Worthwhile after all

Fowler exhibit explores Canadian identity

Detail from Daniel Fowler’s potent and pastoral “Fallen Tree.”
Detail from Daniel Fowler’s potent and pastoral “Fallen Tree.”
Photo: 

Fine Art Review: “An Artist After All,” Daniel Fowler in Canada @ Agnes Etherington Art Centre, until Dec. 3

It’s immediately evident that the Agnes Etherington Art Gallery’s exhibit of painter Daniel Fowler’s work is more than just an art show: It’s a lesson in history, and an interpretation of what it means to
be Canadian.

Fowler, a 19th-century impressionist painter, came to Canada from the UK in 1843.

His paintings depict pastoral scenes from Amherst Island, where he lived.

The Etherington’s exhibit of Fowler’s work is an engaging combination of artistic and historical value: in addition to the many watercolours clustered along the walls of the exhibit’s two rooms, glass cases in each space showcase relics of Fowler’s world. In one room, an atlas from 1848 is turned to the page depicting Amherst Island, and a dish from a dinner set made for Fowler’s parents’ wedding is encased beside a painting of the same. In another room, a sketching case, manuscripts and an album of
rough watercolour sketches invite the visitor to explore the mind of the artist.

This intimate effect is underscored by the information cards beside each painting: instead of a blurb of interpretation from the curator, quotations from Fowler’s own works are included. “It’s a grand thing to see a large tree come down …” reads the card beside a painting of a fallen birch, which sits split in two, its roots dangling in the air in a fashion both potent and pastoral. In Fowler’s world the focal
point is nature and its inexorable entropy and decomposition, evident in the motif of dead trees and animals that pop up repeatedly in his watercolours, and are in fact often the most vital aspects of his paintings. Human beings are on the periphery of this wild world. The paintings, and the exhibit
that emphasizes the Canadian and Kingstonian setting in which they were painted, both send a clear message: this feral Ontario landscape is the quintessential Canada, capable of bewitching even a staid, Victorian Englishman: “The landscape of Canada possesses pecularities of its own, entirely different from anything that is seen in Europe,” Fowler writes, the quote accompanying the watercolour of a stand of trees that emphasizes the play of sun and shade on a path. Dorothy Farr, the exhibit’s
curator, said she designed the display with the intention of sending a historical message as well as an artistic one. “It’s a biographical presentation of an artist and his work,” she said.

Farr said Fowler is significant for his regional as well as historical interest. Being in the region where he
lived, there are physical relations people can draw if they want to go and search them out,” she said. “His house is still there, the island still looks like things he painted 150 years ago.”

Farr said she incorporated Fowler’s words to add an extra dimension to the exhibit.

“[Fowler is] unusual for Canadian 19th-century artists in that he left so much written material. I tried to create an exhibit that used his own words rather than mine,” she said. “First of all, I’d like them to
realize what a good painter he is—he isn’t recognized as much today as much as he was in the 19th century,” she said. “I also want people to kind of connect to him.
“He spent his life painting and writing, which are a means of communication, and I’m hoping that by representing both some of the writings and the paintings he’s able to communicate with visitors and they’ll connect with him in some way and get an idea of what his world was like.”

The otherwise fascinating exhibit has one major drawback— the colour of the walls is a pale grey-lavender that fills the room with a somewhat sickly light. When combined with the hardwood floor, the colour makes the softly coloured paintings almost painful to look at.

Farr said she chose the wall colour specifically for this exhibit. “I wanted to hint at a Victorian presence. That colour is actually called Victorian grey, although it’s actually lavender,” she said. “I clustered paintings because Victorians used to hang right to the ceiling … we arranged them kind of the way Victorians used to arrange them in groupings in the wall.
“We can’t reproduce a Victorian gallery or household, but we can kind of suggest it that way.”

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