New Agnes exhibit challenges politics of solitude

‘Studies in Solitude’ is a reflection on space and classism

The exhibition is packed with thought-provoking art.
Supplied by Suzanne van de Meerendonk

Studies in Solitude: The Art of Depicting Seclusion opened at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre on Sept. 4. 

Predominantly featuring the works of Dutch artists from the 17th century, the exhibit explores the history and politics of solitude. The Journal spoke with curator Suzanne van de Meerendonk about its creation and how its themes translate to the present.

“I realized that [the Agnes] had a lot of works that showed figures in solitary states in a variety of contexts,” she said.

“I wanted people to reflect on their own experiences with solitude, but also place them in a longer historical tradition.”

The art featured in Studies in Solitude depicts everyone from scholars in their studies to those in prayer during a tumultuous period in history.

Meerendonk explained that the abolishment of monasteries in the Netherlands in the 17th century coincided with then-contemporary theologians speaking out against monastic solitude, which involves isolating oneself from everyone else to pursue spirituality. They viewed withdrawing from society as going against the Bible.

“I was quite drawn to these works as I was thinking about developing an exhibition concept during the pandemic. I think I knew early on that I wanted to do an exhibit that felt relevant to this extraordinary moment we’re all communally experiencing.”

However, those depicted in the exhibit’s art are predominantly white males. This narrow scope was an intentional choice by Meerendonk. The exhibition is both an opportunity for gallery-goers to reflect on their relationship with solitude and its evolution as a privilege.

“Most of the figures depicted in solitude are men,” she said. “We do have a few women with books by themselves, but they are not situated in a study space that is architecturally distinct.”

“The idea of having a space dedicated for study was being cultivated at the time [when the paintings were created], but only in elite homes. They were predominantly male spaces. Immediately, you get into the distinction of space along gender and class lines. Who gets to be alone?”

Meerendonk has included several visual prompts alongside the art in the exhibit to encourage further thought and discussion. Ideally, gallery-goers will stop to think about how these inequalities concerning space and solitude still apply in the present.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone, Meerendonk believes some have been more impacted by others due to a lack of resources. 

“The pandemic really laid bare the inequalities that exist when it comes to who can retreat into the safety of seclusion, who has their own space while they can work and study in peace,” she said. “These inequalities are rooted in a longer tradition.”

If anything, Meerendonk hopes the exhibit and its paintings provide attendees with a space to process the craziness of the last two years.

“I really hope the exhibit can [help] people take a moment and take a breath.”

Studies in Solitude will run at the Agnes until Jun. 12, 2022. 


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