It's been said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Stephen Borys's journey of 10,000 kilometres began in Newfoundland in the autumn of 2011 with a single oil painting.
It was an art collector's dream road trip. And by the time it ended in Victoria 18 months later, Borys had visited 30 museums and galleries in 20 cities and arranged to bring 100 works of art home to Winnipeg.
And you thought you had a hard time getting that bubble-wrapped souvenir painting into the overhead bin. The Winnipeg Art Gallery's executive director points to one of the more delicate pieces he picked up on his travels.
"The Rembrandt travels in a special truck with an escort," Borys says of the piece, titled A Woman at Her Toilet (Heroine from the Old Testament).
Created by Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn around 1632, it's currently hanging on the vibrant, freshly painted wall -- "four coats of Raspberry Truffle" -- in Gallery 1: The Old Masters (1500-1700) of the WAG's largest and most ambitious exhibition to date.
That means there's going to be an empty nail on the wall at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa for the next four months.
"You don't just borrow a Rembrandt from the National Gallery. There has to be a pretty good rationale," says Borys, curator of 100 Masters: Only in Canada. It officially opens today and runs to Aug. 18.
The exhibition, which covers more than 15,000 square feet, is the climax of the WAG's centennial celebrations. It brings together under one roof 100 masterpieces by some of the world's greatest artists -- one for each year of the gallery's existence.
The roster is a who's who of the art world spanning six centuries: Rembrandt, Gainsborough, van Gogh, Monet, Matisse, Renoir, Rodin, Picasso and Warhol. And from Canada: Tom Thomson, Emily Carr, Jeff Wall, Jean Paul Lemieux, Cornelius Krieghoff, Paul Peel, Jack Bush and Mary Pratt.
The 100 paintings and sculptures were loaned for the occasion by 28 institutions across Canada, plus two in the United States. The show will be augmented by another 10 pieces from the WAG's own collection of more than 26,000 works to make it a truly national event, says Borys.
"I call it setting up a museum within a museum," says the author of the 276-page, fully illustrated coffee-table book by the same name that accompanies the blockbuster exhibit. (It sells for $58 in the gallery shop.)
Part travelogue and part diary, the book's opening essay recounts the "challenging but gratifying task" of not only choosing 100 artworks, but then bringing them to the WAG through their 30 home institutions, all of which have special ties to Canada's oldest civic art gallery. The loans are divided evenly with 50 European and American and 50 Canadian works.
"Almost every conversation that contributed to the final selection of the one hundred loans either began or ended in front of the object; and it was these experiences in galleries, vaults, and museum offices across the country -- looking at the art -- that has remained the most enjoyable and transformative part of the journey," Borys writes in the essay, From East to West and Back: An Appreciation.
The exhibition is laid out in eight interconnected galleries that follow a timeline from Gallery 1: The Old Masters (1500-1700) to Gallery VIII: Pathways and Politics (1990-2010). The most recent work is the 2009 wood sculpture Killer Whale Transforming into a Thunderbird by Haida artist Robert Davidson.
The selection process, as Borys explains, was a collaborative effort between himself and his colleagues at the lending institutions and sometimes called for some "diplomatic juggling."
Six paintings came from Minnesota -- from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Walker Art Center -- to honour the long-standing relationship between Winnipeg and that state, where Canada's Consulate opened in 1970, the same year the WAG moved into its new home on Memorial Boulevard.
There is a larger focus on "pre-contemporary" works from the 18th to 20th centuries, Borys says, because it was felt that two other WAG centennial exhibitions, Winnipeg Now and Creation and Transformation: Defining Moments in Inuit Art were showcasing important contemporary works.
100 Masters presented an "exceptional opportunity" for the WAG to leverage its 100th anniversary and borrow important artworks that might not otherwise be available for loan.
For instance, Wasgo (Sea Wolf), the 2.5-metre-long sculpture, carved from a single block of cedar by B.C. Haida artist Bill Reid in 1962 and tipping the scales at more than 455 kilograms, has never before been loaned out by the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology, Borys says.
And British painter Sir William Nicholson's enormous 1918 portrait of the Canadian Headquarters Staff, loaned by the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, he adds, has only ever travelled to London.
No artist is represented in the show by more than one work, except Canadian artist Alex Colville, whose iconic 1946 war painting Infantry, near Nijmegen, Holland and 1962 Ocean Limited are both featured.
Aboriginal artists are represented by Norval Morriseau (Anishinaabe), Marion Tuu'laq (Inuit), Jane Ash Poitras (Cree), Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun (Coast Salish), Robert Davidson (Haida) and Chief NakaPankam (Kwakwaka'wakw).
Manitoba itself is represented by the late Group of Seven "Painter of the Prairies" Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald and Winnipeg's own Wanda Koop. The prolific artist's large-scale 1996 painting, Native Fires, which depicts twin campfires reflected in the Assiniboine River at night, will adorn the WAG walls alongside van Gogh's Vase with Zinnias and Geraniums and Warhol's Mao.
As for the Rembrandt, it's not the only masterwork that has its own handler. As is often the case with loans of masterpieces, a courier from the National Gallery accompanied the painting to Winnipeg and didn't leave until it was safely and properly exhibited.
"They supervise the uncrating and the condition reporting and the installation -- nail to nail," Borys explains.
On this particular afternoon, three days before the 100 Masters exhibit officially opens, Anne-Marie Zeppetelli, registrar from Mus©e d'art contemporain de Montr©al, has travelled to Winnipeg to oversee the installation of Richard Long's 1981 "land art" work, titled Niagara Sandstone Circle.
Her job is to ensure that the "overall esthetic presentation of the piece is preserved" as the British artist intended it, Zeppetelli explains as two WAG employees meticulously place on the floor (in a 488-cm diameter circle) the 362 sandstone bricks that were shipped from Montreal in seven crates.
While the art works were loaned to the WAG in the spirit and long-standing tradition of museums helping a sister institution to celebrate an opening or anniversary, Borys says, the 100 Masters exhibition will still cost about $600,000 when all is said and done.
"The moment it (a painting) leaves their wall and ends up on our wall and then goes home again, we pay those fees," everything from copyright to crating, Borys says, adding that crates alone can cost $5,000 apiece.
Had the walls in the WAG's tallest gallery been just 15 centimetres taller (than their 5.2 metres), the curator may have been in receipt of a very large crate indeed. Apparently, Winnipeg came very close to borrowing Barnett Newman's infamous three-striped Voice of Fire, one of Canada's most celebrated -- and controversial -- paintings, from the National Gallery. But alas, it stands 5.43 metres tall.
"We would've had to display it horizontally," Borys jokes.
100 Masters: Only in Canada runs May 1 to Aug. 18. Admission is $22 for adults, $18 for seniors and students and $55 for a family. Children five and under are free. There is a $10 WAG member surcharge, $25 family (two adults and four children under 18) surcharge, for the exhibit. Admission includes a free audio tour and commemorative booklet.
100 Masters events
May 15, 12:15 p.m. -- The Canadian in 100 Masters -- WAG curator of historical Canadian art, Andrew Kear, discusses our national treasures
May 17, 6-9 p.m. -- Girls' Night Out -- A fun-filled night of exploring and art making for Brownies, Sparks and Girl Guides
May 22 -- The Collection: A Fashion Show -- The Gallery Shop presents 100 looks for the WAG's centennial, featuring spring collections and jewelry by Canadian artists and designers
May 26, 2 p.m.-- Curator Stephen Borys will give a talk entitled 10,000 Kilometres: 100 Masters outlining the nearly two-year journey across Canada (and Minnesota) behind the WAG's most ambitious exhibition. He'll also be signing copies of the book 100 Masters: Only in Canada, which is available in the gallery shop.
May 12 and July 14, 1 p.m. -- interactive family tours
May 21-Aug. 8, 2 p.m. -- One Master at a Time -- WAG curators offer 15-minute bite-sized insights into individual works in the exhibition
For more events and activities to celebrate every aspect of the 100 Masters: Only in Canada exhibit, go to www.wag.ca.