Can art speak to us spiritually? Mystical Landscapes: Masterpieces from Monet, van Gogh and more, a new exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto, explores this question through works by 37 extraordinary 19th- and 20th-century artists. Katharine Lochnan, senior curator of international exhibitions at the AGO, speaks to Kristin Ostensen, associate editor, and shares insights into the Christian backgrounds of the exhibit's painters, how nature can reflect the divine and why art can help us ask the “big” questions.

What inspired you to put this exhibit together?

Five years ago, I took a landscape painting class, and I also began work on my family history. I started looking for my Irish roots, and I found them on the west coast of Ireland where I took a lot of photographs of a wonderful place called the Burren. I was trying to paint from those photographs and inject into those landscapes the mystical feelings I had felt there—a sense of divine presence in that landscape—and I couldn't figure out how to do that.

At the same time I was beginning to take courses at Regis College [the Jesuit college affiliated with the University of Toronto through the Toronto School of Theology]. I hadn't thought much about my own spiritual practice for decades, and this experience in Ireland made me aware that it was time. And so I became interested in mysticism as an area for investigation, because we're all wired for mystical experiences. They bring us together; it's the religious impulse that's built into us.

I went to the Metropolitan Museum in New York on business, and I saw the 19th-century landscape gallery. I was very taken with the paintings of Gauguin, van Gogh and Monet, which I realized had incorporated the mystical DNA that I wanted to incorporate into my own painting. And at that point, I thought it might be worth investigating this as a curator—putting together an exhibition of mystical landscapes.

Emily Carr, Sky (ciel) Emily Carr, Sky (ciel)(1935-36). Image: National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Many of the artists in the exhibit have Christian backgrounds. How does that come through in their paintings?

Gauguin, for example, went to a Catholic school and so he would have learned the exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola: You look at your life in the context of the life of Christ, and spend periods meditating on the passion and death of Christ. In this exhibition, three of his paintings are arranged together: The Yellow Christ, The Vision After the Sermon and Christ in the Garden of Olives. In the first one and the third one, he depicted himself as Christ, and in The Vision After the Sermon, as the priest. That's a very Catholic, mystical approach—seeing your own life in the context of the life of Christ, and conflating the two.

He sent a little sketch of himself as Christ in the Garden of Olives to van Gogh, in a letter, and van Gogh was horrified. Van Gogh was Calvinist, and his father had been a minister in the Dutch Reformed church. Van Gogh had wanted to follow his father into the ministry, but had been refused ordination because he was so extreme in his asceticism. And so he turned to painting as his ministry; although he was reluctant to do so initially, he then embraced it. And he saw his paintings as his homilies.

Van Gogh wrote back to Gauguin and said, “Why do you have to put a biblical figure into your paintings? Why can't you just paint from nature?” He said, “When I want to paint Gethsemane, I go and find an olive orchard.” And indeed, we have one of van Gogh's most beautiful olive orchards in the same room as Gauguin's paintings. To the Calvinist, nature is the second book of God. It is the prime proof of the creation itself. And so by depicting nature, van Gogh considered that he was depicting something divine. You paint nature, and the divine presence is there; it's inherent. Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, “When I feel an acute need for religion, I look up and I paint the stars at night.” And so, we have his Starry Night Over the Rhone at Arles in this exhibition as well.

Paul Gaugin, Christ in the Garden of Olives Paul Gaugin, Christ in the Garden of Olives (1889). Image: Norton Museum of Art

Vincent van Gogh, The Olive Trees Vincent van Gogh, The Olive Trees (1889). Image: The Museum of Modern Art, New York © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

Most of the paintings in the exhibit don't have explicit religious imagery. How do they evoke a sense of the divine?

As we started looking for pictures for this exhibit, there seemed to be an inverse relationship between the inclusion of religious imagery and the mystical impact. So there is very little overt religious symbolism in these works, but there are plenty of subtexts, and the subtler they are, the more effective they are, because they trigger our imagination. Which, in a sense, is what van Gogh was saying to Gauguin.

Most of these artists come from Protestant backgrounds, and at the time of the Reformation, there was a movement known as iconoclasm—religious imagery in churches was seen as potentially idolatrous and it was banned. So a lot of these artists didn't use overt religious imagery, but they used symbols, and we know from their own life stories, and from the context, that these symbols convey religious, spiritual or mystical experiences, thoughts and ideas.

As western societies grow increasingly secular, what do you hope to achieve by drawing attention to the spiritual and the mystical side of art? How can it speak to people today?

Claude Monet, Water Lilies (Nymphéas) Claude Monet, Water Lilies (Nymphéas) (1907). Image: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Courtesy Bridgeman Images

For this exhibition, we've been inviting people to walk with the artists, the way they would walk with a spiritual director, and allow themselves to contemplate and enter into that artist's world, or soulscape—which is what these landscapes really are—and meditate with them, allow themselves to free associate, to think about their own life journeys, the place of spirituality in their lives.

It seems to me that there's a huge hunger, a huge craving, in our secular world, not only to open up this discussion around meaning, but to be even told that it's OK to talk about the spiritual, because we've all but made it politically incorrect. And it is the most important thing that we all have to think about. None of us have the answers, but as human beings, we intuit, and always have, that we are part of something much greater than ourselves. That there is some kind of creator—something that has brought us all into existence—and there is some reason why we're all here. And this being the case, how should we live? What questions should we ask? What values should we espouse? These are the biggest questions that any of us face, and our society needs to open up a conversation at that level so that we're actually talking about what matters the most.

The Mystical Landscapes exhibit is on now until January 29.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.


On Monday, November 21, 2016, Alonzo Twyne said:

I have always had an appreciation for the greats Arts but unless spirituality is refering to Almighty God then reviewing will take you down the wrong road which leads to enlightment and religion. Christanity, the truth, is not religion and His creation is not nature.

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