Audain Art Museum Part II: Beyond Emily Carr, Before and After 

click to flip through (5) BY E.J. HUGHES - OLD BALDY MOUNTAIN, SHAWNIGAN LAKE - 1961
  • by e.j. hughes
  • OLD BALDY MOUNTAIN, SHAWNIGAN LAKE - 1961
 

There is no other art museum in Canada that tells the story of a particular region of this country the way the Audain Art Museum will tell B.C.'s story. The museum will open on March 12, giving a permanent home to more than 200 works of art collected by Vancouver developer and philanthropist Michael Audain and wife Yoshi Karasawa.

Central to the story of their art is Emily Carr, who will have a dedicated gallery where 24 pieces of her work will hang.

Yet, she is just part of the larger Audain tapestry — a central thread perhaps, but there are other pieces of the tale, adding colour and texture and depth and importance, all woven together. This is a story of Michael Audain's art. This is a story of B.C., its ocean waters, its massive mountains, its rich First Nations' history. This is a personal collection, now shared with the public, a window into Michael Audain himself.

Senior curator of the Vancouver Art Gallery Ian Thom says while it's obvious that Audain truly loves his art, there is something else that resonates when looking at this collection as a whole: "He's deeply, deeply passionate about this part of the world."

After looking at the rising star of Emily Carr in the Feb.11 edition of Pique, this week in our Audain Art Museum series leading up to opening day, we take a look at the artists around Carr at the museum, the ones that came before her, her contemporaries who painted alongside her and, those who came afterwards, all seeing B.C. in their own unique ways.

The walls of Michael Audain's world have changed dramatically in the last few months — his home, his cottage, his New York apartment, his office.

Two hundred pieces of art have been removed, all of them tell a story in their own unique way about how they were acquired, the feelings they inspired, the province they reflect, and about what they mean to the man who has collected them.

Audain has been preparing to say good-bye for a long time now, ever since he signed a deal with the Resort Municipality of Whistler that paved the way for him to build a permanent home for his collection. So, in a way he's ready. Some pieces, however, are just too important, too personal to share.

"They don't have that one... yet," he says, nodding to a painting above the credenza beside the desk in his Vancouver office.

"That means a lot to me, that picture."

It's The Coastal Steamship 'Princess Victoria,' a work done by the late E.J. Hughes.

Hughes, a prolific landscape artist in B.C., will have a gallery of his works on display at the new museum, thanks to a donation from retired lawyer Jacques Barbeau and wife Marguerite Owen. Audain will add a few Hughes pieces from his collection too. But not this one.

Audain sailed on the Princess Victoria on the day he arrived on the West Coast — the Vancouver to Victoria 9 a.m. sailing. It was the last leg of his journey from England, a week across the Atlantic and then the long leg overland, heading west.

Audain was nine years old. And though he sat in the steam engine with the train engineer that June day going through the Rockies, fascinated by the snow-catcher at the front, it was the Princess Victoria journey that remains his fondest memory of that time.

The Audains arrived at the rail station early in the morning with 26 pieces of luggage and two cocker spaniels. It was a homecoming for his father, who was born in Canada, returning now after the Second World War.

"It was my job to take the spaniels from the CPR station over (to)... where you got the Princess Victoria," recalls Audain.

"That was one of the best days of my life; one of the most important days of my life was arriving on the British Columbia coast."

He remembers the snow-capped peaks on the mountains around him. He remembers what to his nine-year-old eyes were the towering skyscrapers of the city, looking back at Vancouver from the water. Perhaps what he really remembers most is how it all felt — the last stretch of the long journey homeward, the beginning of something else altogether, a new adventure.

Was this the moment that was so impressed upon the young boy, that he would later go on to acquire one of the most important private collections of art reflecting the province of his youth, his new beginning — the forests, the mountains, the steamships, the First Nations, the city?

His collection reflects all of that, all in its own unique way from the anonymous artists to the famed.

"The stories that people (the artists) are telling about the landscape vary with the person," adds senior curator Ian Thom with the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Thom says that though Emily Carr casts a long shadow over the artists that came after her — "she had such an extraordinary influence in terms of how people perceived the landscape of British Columbia," — each artist reflects their own ways of seeing the land, the people.

Hughes, for example, typically tells the stories about B.C. inhabited by Euro-Canadians, about industry and boats, says Thom. The painting of the Princess Victoria in Audain's office is a perfect example of this.

Hanging above the couch in his office is a Takao Tanabe, Rivers 1/01: Jordan River. The museum will house Straight of Georgia 1/90: Raza Pass.

Tanabe, says Thom, tends to eliminate all evidence of human presence on the landscape. If there is a house there, he will take it out says Thom.

And then there's Gordon Smith whose long dialogue with the landscape is closer to abstraction in some cases and in others closer to realism. Thom calls his 1991 piece Winterscape one of the major works in Whistler.

There are the photographic works too — Rodney Graham's upside down tree Schoolyard Tree, Vancouver and the urban reflections from Christos Dikeakos in 250 Northern Street.

They all have something to say about where we live.

There are names in Whistler that will resonate around the world: The Group of Seven painters — Lawren Harris and Frederick Varley.

Jeff Wall. Jack Shadbolt. B.C. Binning. Bill Reid. Brian Jungen.

And then there are others with no names — the First Nations masks and ceremonial objects that came long before Carr.

Forever labelled "Untitled," forever "Unknown." Now, however, forever with a place in history.

"Art began in this part of the world long before white people got here," says Thom.

The first gallery in Audain's collection will be dedicated to the First Nations masks.

According to Canadian art critic Sarah Milroy the masks are of a calibre that rivals any of the collections at the British Museum or the Pitt Rivers in England, with their renowned archaeological and anthropological works.

"It would be hard for people to be prepared," says Milroy of the rich depth and the calibre of this collection.

"The historic heart of the show are the Carr works but even more so, the extraordinary masks... that Mr. Audain has collected over a number of years."

For a long time, adds Thom, these works tended to be collected as ethnographic objects. These particular objects, however, were collected from the aesthetic point of view and will be presented in the museum as such.

"And that's a very different way to look at the art," says Thom.

The untitled eagle headdress with shining abalone eyes and hair and smooth beak. The distinctive mask with the elongated nose. The striking frontlet dated 1840 with ermine, felt, baleen and sea lion whiskers.

Audain says the same criteria are used to judge these works from the 19th century as is used to judge works 200 years later.

They are, adds Milroy, a remarkable collection in any international context.

Interesting, she adds, to have them housed in a small town in the mountains. But with Whistler's influential and well-travelled guests, the opportunity is ripe for the taking for those who want to see B.C. as it has never been seen before.

"I think that these objects will be put to very good use here (in Whistler)," says Milroy.

"They will have their repercussions in terms of making people sensitive to how deep and complex the culture of British Columbia is."

And so the art has been slowly disappearing from Audain's life of late. He's been watching the changes first-hand at his home and office.

Will he miss them?

"Yes and no," he muses. "I've been expecting to say good-bye to them, so I have. They're passing on to a better future than just staying with Yoshi and me and our dogs."

As for what to put on his walls now...

"Are you going to buy more art, Grandad, to replace it?" asks his grandson.

"Well, I haven't really lost it. As long as I have such acute memories of it, I haven't lost it."

"Will you go see it?" asks his grandson.

"I don't need to go to see it. I've enjoyed it for so many years... I just hope other people enjoy it."

Look for Part III of the "Audain Art Museum series — A life with art" in the coming weeks.

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