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.