Often overlooked and under appreciated illustrators are responsible for livening up our lives and our literature. Since June 12th the National Gallery of Canada has played host to an impressive exhibit devoted to showcasing the wondrous works of the nineteenth century French artist Gustave Doré.
This Strasbourg born prankster dabbled in various form of artistic expression including sculpting, printmaking and painting. However, his most significant contributions to the artistic scene are his lively and detailed illustrations of popular literature and Great Books.
The Gallery orchestrated a partnership with the Musée d’Orsay to make this exhibit a reality; in fact, one might say they capitalized on a golden opportunity. While the name Doré means golden, the majority of the pieces being shown at the gallery are paintings, sketches – some of which are original and bronze sculptures.
Titled by the gallery as the Master of Imagination the Doré display is a collection of the master’s most fantastical and recognizable pieces. Unfortunately, I confess that before the existence of this exhibit I had never even heard of Doré, but that soon changed. Looking back I should have expected that I wouldn’t be able to attend a Humanities program and not slowly be immersed in the artistic and literary culture of the world. I chose the Humanities and it chose me so, I decided to test the refined tastes of my scholarly colleagues and discover the showcase for myself.
Below is my recollection of my brief immersion into Doré’s world; all opinions contained within this piece are my own. I would say that objectivism is in order except for the fact that art is so immensely personal and thus I do remain subjective about my adoration of Doré.
Entering a special exhibition at the National Gallery is always exciting, you walk up a ramp through a half tunnel made of windows that stretch far above your head, directing sunshine and warmth onto your person. At the top of the ramp is an open foyer, also completely comprised of windows, except for the supporting metal beams that reinforce the structure. A steady hum of white noise caused by whispering conversationalists, shuffling feet and the tapping of fingers on phone keyboards resonates through the atrium. In spite of that, as I was admitted through the main doors of the exhibit a total and utter silence engulfed me.
I stood in front of the doors literally stunned by the magnificence of the pieces on display, particularly the one directly to my left. What had stopped me so suddenly and shockingly in my tracks was a vase entitled the “Poem of the Vine”. At four metres in height and weighing in at 6,000 pounds this bronze sculpture was a colossal construction of creativity. A common theme in Doré’s work is reality, which is quite at odds with the fact that fanciful creatures such as satyrs and angels often decorate his sculptures, just as they were scaling that magnificent vase.
His mastery of the fanciful was made even more evident through the sculpture called “Time Slaying Love”while his connection to the darker side of the mind was demonstrated through a sketched self-portrait of his death. He also depicted the suicide of his friend, Gérard de Nerva, in a sketch that was both glorifying Nerva’s death while still showing the actual horror of what his friend had done. The piece itself appeared rushed, as if Doré’s emotions over the passing of Nerva had influenced his hurried hand. The self-portrait of his own death on the other hand was almost cartoonish in style, it could have easily been used as a comic in the Saturday paper, but it also projected a devilish feeling. It was as if Doré had known that sketching out his own death would simultaneously shock and intrigue people for hundreds of years into the future.
Among Doré’s most famous illustrations there is a notable amount that delve into darker subject matter. One of these is the celebrated painting “Dante and Virgil in the 9th Circle of Hell”which depicts traitors frozen in ice for all eternity. Dante and Virgil stand as two spots of rich colour, dressed in red and blue respectively, among the pale shades of the men around them. This piece was raw and painful, yet at the same time the longer I looked the more removed from the suffering I felt. It was a painting of phenomenal proportions.
Despite the melancholy and somber subjects of some pieces there were others that were simply breathtaking, such as the sculpture “Frolic” also known as Leapfrog. It portrayed a knight literally leapfrogging over a monk. The bronze of the sculpture shone under the bright lights, illuminating Doré’s painstaking attention to detail. What made the sculpture stand out, and soon what I learned as I progressed around the exhibit, what made it a Doré, was its mastery of suspension.
Doré’s bronze knight hung in the air, supported only by his hands, which rested upon the middle of the monk’s back. It was as if the moment had been captured in motion and cast immediately in bronze. Even the plume upon the knight’s helmet curled as if the force of his jump had driven it backwards and his sword swung, up into the air, suspended just like his body. It was so exquisite and lifelike I returned to the piece several times before finally leaving the exhibition.
After seeing the beauty of “Frolic”I took in more illustrations, everything from Shakespeare to Don Quixote seem to have been illustrated by the daring Doré. Even the darling Puss in Boots that many people now simply associate with the Shrek film franchise was originally sketched by Doré. His version is less cuddly and attractive, I’d even go so far as to call his version a terrifying tomcat.
Gustave Doré’s inspiration lives on today, most notably in film, where his work has influenced everything from Biblical story adaptations to Shrek to Lord of the Rings. His brilliant blend of the extravagant, the mythical and the grounded all contribute to his stunning collection of work. His exhibit is at the National Gallery until the 14th of September and if you haven’t already I suggest you indulge yourself and attend the showing.
It is one thing to hear of a work of art that has moved someone, but it is entirely different to stand in front of said piece of art and experience it yourself. Art serves to remind us of our humanity and our capacity to create beauty, cultivate understanding and curate compassionate actions during a time when so many of us have forgotten that we possess these abilities. My advice, go to the show; see it, live it, love it – I did.
National Art Gallery in Ottawa is located at 380 Sussex Drive.