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Yousuf Karsh, Grey Owl (1936), Library and Archives Canada, e010792745
David Henderson never dreamed he would ever share wall space with Yousuf Karsh, one of the most famous and accomplished portrait artists in the world. To exhibit alongside Karsh at Henderson’s workplace—the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC)—is, he says, “the thrill of a lifetime.”
“Karsh was an enormous influence on me, stylistically and otherwise,” Henderson says. “But to have an image that I took some years ago, and to be part of the same exhibition as Karsh, has to be once in a lifetime.”
Henderson is a professional photographer and manager of the IMAX Theatre at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec. In 2004, he snapped the iconic portrait of author, activist and journalist June Callwood. That photograph was acquired by Library and Archives Canada (LAC), then chosen to be part of a unique exhibition: Double Take – Portraits of Intriguing Canadians. Organized by LAC, it is a novel presentation of portraits incorporating art, artifacts, video and text.
“We've always taken a different approach to portraiture at Library and Archives Canada,” says curator Carolyn Cook. “We don't necessarily define a portrait as an image that represents a full person. In the portrait of Mary Pratt, you see her hands. You don't really see her face. We have also included video portraits, because we feel that expresses another perspective on an individual.”
The exhibition highlights 59 people who have had an impact on the social, economic, cultural, sports and political life of Canada. It includes portraits by 13 artists who also have work in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, including sculptor Joe Fafard, photographers Arnaud Maggs and Yousuf Karsh, painters Gordon Rayner and Norval Morrisseau, and filmmaker, painter and graphic artist Laurence Hyde.
Cook also collaborated with the CMC to augment the exhibition with items such as the hockey mask worn by goalie Jacques Plante, and the racing suit worn by Gilles Villeneuve in the U.S. Grand Prix.
“The Museum of Civilization had some great objects in their collection, like the gun that was supposedly used to shoot Thomas D'Arcy McGee,” she says. “Or the five little dresses worn by the Dionne quintuplets, with their little name tags on them. These objects are so evocative. It brings a whole other dimension to the story we’re trying to tell.”
Cook then added another twist, with some unusual descriptors you wouldn’t typically find gracing a traditional portrait show: fraud (disgraced athlete Ben Johnson); curmudgeon (author Mordecai Richler); tourist (eighteenth-century novelist Frances Brooke); cigar aficionado (industrialist William Van Horne).
“I wanted to bring out thought-provoking stories and inspire visitors to do a double-take and look at these people through a different lens. The exhibition is really story-driven, so it’s very interpretive; but we're also trying to highlight unknown facts about each sitter, so that people will look at them in different ways."
Cook says her favourite stories are definitely the “quirky” ones: “Gilles Villeneuve was a struggling mechanic who couldn't afford to buy tools, so he ‘borrowed’ tools from Canadian Tire—essentially shoplifting,” she says. “Years later, as he became successful, he felt he should repay his debt, so he sent them a cheque for $5,000 and said they could capitalize on his name as well.”
David Henderson says Double Take is “a triumph.”“Portrait galleries around the world should take this as a shining example of what portrait exhibitions could be.”
Double Take – Portraits of Intriguing Canadians is on view at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, until 14 October 2013.
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