Five flights, four cities, two countries – not too bad for a one-week trip, eh? It was my first trip to Canada, where I spent three days in Toronto and two in Ottawa, followed by even shorter visits to Detroit and Toledo, where I hadn't been before either.
Two major museums in Toronto – the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario – have recently undergone dramatic architectural overhauls. Daniel Libeskind treated the façade of the ROM with his trademark aggressive protrusion of angular shapes. It definitely brings new attention to the museum building, but the resulting galleries are decidedly ill-suited for the display of art – a complaint that has plagued various Libeskind museums built in the last decade.
Frank Gehry's renovation of the Art Gallery of Ontario is quite another matter. This world-famous architect was born in Toronto 80 years ago, but left when he was 18. Who knows how he felt then, but now his affection for the city is obvious, considering the amount of loving attention he poured into this museum project. Gehry shows unusual restraint in his handling of the curved glass façade, and then proceeds with a series of remarkably fresh and engaging interiors, contributing to the presentation of various exhibitions with specially designed, attractive display cabinets and unusually shaped chairs. I spent most of my time in Toronto going through this museum's truly impressive collection of Old Master Art plus a good sampling of both Impressionist and Modern & Contemporary Art. Not surprisingly, pride of place belongs to the recently acquired beautiful, large painting by Rubens, Massacre of the Innocents, the most expensive Old Master painting, sold a few years ago at auction for nearly $90 million. It's dramatic, almost operatic presentation – a single artwork spotlighted in a darkened, otherwise empty room – made me think about Maria Callas in her famous death scene in Tosca.
Everyone told me that I would be impressed with the National Gallery in Ottawa, and indeed I was, with its building by Moshe Safdie and its beautifully installed collection of Old European Masters in addition to Canadian and International Contemporary Art. My favorite was the striking image of a naked, pregnant woman in profile by Gustav Klimt, which even now, a hundred years later, delivers a punch – just imagine the scandal it caused in Vienna at the turn of the century.
It's only a one-hour flight from Ottawa to Detroit, but the difference between the prosperous Canadian capitol and once-proud and mighty American city couldn't be more dramatic. However, its famous Detroit Institute of Arts still has plenty to offer for the discerning visitor. Since the 1930's, the striking frescoes by Diego Rivera in the museum courtyard have been a special draw for tourists from around the world. One wishes that the museum gave its visitors a little more credit instead of dumbing down the wall labels, explaining, for example, that Renoir was known...as an artist who painted women. Huh?
I didn't expect too much from the half-day visit to Toledo, Ohio, but that turned out to be the biggest surprise of the whole trip. This city, with a population of slightly more than 200,000 people, has a world-class museum of such elegance and sophistication that it would make any major metropolis green with envy. The Neoclassical architecture of its building and galleries evokes the memory of visits to the National Gallery in Washington and the Frick Collection in New York.
And if that's not enough for you to book a flight there, how about the magnificent, brooding complex designed by Frank Gehry in the early 1990's, adjacent to the museum, but built for the Art Department of the University of Toledo? Lucky city indeed.
Banner image: The Art Gallery of Ontario, transformed by Frank Gehry