Journeying through Mystical Landscapes

Early twentieth-century art at the AGO

Mystical Landscapes is a temporary exhibit hosted at the AGO in Toronto.
Supplied by Loulou Rails via

After spending three consecutive days in my pyjamas over the holidays, I booked an ambitious 10:30 a.m. timed-ticket and made my way downtown in Toronto for a spiritual experience like no other at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).

In a few short weeks, Mystical Landscapes — a temporary exhibit at the AGO in Toronto will be shipped off to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris for display in one of France’s most famous art museums. 

The exhibit focuses on both Canadian and international art created between 1880 and 1930 — years of war and rampant urban growth. It demonstrates artists’ ways of understanding these trends and processing them. 

Decorative Landscape by Lawren Harris.                                                            Supplied by Loulou Rails

The AGO has had its fair share of world class exhibitions, with works regularly being shipped from both Europe and the United States, but rarely is the focus so heavily placed on Canadian art. Works by Lawren Harris, Tom Thomson and Emily Carr are prominently featured, and will be on display for the first time in Europe when the exhibit moves later this winter. 

Mystical Landscapes began on an interesting note, with a trio of Paul Gauguin’s paintings of Jesus Christ including The Yellow Christ (1889), classic colonial paintings that despite their common birthplace, have never been shown together in a museum. 

The first room also housed several paintings by Claude Monet fueling the exhibit’s first foray into the truly mystical. Monet’s Grainstack (1891), Poplars (1891) and the ever-famous Water Lilies (1907) illuminated the small space with their soft, glowing colour palettes. A small crowd of people were gathered around Water Lilies, however, Poplars stood out the most to me. Monet painted it as a landscape from more than one perspective, blending warm and cool colours to highlight seasonal changes of the trees. 

The next room was a foray into the darker side of mysticism — literally. Eugene Jansson’s Scandinavian waterscapes, awash with bright blue and black, were a shock to the senses after Monet. 

This room was dedicated in part to the artistic shift induced by WWI and was a far cry from the serene and ethereal images from previous rooms. Canadian artist A.Y. Jackson’s Gas Attack, Lievin (1918) is a sobering and barren landscape with eye-catching, neon lights visible in the distance. This room is less mystical, but contains more detailed landscapes that rely on sheer visual impact rather than context. 

The following section showed mostly Canadian artists work from the late 1900s. Three Emily Carr paintings cast their dark, ethereal shadow across the space, depicting towering trees and churches hidden in forest clearings. 

In a glass case near the middle of the room, some of Tom Thomson’s smaller paintings of the unmistakable Georgian bay shores were interspersed with less eye catching forest landscapes.

Unlike the Scandinavian and French artist’s rooms, these works are unmistakably Canadian. While these works were important snapshots into Canadian art history, I questioned their place in the exhibit. They didn’t evoke the airy ambiance that I had come to expect from my experience in the other rooms, and the juxtaposition was palpable. Most of the other rooms had an otherworldly atmosphere with paintings and drawings clearly chosen for their subtle mysticism. 

The final room of the exhibit sat in both darkness and silence, with the exception of overhead spotlights angled at the paintings to give the illusion of backlighting. Georgia O’Keeffe’s Red Hills (1927)series dominated the far wall, and seemed to glow in the darkness. 

Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888) hung on the inside wall, a crowd gathered around it. The piece shows a view of the Arles riverside at night time, stars shining brightly overhead, casting longing reflections in the black water. 

Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone.                                                    Supplied by Loulou Rails

Beside the painting, a quote from Van Gogh was painted on the wall, commanding as much attention as a painting might, and perfectly summing up the last room of Mystical Landscapes:

 “When I have a terrible need of — shall I say the word — religion. Then I go out and paint the stars.”

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