Category Archives: Gianni Berengo Gardin

Honouring Arts Advocate Dr. Shirley Thomson

The headline Donor supports Venice Biennale’s Canada Pavillon caught my eye.  I’m fond of Venice  – one big art gallery, really! – and visited the Architecture Biennale in 2016.  (You can read a short post about my Biennale adventures here, and a brief description about the Canadian exhibition here.)

Venice Biennale site, image by T. Vatrt

Venice Biennale site, image by T. Vatrt

What is interesting about the $3 million donation to maintain the Canadian Pavillon at the Venice Biennale site is that the donor remains anonymous.   Instead, the patron wishes to honour a former director of the National Gallery of Canada, Dr. Shirley Thomson (1930-2010.)  Barbara Stead- Coyle (National Gallery of Canada Foundation) reports The donor wanted the focus to be on Dr. Thomson and Dr. Thomson’s time at the gallery.  

Among her many achievements, Dr. Thomson was the director of the National Gallery of Canada when it moved from an office building to its current (and stunning) purpose-built location along the Ottawa River.

Maman, Louise Bourgeois, 1999 National Gallery of Canada image

Maman, Louise Bourgeois, 1999 National Gallery of Canada image

National Gallery of Canada, T. Vatrt image

During her 1987-1997 tenure at the National Gallery, Dr. Thomson diversified the permanent collection, acquiring contemporary art, as well as important historical works.  Under her direction, the gallery purchased  Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire (1967) in 1989 for $1.8 million.  It proved to be a highly controversial topic in Canada, outraging Conservative politicians, and sparking discussions amongst Canadians. How wonderful to have citizens talking about art!

Here’s a concise video by  National Gallery curator Annabelle Kienle Ponka  explaining the significance of this painting.

Voice of Fire, Barnett Newman, Winnipeg Free Press image

In addition to her degrees in fine art and history, Dr. Shirley Thomson received an honorary degree from Université Concordia in 2001.  This citation outlines some of her many accomplishments throughout her career, as well as at the National Gallery.  Besides diversifying the permanent collection with savvy purchases (imagine what Voice of Fire is worth today) she valued education and accesibility for all:  she initiated an internship program for university students, and began the Cybermuse program, which ensured the collection’s online availability.  In honour of the donation, the Abstract Expressionist space is now The Dr. Shirley L. Thomson Gallery.

Isn’t it refreshing to have an arts advocate honoured, instead of the usual Mr. and Mrs. Millionaire/Billionaire Memorial Gallery?  For a bit of insight into Dr. Thomson’s leadership style and personality, this interview with Rob Labossiere provides some insight into this remarkable woman.  Our thanks to the generous donor for maintaining the Canadian Pavillon at the Venice Biennale and for bringing Dr. Shirley Thomson to our attention.

Dr. Shirley Thomson, Ottawa Citizen image

Dr. Shirley Thomson, Ottawa Citizen image


Gianni Berengo Gardin

The Telegraph calls him “Italy’s Greatest Photographer.”  Who knew?  Certainly not me, before I entered the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome.  I chose  to visit the exhibit because the advertising was appealing (!) and the venue was close by.  It’s amusing to admit that no previous knowledge nor research went into my decision.

I was immediately in thrall to the images presented.  Berengo Gardin’s work is gorgeous:  beautifully structured, full of surprises, layered with meaning.  His photographs are compassionate, but not  maudlin.  Honest and beautiful are apt descriptors.

Gianni Berengo Gardin has lived most of his life in Milan, but considered Venice his hometown.  He is self-taught, and began taking photographs in the 1950’s.  The exhibition, Vera Fotografia, (True Photography)  is a chronological retrospective of his work. It begins with his evocative shots of Venice, and highlights the major projects in his career, as he documented industries in Italy (Olivetti, Fiat, Alfa Romeo), worked with the architect and engineer Renzo Piano, and chronicled the lives of ordinary and sometimes marginalized people. The exhibition ends with his unsettling images of contemporary Venice.


Gianni Berengo Gardin

Click here to see the image Berengo Gardin feels is his “best shot.” ( Keep in mind that he has published 250 books during his lifetime, and has worked continuously since the middle of the last century!)

The images I am ‘grabbing’ from the internet do not do justice to the works.  (I wasnt allowed to ‘grab’ images in the exhibition.)  Click on these articles from The Daily Mail and The Independent and the interview in The Telegraph for some decent reproductions.

In addition to the stark beauty of the black and white images, several other artists, photographers, architects, etc. were asked to choose a favourite Berengo Gardin image, and comment on it…..fortunately, the commentaries were translated to English. The choices, as well as  the comments were interesting;  the salon-like effect of ‘discussing’ an artist and his work was engaging, and added to my appreciation of the photographs.

All of Berengo Gardin’s certified photographs have Vera Fotografia (True Photograph) printed on the backs. I can’t think of a better phrase to summarize his work.