: “The Mona Lisa is still so beautiful,” in spite of all the digital photography processing she had been put through by the technological experts. The wooden models of the various machines paled in comparison with the master’s sketches of them that were displayed on the walls; and yet, as is often the case with children’s toys, by their very simplicity they spoke eloquently of Leonardo’s genius. The audio-visual presentations, projected in recurring loops in a large musical cocoon, repeated quotes of the master as they flashed on the walls to jolt our consciousness. I left the room invigorated by the many quotes that provided food for thought and meditation: “You can have no dominion greater or less than that over yourself”; “Art rules above all the sciences, for it communicates knowledge to all the world’s generations”; “Life without love is not life.”

 

Saturday morning, August 24: National Gallery of Canada

To revisit Gaugin and delve more deeply into his universe of colours that thirst for freedom. Could any of these works be considered minor? Every detail spoke his language. Those who criticize the fact that he painted so many self-portraits seem not to take into consideration the importance of the auto-portrait in the history of European art, the very place where the “I” was developed, where the ego sought to know itself beyond the limits of mere physical portrayal. Several of the paintings evoked the presence of the Christ Being, with Golgotha in the background. Gaugin depicts himself in the garden on the Mount of Olives, in a state of distress, his hair coloured vermillion. He included a sketch of this painting with a letter he sent to Van Gogh on November 8, 1889, saying: “It is my portrait that I depicted there… But it is also an attempt to portray the crushing of an ideal, a pain as much divine as it is human, Jesus having been abandoned by all, his disciples having left him in a setting as sad as his soul.” https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/16587476472.

A panel showing his biographical journey, so intensely bound up with his need to distance himself in terms of geographical space, portrays the artist’s travels as he wanders far from Europe. We sense how he felt he had to find himself in his own inner space, to get his bearings, to lose himself in order to create and to break through his own barriers. This spiritual quest through various self portraits finally led him to his last great work: D’où venons-nous ? Que sommes-nous ? Où allons-nous ? (Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?) In a letter to his friend Monfried, he explained the circumstances which led him to paint this monumental work: “I must tell you that I had made my firm decision (to commit suicide) in December, and throughout the entire month I worked in an incredibly feverish state … I think that this canvass is not only finer than all my previous ones, but also that I will never again create a better nor even a similar one. Before dying, I poured all my energy into it, such painful passion under terrible circumstances, and with such clear vision, needing no retouching, everything rash or hurried disappeared and life sprang forth…”

https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%27o%C3%B9_venons-nous_%3F_Que_sommes-nous_%3F_O%C3%B9_allons-nous_%3F    He only died several years later, kept alive by this acute awareness of the hereafter. Even though this painting was not included in the exhibition, it was present in the inner sanctuary of all those familiar with it.

I then continued my walk through this magnificent museum in order to savour several works I had seen on previous visits, each in turn greeting me with a friendly: “I remember you. You stopped and gazed, you looked at me several times, and you were pleased.” And then out into the Ottawa streets, dodging the orange construction cones. Ottawa didn’t seem so different from Montreal after all – road construction work is king everywhere!

Sunday, August 25: Canadian Museum of Nature.

I took a refreshing plunge into nature – the nuptial dances of the butterflies creating a whirlwind of colours before my eyes, all around me, and even on me when I was lucky enough to be the chosen one for an instant or two. And on the third floor, crystals emerged light-filled from the darkness of the earth; their tempting colours made them look good enough to eat! These small masterpieces, in the perfection of their beautifully ordered forms, were a sharp contrast to the disorder of our human actions. Nothing is more beautiful than nature; nothing, that is, except the human being who creates a true self through the social arts, if we can possibly imagine such a being in its perfected threefold nature. Inspiring indeed, a call for a new, responsible awareness – to produce paintings, colours, and forms out of the substance of this crystal-like perfection in order to create something truly new.

And with this experience, my pilgrimage through those museum halls came to an end. During the visits, the voice of social conscience had been my constant companion, this friendly voice that continues to accompany me everywhere in my quest to apprehend how beauty has the power to tame ugliness.