Why The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Is One To Watch

Photograph courtesy of Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

With the announcement of a Thierry Mugler exhibition, the institution continues to raise the bar

If you were to get lost in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts [MMFA]—which is very easy to do given its endless tunnels, staircases, and hidden nooks—you wouldn't need to frantically to search around for a map. Despite its somewhat gargantuan size (five multi-story pavilions to be exact), the art itself acts as a road map of sorts, each exhibit telling its own tale that, when added up, create a cohesive story. It's that same story that has earned the city's largest art institution its current ranking as one of top art museums in North America.

This, at least, was what I thought as I found myself at the museum's Jean-Noel Desmarais pavilion a few weeks ago to see the opening of "Once Upon a Time... the Western" exhibit. While a multidisciplinary introspective exploring the Western film genre by examining its links to the visual arts wouldn't normally pique my interest, I'd heard enough about Nathalie Bondil, MMFA director and chief curator, to know that it wouldn't simply be an exhibit dedicated to romanticizing the Western or the attendant violence against indigenous people and sexism against women that the genre portrays. 

Having come on board in 1999 as chief curator, in 2007 Bondil became the museum's first female director. Under her leadership, the museum expanded twice with two new pavilions, first in 2011 and then in 2016, began exporting its exhibitions abroad, doubled its attendance to more than one million visitors each year, and, more importantly for Bondil, initiated partnerships with more than 400 associations, clinics, and universities, all "in order to make the museum relevant for society." Before every MMFA exhibit, Bondil asks: How relevant is it for visitors today? 

"Once Upon a Time... the Western" answered that question admirably. "I wanted to show, first of all, how image-making has drawn on the resources of history, visual art, and film to construct a mythology that came to typify the American West," she said in a statement. "Secondly, I wanted to explore how artists have re-appropriated this mythology in order to denounce chauvinist values, racial stereotypes, the annexation of land, and the culture of violence, all of which are endemic in the civilization of this continent." Working alongside Mary-Dailey Desmarais, curator of MMFA's international modern art, and in conjunction with the Denver Art Museum, Bondil has created a 400-plus piece exhibit made up of 19th-century paintings of Western landscapes by famed artists of the era like Charles Marion Russell and Frederic Remington, photographs and accounts of real-life legends like Buffalo Bill and Billy the Kid, and 150-plus film clips (a colossal undertaking given how studio rights work), including ones from John Ford classics and Sergio Leone's “spaghetti Westerns” to Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained and Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain.

Frederic Remington (1861-1909), A Buck-Jumper, about 1893, oil on canvas. Indianapolis, The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.

While the exhibit serves as an extraordinary retelling of history and breaking down the myths surrounding the genre, it wasn't Remington's "Bronco Buster" or his famous paintings that impressed me the most, even though they were a clear favorite with many visitors and Western history buffs that previewed the exhibit with me; it was the later rooms, ones that showcased the more loosely "Western-based" artworks of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Andy Warhol, that interested me. "A lot of people ask, 'Well, what does Frank Kline have to do with the Western? Or Jackson Pollock?' I'm really happy to answer that question because it helps to explain the bottom line of this show: We all wanted to think against the grain, to think outside of the box," Desmarais says, adding:

Not to say that that Pollock was looking directly at Westerns, although he did like watching Western movies, or that Western filmmakers were influenced by Pollock, which was not the case, but what happens in this time, after WWII, when you have a generation of men returning home from the war, which, of course, was a shocking experience. Pollock especially was very interested in the subconscious, and a painting like this one ["Cut-Out Figure," 1948] is interpreted as one's self, struggle to wrestle with forces beyond one's control. And in Western films at the time, you're starting to see much more complicated cowboy figures, who have much darker psyches than we may have seen in earlier iterations of the genre.

To give voice to the First People, whose stories have been often fabricated to fit the "Indian" stereotype that prevailed during that time, and respond to the often fictionalized (and false!) portrayal of the events that took place, the exhibit shows graphite and colored pencil drawings by Cheyenne, Lakota, Kiowa, and Arapaho nation people; "American Horse" painting by Brad Kahlhamer, a contemporary artist of Native American descent; and the most powerful and moving installation of the entire show: a hauntingly beautiful and stoic stuffed bison surrounded by bison skins draped on crosses by Siksika nation artist Adrian Stimson. Both spectacular and sad, it's responsible for the lasting impression the exhibit left on me, and not just because it lives in the second to last room.

Adrian Stimson (born in 1964), Beyond Redemption, 2010, mixed media (bison, wood). Courtesy of the artist.

"This work is a eulogy for the lost species of the bison, which was virtually eradicated not only because white settlers [unintentionally] didn't know how to hunt them and use the entire animal like indigenous people did, but also because [they did it] often on purpose in order to starve the native population," Desmarais says. "It represents something that we try to do in the exhibition, which is to let people enjoy the beauty of what the Western was, but never ignore that there were lives at stake and that there's also a really tragic aspect."

The exhibit also shows how the genre played into the means of expression for the counter-culture movements in the '60s. “What we think of as very mainstream and homogenous actually becomes this vehicle of critique of mainstream culture," says Desmarais when I point out the film posters and Life covers from the era. "Filmmakers start drawing on the imagery that came out of Vietnam to question the violence in American culture and how the Western may have perpetuated a culture of violence. And it's critiquing what's happening to the people in Vietnam.” The plaque in the rooms further explains: Many filmmakers of the time reinterpreted the genocide of the indigenous people in the Americas through the lens of violence in Vietnam. The "cross-pollination of ideas happening around the Western" extends to the civil rights movement, too, as seen by Luiseño artist Fritz Scholder's "Indian Power" painting, which is juxtaposed with images from the protests. "Made during the time of the movement, to get more rights for Native peoples, the principal figure in the painting is making a raised fist gesture which, of course, had become famous as a gesture of Black Power when in the 1968 Olympics, two black athletes, who had won gold and bronze medals, stood on the podium during the national anthem and raised their fists in this gesture of solidarity during the civil rights movement."

Fritz Scholder (1937-2005), Indian Power, 1972, oil on canvas. Denver Art Museum, gift of Vicki and Kent Logan. © Estate of Fritz Scholder.

And while an exhibit of such nature—that essentially glamorizes a time of genocide and rampant white supremacy—is de facto controversial, Bondil believes that the discussions it will bring are important to have today. "Of course, we cannot pretend to answer all questions. Multiplying the perspectives is helpful. Mentality changes quickly, and it is fascinating to observe how quick we evolve about racism, violence, and machismo," she says, adding that what she hopes the exhibit does is "explain the power of a soft propaganda, through art and cinema, and how stereotypes are built and then destroyed. Our next generations will objectify our times in their way. The way we behave with the fauna and environment destruction will be obviously criticized, for example... it's just the beginning."

Given that women have been largely erased from the Western genre or educed to damsels in distress, Bondil wanted to create some space for them here. "Women are presented through the show following the history—from the first archetypes, almost always anonymous, to then strong and brave mothers for the young nation before their affirmation and rebellion," Bondil tells me. For example, a poster of the Doris Day-starring Calamity Jane is hanging side by side with a photo of the real gun-toting, male clothes-wearing Calamity Jane, who bears little resemblance to the sexualized image depicted on the film posters; Crow artist Wendy Red Star destroys the romanticized myth of the Native American women of the time with her "Indian Summer" series; and a sprinkling of pieces from the likes of Cindy Sherman inherently subvert the genre. "I also demanded to have Thelma and Louise in the show—beautiful, emblematic, powerful, and always inspirational," Bondil says.

Wendy Red Star (born in 1981), Indian Summer, from the series “Four Seasons,” 2006, chromogenic print. Collection of Brian Tschumper. Courtesy of the artist

The additions are few and, as such, do not feel forced in any way—it's laughable to think there was any gender balance in the timeframe explored and to present it otherwise would just be false. As I contemplate that fact, I find myself downstairs in an exhibit titled "In-Between Worlds." Made up works by young Canadian female artist Meryl McMaster of indigenous and Euro-Canadian descent, it feels like a relief from all the overpowering masculine energy that enveloped me in the exhibit above.

Exploring the idea of bicultural identity, the photographs find the artists in an array of clothing, accessories, and art sculptures (all handmade by the artist) in isolated seasonal landscapes, like leaf-filled grounds and snow-covered forests. The image that strikes me most is "Aphoristic Current," which sees McMaster wearing a "necklace" of newspapers spouting stories—stories that indigenous people were not part of for a very long time in mainstream media.

"There are many other female artists in the exhibition and in our permanent display. And, yes, I intentionally want to display the parallel," says Bondil when I bring up that the exhibits seem to balance each other out. "Women and indigenous people suffered from a double discrimination. Now artists like Nadia Myre [of the "Scattered Remains" exhibit, coming on November 14] and Meryl McMaster can strongly assert their voices in our plural world."

Meryl McMaster, Aphoristic Currents, 2013, chromogenic print. Courtesy of the artist.

This feeling only intensifies when I make my way to the "Mnemosyne: When Contemporary Art and the Art of the Past Meet" exhibit to meet curator Genevieve Goyer-Ouimette. Named after the Greek goddess of memory, the collection showcases installations, sculptures, paintings and photographs by 14 contemporary artists against the likes of Salvador Dalí, Claude Monet, and Valentin, to encourage discussion about aesthetic comparisons, similarities, and evolution of themes. "Do you want to see something that we just acquired?" she asks me conspiratorially before we even begin the tour. We descend into the basement and she excitedly shows me an image of a painting by Quebecois artist Marcelle Ferron, of an unamused woman lounging and staring at the viewer head-on, as if challenging them to look away first. "Don't you love how she looks straight at you? She is not portrayed like women often are, looking demurely off the painting like they are about to faint." She is here, taking up this space, and she wants you to know; I can see why she wanted to show the painting to me. "What do you want me to show you next?" she asks me, not wanting to overwhelm me with the tour. I tell her that I could use a break from predominantly male artists. "You want to see feminist women artists? Oh, you're in for a treat with me."

She shows me the "Escape Attempt" installation by Catherine Bolduc, inspired by Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, featuring LED lights, music, and moving ballerina jewelry box-like pieces, that appears different when viewed from in front of the curtain and behind, toying with the idea of how our mind perceives reality versus truth; Karine Payette's cheeky sculpture, featuring a slanted table with an exaggerated puddle of milk dripping to the floor, comments on humans' ability to amplify the importance of events; Kim Waldron's photographs of butchered animals and stuffed heads prompts one to explore the disconnect that exists between our food and the animals that it comes from; and Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore's powerful "Mixed Blessing" piece shows a kneeling figure in a black hoodie emblazoned with the words "Fuckin artist" and "Fuckin Indian" intersecting in a cross on the back. It is the latter that stops me in my tracks, the figure's face and body concealed and protected by a cascading mane of hair, hands held out as if in a prayer. A commentary on marginalization and politicization of bodies, the subject is both defiant and passive; the effect is shaking.

Rebecca Belmore (born in 1960), Mixed Blessing, 2011, cotton jacket, synthetic hair, beads, Hydrocal. MMFA, purchase, Louise Lalonde-Lamarre Memorial Fund. Photo MMFA, Denis Farley and Jean-François Brière.

As I say goodbye to Goyer-Ouimette, I find myself in front of the now-closed "Love Is Love: Wedding Bliss for All à la Jean Paul Gaultier," an exhibit dedicated to the designer's most stunning and iconic bridal fashions, which include a tribute to Amy Winehouse and the dress that Kylie Minogue wore in her "Like a Drug" video, and which promoted the ongoing commitment of the museum to fight homophobia (yes, the name borrows from the famous speech made by Barack Obama). The exhibit is the finale to the 2011 "The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk" show, the first international retrospective devoted to the famous French designer and produced by the MMFA, that went on to travel abroad to 12 cities before ending its run, in keeping with haute couture fashion show tradition, with a wedding dress finale (though in this case there were 35 of them). The original show is also one that arguably put MMFA on the map as a fashion exhibit contender on par with the top institutions in the world. The museum has just further solidified this with the announcement of an exhibit, coming in February 2019, dedicated to the prolific Thierry Mugler—the first exhibit of its kind on the French creator who revolutionized fashion with futuristic cuts and sculptural silhouettes.

Before then, though, Bondil will take on "Face to Face with African and Oceanic Art: Through the Eyes of Picasso," another provocative subject (Pablo Picasso infamously denied the influence non-European art had on him). "Next summer will be another opportunity to symbolically destroy a masterpiece "Les Demoiselles d’Avignon," the master, and his legacy by telling another story about 'primitivism,'" says Bondil. "I like to deal with those distortions." It's this same vision, to subvert and question the status quo, that that has elevated the MMFA to the heights it's currently experiencing. "I am always juggling with different parameters: An exhibition should be 'glo-cal,' with a 'global' interest—innovation and scholarship—and a 'local' legitimacy—relevance. Beyond arts, I do want each project supporting values," she says. "Empathy is a key value."

As I complete my tour of the pavilion, I find myself back where I started, in front of the "Once Upon a Time... the Western." I think about going back in one last time in case I missed something. Then I think better of it. I know how this story ends: They all walked off into the sunset.

"Once Upon a Time... the Western" is on display through February 4, "Mnemosyne: When Contemporary Art and the Art of the Past Meet" through May 20, and "In-Between Worlds" through December 3. 

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

"In my head I thought, This is how it ends"

Kit Harington almost lost a lot more than the Iron Throne while filming the final season of Game of Thrones. According to an interview with NowThis News, the actor almost lost one of his balls while riding a mechanical dragon.

Harington revealed that the incident took place when he was filming the scene where his character, Jon Snow, takes a ride on Rhaegal for the first time in the Season 8 premiere. Since dragons aren't real (sorry), Harington was filming the scene, where Jon almost falls off the dragon and then swings around to pick himself back up, on a mechanical contraption.

"My right ball got trapped, and I didn't have time to say, 'Stop,'" Harington said in an interview. "And I was being swung around. In my head I thought, This is how it ends. On this buck, swinging me around by my testicles, literally." We see shots of the fake dragon he's riding in front of a green screen, and it does look pretty terrifying.

Luckily, his testicles remained intact through the near-disastrous event, and he's survived with quite the story to tell to unsuspecting journalists.

Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for goop

"I had to create a harder shell about being a woman"

In a panel discussion during Gwyneth Paltrow's In Goop Health summit, actress Jessica Alba revealed that she "stopped eating" to avoid unwanted attention from men when she was first starting her career in Hollywood.

According to People, Alba said that she "had a curvy figure as a young girl" and, as such, was made to feel as though her body was the reason that men may be inappropriate toward her. "I was meant to feel ashamed if I tempted men," Alba said during the panel discussion. "Then I stopped eating a lot when I became an actress. I made myself look more like a boy so I wouldn't get as much attention. I went through a big tomboy phase."

She continued, "In Hollywood, you're really preyed upon. They see a young girl, and they just want to touch you inappropriately or talk to you inappropriately or think that they're allowed to be aggressive with you in a way."

Alba also noted that she was raised in a conservative household. "My mom would say, 'You have a body, and it's very womanly, and people don't understand that you're 12,'" she said. "I wasn't allowed to have my nalgas out, which is butt cheeks [in Spanish], but I was born with a giant booty, and they come out of everything. So, I didn't get to wear normal things that all my friends wore."

She said that these reactions to her body really affected her attitude. "I created this pretty insane 'don't fuck with me' [attitude]," she said. "I had to create a harder shell about being a woman."

According to her, her relationship to her body only changed when her first child, Honor, was born in 2008. "[After she was born,] I was like, Oh this is what these boobies are meant to do! Feed a kid!" she said. "And that was the dopest shit I'd ever done. So, I came into my body as a woman finally and I stopped being ashamed of myself."

Photo courtesy of Teva

Because of course

Teva, the most obvious lesbian footwear brand since Birkenstock, really knows its customer base. In time for Pride, the brand has teamed up with Tegan and Sara for a gay shoe to end all gay shoes. In other words, your Pride footwear is on lock.

The shoe isn't just your average Teva sandal. Tegan and Sara's design, the Teva Flatform Universal Pride sandal, is a 2.5-inch platform shoe with a rainbow sole. Tegan and Sara noted in a press release that they have been Teva wearers for pretty much their whole lives. "We got our first pair of Teva sandals when we were 16," they said. "This rainbow Flatform collab is like full circle LGBTQ+ Pride validation."

What's better, with each sandal sale, Teva will donate $15 to the Tegan and Sara Foundation, up to $30,000. The funds donated will go toward scholarships which will give young members of the LGBTQ+ community the chance to go to summer camps which will "help develop self-confidence and leadership abilities in a safe and nurturing environment." Tegan and Sara added, "Teva's generous support for our foundation will allow us to help even more LGBTQ+ youth."

Available today at Teva's and Nordstrom's websites, the sandal retails for $80.

Photo courtesy of Teva

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Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images

"Focusing on innovative materials will allow the company to explore new boundaries of creative design"

Prada Group has announced that Prada, as well as all of its brands, will now be fur-free. According to a press release from the Humane Society, Prada, Miu Miu, Church's, and Car Shoe will ban the use of fur beginning with the Spring/Summer 2020 collection (aka the Fashion Week coming up next). The list of fashion designers banning fur only continues to grow, with 3.1 Phillip Lim, Coach, Armani, Versace, Gucci, and more having stopped using the material in seasons past.

"The Prada Group is committed to innovation and social responsibility, and our fur-free policy—reached following a positive dialogue with the Fur Free Alliance, in particular with LAV and the Humane Society of the United States—is an extension of that engagement," Miuccia Prada told the Human Society. "Focusing on innovative materials will allow the company to explore new boundaries of creative design while meeting the demand for ethical products."

Following London Fashion Week designers forgoing the use of fur in September and the first-ever Vegan Fashion Week taking place in February, it's easy to imagine an entirely fur-free fashion future. It's especially easy, I presume, for the brands to consider a fur-free future, given that entire cities and states are taking a stance. New York is following in the footsteps of Los Angeles banning fur, with a bill proposed this March that would ban sales across New York State.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

"Club leisure" is the new athleisure

Alexander Wang is recognizing clubbing as the workout that it truly is with his latest Adidas collaboration. In this fifth installment, he "changes gears," per a press release from the brand, taking the iconic sports brand to the dance floor.

For the new campaign, the collection comes to life in iconic choreographer Tanisha Scott's dance studio and stars dancers Noemi Janumala, Dakota Moore, Avi McClish, and Olivia Burgess. The dancers show just how far these clothes can go when you want to bust a move or stretch, but TBH, I'll leave these poses to the pros and just use my clothes for flexing on the 'gram.

The collection—which features six apparel items, three shoes, and six accessories—features, per a press release, "Wang's knack for pre-styling." Standouts from the mostly black-and-white items include a silver sneaker that was *made* for moonwalking, an airy windbreaker that has just the right dash of bright blue with the scattered Adidas trefoil design, and a towel hoodie that you won't feel bad sweating in.

Ahead of the May 25 collection drop online and in stores, peep the gorgeous campaign images below.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

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Photo by Johnny Dufort

Adidas Originals by AW, Towel Hoodie, $350, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Sock Leggings, $60, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Adilette Slides, $90, available starting May 25 at Adidas.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

Adidas Originals by AW, Futureshell Shoes in Platinum Metallic, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

Adidas Originals by AW, Sweatshirt in Core White, $280, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Shorts in Core White, $120, available starting May 25 at Adidas.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

Adidas Originals by AW, Sweatshirt in Black, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Bum Bag, $50, available staring May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Towel, $80, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Turnout BBall Shoes, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Duffle Bag, $70, available starting May 25 at Adidas.

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