MONTREAL - Canadians are getting their first chance ever to see some of the world's great impressionist masterpieces in a breathtaking new show at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
"Once Upon A Time . . . Impressionism: Great French Paintings from the Clark" showcases 75 of the art treasures painstakingly collected by Robert Sterling Clark, the heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune who was so discreet in his acquisitions that he was nicknamed "Mr. Anonymous."
The collection is making its only Canadian stop after a European tour, before heading home to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass. The Clark, as it's often known, is world renowned for not only its collection but also for having one of the best art libraries in North America.
The Clark has one of only three private impressionist collections on the continent to remain intact, along with those of Albert Barnes in Philadelphia and Duncan Phillips in Washington.
"It's quite incredible to realize that you can almost tell the whole story of impressionism with one collection," says Nathalie Bondil, the Montreal museum's director and chief curator who oversaw the Canadian debut.
Along with canvasses by such greats as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Corot, Claude Monet and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec on display in Montreal until Jan. 20 is the iconic "Little Dancer of Fourteen Years" statue by Edgar Degas.
The piece, which was originally sculpted in wax and then cast in bronze, is one of the highlights of the show.
"I think it was absolutely essential because this is the most important impressionist sculpture," said Bondil in describing the importance of the piece to the show.
The depiction of a young ballerina caused a stir when it was first shown in 1881 at an impressionist exhibit in Paris, getting mixed reviews from critics. Some of the harshest said the dancer looked like a monkey and that the piece was depraved although it merely shows a child standing at ease in a classic pose.
"After this huge scandal, Degas decided not to put any sculptures on display anymore," Bondil pointed out.
But despite the beauty of the exhibit, don't think it's just another collection of pretty pictures.
Bondil said it was essential when conceiving the show to bring something new to the table, especially given the mission of the Montreal museum and the Clark Institute to educate as well as exhibit.
"I really wanted to pay tribute to all the art history research done during the last decades," Bondil said.
"You cannot understand the contemporary art world and how it works without knowing the impressionist revolution," she said in an interview. "This is why the exhibit explains all the economic, historical and sociological context of this movement and with very, very new insights."
The show not only looks at the artists but their opponents, the neoclassical and romantic academic painters. It examines not only styles such as the liberation of gesture in the paintings but also the effects of the pace of modern life, political activism and women's rights.
For example, Bondil noted that on the one hand women were appreciated among the impressionists and impressionism itself was considered a feminist movement because of its light subjects, which included realistic-looking portraits and landscapes.
On the other hand, there was also a sexist undertone as artists such as Renoir said they preferred models who looked as though they didn't think.
The exhibit also showcases the roots of today's arts scene, examining the birth of art as a commodity and the emergence of the artist star system.
"The very beginning of this change was with the impressionists, with the rise of impressionism and this new commercial strategy," Bondil points out.
The presentation of the exhibit serves to draw visitors into the art.
Walls are done in warm tones and rich wood panelling that evoke the salons of yore and make the vibrancy of the paintings stand out.
"I wanted to have the impression of intimacy, very convivial, to give the impression that you are in a private home," Bondil noted.
Enhancing the physical experience of being in the presence of great art is key for museums in an age where people are surrounded by images on screens, Bondil said.
"It's not a virtual experience," she explained of being in a museum. "It's the same with love. It's about emotion. Just to be with a work impacts you."
The exhibit can even be seen as giving a glimpse into the mind of Sterling himself, who is described as a self-taught, somewhat conservative connoisseur with a finely developed taste and a keen eye.
"He was really the one who decided what he wanted to buy or not," Bondil said of the collector, who died in 1956.
IF YOU GO:
Address: 1380 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal, Que., H3G 1J5
Phone: (514) 285-2000
On the Internet: www.mbam.qc.ca
Admssion: Age 31 and over: $20; age 13 to 30: $12; age 12 and under: free. There are reduced rates Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings. Group rates are also available.