In the Gallery: A Study in Contrasts

Maud Lewis WindowWe are enjoying a nice snow-free interlude in Halifax this weekend so I thought I should make the most of it and actually go do something today (besides the grocery shopping, which is my standard Saturday chore). I settled on a trip to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, where I haven’t been in many years.

The AGNS is probably best known (especially since the release of Maudie) for its Maud Lewis collection, which includes her improbably tiny and delightfully colorful house–yes, the entire house:

Charming and joyful as the house is, with all its vibrant colours and free-spirited florals, it is hard to imagine two people actually living in it: it looks like a playhouse when you first see it, and at about 12′ x 12′ it is about the size of a single room in most contemporary homes.

Lewis was a folk artist and her work is bright and simple and unsophisticated. I find it cheering but also fairly uninteresting:

It has a childlike quality to it that is particularly endearing, for me anyway, in her cartoon-like animals:

While these creatures amuse me and the landscapes charm me, nothing about Lewis’s work engages me deeply: I have no urge to linger over it. I suppose that’s consistent with its naive or primitive style–it’s not supposed to be layered or sophisticated. Still, just as a matter of personal taste, I prefer art that’s more complex and less cute. The Maud Lewis gallery has a lot of personality, but its interest for me is not really aesthetic.

Also in the AGNS (but only until January 28, so I am very glad I went when I did) is an exhibit called “Centuries of Silence: the Discovery of the Salzinnes Antiphonal.” This is a completely different experience: intellectually and historically fascinating, and aesthetically thrilling.

The Salzinnes Antiphonal is a 16th-century manuscript that was discovered in the library of Saint Mary’s University here in Halifax. It has been painstakingly restored and is displayed along with a fine and thoughtful collection of related materials, including portraits of some of the abbesses who presided over the Abbey of Salzinnes in Belgium at the time of its creation:

The volume itself has stunning full-page illustrations:

The music has been recreated in modern notation and recorded; as you explore the exhibit its ethereal, otherworldly beauty surrounds, calms, and inspires you.

The exhibit includes other works of art collected by the Archbishop who was most likely responsible for bringing the Antiphonal to Halifax; paintings of and records from the Abbey that was its source and original home (including three 16th-century papal bulls); a video demonstrating the process of creating an object so beautiful and lasting, from preparing the vellum to layering in the gold leaf; and these hand-sewn recreations of the nuns’ habits, a project by a student in Dalhousie’s Costume Studies program:

I found it all fascinating, as you can probably tell! Though the Antiphonal is in some ways quite an imposing object, and though of course the original volume, though on display, is inaccessible behind its protective glass, still in its own way it felt every bit as intimate as Maud Lewis’s house. The illustrations, reproductions of which are displayed on the walls, have many details that personalize them, reminding us that this work too was done by very human hands.

It was a nice afternoon, especially rounded off with tea and a browse at the Halifax Central Library. I should get out more–and weather permitting, I will!

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4 Responses to In the Gallery: A Study in Contrasts

  1. Nat says:

    Love AGNS, and the Maud Lewis is always a favourite. Can’t make the drive down very often , especially in winter, so will have to content myself with enjoying the Antiphonal vicariously through your description. Thanks!

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I hadn’t really been paying attention to the exhibit dates, but the Salzinnes exhibit closes today and heads over to Belgium so I would have completely missed it if I’d waited even one more week. There’s a lesson in this for me, as I tend to assume there’s nothing much of interest showing locally…

  2. Judith Dietz says:

    I’m so pleased that you enjoyed the exhibition, Centuries of Silence: The Discovery of the Salzinnes Antiphonal and thank you for your lovely comments. As the exhibition curator, it was a true labour of love. I was very fortunate in having many supporters and partners including a fellow Dalhousie colleague of yours from the Fountain School of Performing Arts, Dr. Jennifer Bain.
    Judith Dietz

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Thank you for your comment, Judith. It is a wonderful exhibit: you contextualized the Antiphonal itself so well. I was aware of Jennifer’s work on it, which is another reason I am ashamed to have gotten in to see it so belatedly, but also that I am glad I didn’t miss my chance.

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