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Art reminds us we are not alone in the world

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I recently visited the 100 Masters: Only in Canada exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

This is an ambitious show, celebrating the WAG’s centennial and spanning 500 years of art, history, and society. Stephen Borys, director of the WAG, has collected 100 works of art from museums across Canada, by both Canadian and non-Canadian artists.

There are pieces by Rembrandt, Rodin, Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Picasso, and Warhol. Works by famous Canadian artists including Cornelius Krieghoff, Tom Thomson, and Emily Carr are also displayed.

It is difficult to choose favourites from such a vast collection of masterpieces, however, three pieces drew me in.

The first, Self Portrait with a Skull, was painted by Michiel Swearts in 1661. It is a portrait of a young man looking candidly ahead. His finger is inside the nasal cavity of a skull, and it seems as if the artist is contemplating his own mortality and the brevity of life.

The second painting that impressed me was, Infantry, near Nijmegen, Holland, painted by Alex Colville in 1946. In this painting, a long line of soldiers marches in single file through a colourless landscape. The monotony of the march and the exhaustion of the soldiers are evident.

The third work I admired was a sculpture aptly named, The Red Mobile, by Alexander Calder, an American who invented the mobile. Created in 1956, it is suspended from the ceiling, and changes with the air currents. Sometimes its pieces align and look like birds in flight, at others like leaves on a tree. I loved the idea of fluid art, a sculpture that changes and is open to so many interpretations.

My visit to the WAG prompted me to ask why is art important? Why do we create art?

Two of my friends who are visual artists attempted to answer these for me.

Leigh Konyk explained that art is an easier form of communication for her. Her art is, "me, in a different form".  

Candace Propp replied that art "evokes emotions, reactions, and conversations.

"It’s meditative, soothing, and joyful to have around you."

Both artists spoke of a passion to create, something that they simply needed to do.

Propp explained, "It’s in my soul to do so."

After viewing 100 Masters and speaking with my artist friends, I realized that art is a window into the human condition. The universal themes of love, beauty, relationships, nature, religion, war, suffering, sickness, and death are all communicated by the pieces in this exhibition.

In studying these masterpieces, we are reminded of our humanity. Ultimately, art reminds us that we are not alone.  

Joanne O’Leary is a community correspondent for Riverbend.

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