A visitor's arrival constitutes something of an event at the Thomson Gallery on the ninth floor of the Bay in downtown Toronto, where Ken Thomson, the billionaire art collector, exhibits hundreds of Canadian paintings and sketches. The two staff members who greeted me on Wednesday treated my appearance there as a welcome break in the mid-afternoon torpor.
One of them took away my coat and briefcase while the other handed me a brochure, accepted my $2.50 admission fee and asked whether this was my first visit. Their attention was as considerate as you might expect in a good restaurant, and the reason was soon obvious: I was their only visitor. At that moment, I constituted the entire viewing public. During the 40 minutes or so that I stayed, no one else entered, except staff members.
The atmosphere was eerie and a little forlorn. Sitting on top of a big, busy department store in Toronto's business core, the gallery nevertheless seems isolated, almost secret. School groups sometimes show up, but apparently my experience was typical. My last visit, about two years ago, was also solitary. A friend who was doing research there a week ago reports he was one of three visitors.
Many art professionals pretty well ignore the collection, despite its historic value. I asked two well-known art critics when they had last seen it. One had not visited in 10 years. The other, who has written about art in Toronto for three decades, had never been there; come to think of it, he wasn't sure he had known it existed until I called to ask him about it. No one reviews the Thomson Gallery, though a tiny ad announces opening times every Saturday in The Globe and Mail, the paper Thomson formerly owned.
But this gallery is no minor gesture, no casual whim of a rich man. It's a large space, 4,800 square feet. It contains 412 paintings and sketches, many of the sort that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Thomson opened it in 1989, above the Bay's Arcadian Court restaurant. His office is just across the street, and he can pay close attention to the way the art is displayed. There's talk of closing the gallery, perhaps a year from now, when the contents will likely go to the Art Gallery of Ontario. For now, it's Thomson's public statement on the subject (other than business) he knows best.
His taste appears grounded firmly in the version of Canadian art history that calcified half a century ago. Though the collection has been created without bureaucratic interference, it feels absolutely official. Unless I missed something, all the artists were long ago annotated, curated and certified. Anyone who has read one standard text, J. Russell Harper's Painting in Canada: A History (1966, revised 1977), will find no surprises.
A quote from Thomson appears in the brochure issued at the front desk: "Over the years I have derived a great deal of pleasure in collecting the finest examples available of Canadian art from the 19th and 20th centuries. I am delighted to be able to make them available to those who enjoy them as I do."
But the 19th century is represented by only a few big names (Paul Peel, Paul Kane, Cornelius Krieghoff, etc.) and just about all the 20th-century work was painted before 1950. The Group of Seven appears in strength, of course, along with Tom Thomson, Emily Carr, David Milne and J.W. Morrice. The collection does not acknowledge that in the 20th century, Canada also had abstractionists, surrealists, social realists, etc. A section devoted to Lawren Harris lavishly explores his work from around 1910 to the late 1920s but stops before his turn to abstraction after 1930. It therefore covers only about a third of his working life (though certainly the best third).
The collection often represents the artists at their peak. A.J. Casson (1898-1992), most boring of his era's prominent painters, will never look better than he does here in his 1924 House Tops in the Ward, the best Casson I've ever seen. Rightly, it appears on the front of the brochure.
When compared with other public galleries, the Thomson sets itself apart by what it does not do. It's minimalist. It has no printed catalogue, no reproductions of its holdings, no posters, no postcards. The front desk sells a few Canadian art books, and a TV set runs a video about the Group. Otherwise, nothing.
There's relief here for those who hate verbose wall texts: The only big signs are one-word surnames such as "Carr" or "Milne." The labels on the paintings are unusually reticent; often they don't even contain a guess at the year when the picture was painted. Everything says: Here we show paintings; don't look for anything else.
Naturally, most of the art is as empty of humans as the gallery. The most admired Canadian artists in the first half of the 20th century chose to paint the Canadian landscape as nobody's residence, uninhabited and raw. They themselves were there, if only on visits, but their art rarely noted their own presence and seldom showed natives or anyone else. It's unusual for even an animal or bird to make an appearance.
At the time no one thought this approach perverse, but in retrospect it seems a bizarre act of artistic self-denial. The Thomson Gallery reflects this convention so loyally that when a human figure appears on its walls (in a Harris streetscape, for instance, or a Fred Varley portrait) it comes as both shock and relief.
It's hard to imagine visitors leaving this collection with joy in their hearts. Often the pictures are beautifully made, and the talent of a superb colourist (Thomson) or an inspired refiner of natural forms (Harris) comes through clearly. But when taken together, these paintings leave a melancholy impression. Down below, Bay Street bustles on, but on the ninth floor, time has stopped, art has frozen. Kane's buffalo still roam the foothills of the Rockies, Krieghoff's peasants eternally cheat the angry toll collector by racing through his gate, the boughs in Group of Seven trees remain laden with snow, and Carr's totem poles stand alone and majestic in the rainforests -- watched, much of the time, exclusively by security cameras.