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.
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.
"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."
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.
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."
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.
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.