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In Vancouver, art worthy of royalty

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Saturday, October 28, 2017 – Page R1

VANCOUVER -- Next to each work in the new blockbuster show at the Vancouver Art Gallery is a wall placard acknowledging the artwork's owner: "Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II."

Spanning six centuries, the works are worthy of royalty, to be sure; they include self-portraits of old masters such as Rembrandt and Rubens, and contemporary art superstars Lucian Freud and David Hockney.

Portrait of the Artist: An Exhibition from the Royal Collection debuted at The Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace last year; it has travelled to Vancouver in conjunction with the sesquicentennial. The show opens at the VAG this weekend, where visitors will also find a new exhibition of paintings by the Canadian artist Gordon Smith.

One of the highlights of Portrait of the Artist - and there are many - is a red chalk portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, made by his student Francesco Melzi around 1515-18, not long before the great artist and scientist's death. "It is now acknowledged to be actually the only true likeness of Leonardo in old age - in any age, actually," says Theresa-Mary Morton, with the Royal Collection Trust.

"It's just so beautiful," VAG director Kathleen Bartels said at a media preview Thursday. "I was thinking about it all last night."

These works are part of an enormous historical collection belonging to the Royal Household - things British monarchs gathered to furnish their homes; so not just art but also silver, textiles, carpets. Thus the collection (which is a trust and no longer active) reflects the taste of successive monarchs.

The works are infused with history - but they are also alive with personal details.

Standing next to a black-and white self-portrait of the great Italian baroque sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the VAG's senior curator - historical, Ian Thom, points to the very human quality of the works. "No one looks at themselves proudly. They look at themselves introspectively. They show the bags under their eyes.

They show the fact that he's going bald. They're not puffing themselves up." The work, created toward the end of Bernini's life in 1680, feels remarkably contemporary. Here is an older man - contemplative, tired and maybe a little afraid at the inevitable approaching.

A work by David Hockney, installed nearby, has a similar close-up warts-and-all quality - only this self-portrait was made in 2012 on an iPad.

The earliest work in the exhibition is by an unknown artist. Dated circa 1460-80, it's a brush and ink drawing on blue prepared paper of a young student learning to draw; there's a dog curled up in the corner.

It's installed next to another dogthemed artwork. The Connoisseurs: Portrait of the Artist with two Dogs by Sir Edwin Landseer depicts Landseer, famous for his paintings of animals, holding an artwork, with two dogs looking over his shoulder at it.

The painting seems to be poking fun at so-called art connoisseurs, comparing them to dogs. The Queen, of course, is famously enraptured with her own dogs.

She also loves horses, and when she sat for Lucian Freud's portrait, they spent a lot of time talking about horse racing, Thom explained, as he stood by David Dawson's photo The Queen sits for Lucian Freud. The 2001 photo captures the Queen sitting for what would become Freud's famously controversial portrait (too small, too ugly, the criticism went). If you take a look at the 1996 Freud self-portrait elsewhere in this show, you might notice some resemblance between that self-portrait and his portrait of the Queen.

Freud likes to work with many sittings, Thom explained, but that wasn't in the cards. "Her Majesty only sat twice. In the interim, a member of the royal staff sat in the chair with the crown on her head."

The show is unquestionably malecentric, but there are some exquisite works by women.

The embroidery A Self-Portrait (1779) by Mary Knowles depicts Knowles embroidering a portrait of King George III. To be fully appreciated, this must be viewed up close.

Also, look for the loose thread - a wonderful touch. The embroidery is remarkably well preserved and in its original frame (there's a key that can open the glass, perhaps allowing a royal finger to feel the work firsthand).

Artemisia Gentileschi's Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) (c. 1638-39) was created by the 17thcentury Italian painter using a complex mirror set-up so she could capture herself at work. Gentileschi, the daughter of the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi, is depicted mostly in the dark but with bright light illuminating her chest, right arm and forehead - as if to suggest she is emerging from her more famous father's shadow. The sleeves of her green silk dress are rolled up; she is equipped with brushes and a palette. "She's got her hand perched on the canvas; we don't know what she's about to do," Morton says.

"She's in that moment of capturing an idea, of starting to paint."

Gordon Smith, who lives in West Vancouver, B.C., is one of Canada's great painters. His new exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery recalls a terrible time in the country's history and his own. Gordon Smith: The Black Paintings reference his experiences in the Second World War, during which he served as an intelligence officer in Europe and was seriously wounded in 1943.

There is heartbreak in these dark, dense canvases - terror, sorrow, a visceral heaviness. The paintings, created between 1990 and 2017, are abstracted, with text and collage elements sometimes dropping hints.

The words "Pachino" and "Husky" refer to Smith's deployment on the beach Pachino on Sicily where he was severely wounded during Operation Husky. On other works, the word "Juno" appears; there are dates too. Some are painted on canvas tarpaulin made from Smith's army kit.

In Untitled (Infinity), 1991, thick paint weeps down the canvas and in the bottom right corner, next to his signature, there is his footprint in paint. Gordon Smith was here.

His use of colour booms against his dark canvases: fiery red burning into a crucifix-like figure; thick splatters of white; an almost soothing mess of purple and green.

Smith is a prolific painter and at 98, still consumed with it. At the media preview, Bartels told a story: Smith came to the gallery earlier this week to tour his own show and view another exhibition of Canadian painting. After they looked at the art, they sat down to lunch precisely at noon. At about five minutes to 1 p.m., he excused himself, Bartels recalled. "I have to go," he told them. "I have to go home and paint."

Portrait of the Artist: An Exhibition from the Royal Collection and Gordon Smith: The Black Paintings are at the VAG until Feb. 4.

Associated Graphic

Artemisia Gentileschi's self-portrait is on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery.


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