Museum exhibit: Artis’tree’ at its very best


Pining for a cool, shady oasis during the palmy days of midsummer?

Wouldn't you know it, the McMaster Museum of Art has the perfect solution: an indoor, air-conditioned exhibition that celebrates artists' conceptions of the tree.

Called “Arboretum,” the exhibition makes use of artworks from the permanent collection, one photograph and one sculpture, as well as several paintings and prints in a whole forest of styles.

Take the three works in oil on canvas, for instance: Emile-Othon Friesz' Le Canal d'Anvers from 1906 is a decorative Fauve interpretation of a group of poplars and umbrella pines lining a canal. Friesz has translated the foliage into a rainbow of pigment, pinks and reds, purples and oranges, blues and yellows, to produce an audacious design filled with joyous, animated colour.

Working during the heyday of the short-lived Fauve style, Friesz uses trees in this painting as leafy emblems of nature's well-being.

Raoul Dufy, like Friesz, was from the port of Le Havre, but in Les Arbres Verts a l'Estaque his take on trees is very different. As Friesz concentrates on colour, Dufy concerns himself primarily with form and he translates his trees (surely evergreens) into simplified three dimensional green and grey cones. Dufy was painting this with Georges Braque at l'Estaque in 1908 and was obviously influenced by Braque's early experiments in Cubism. This cerebral approach never really suited Dufy, however, and he soon reverted to a more personal style which relied on bright Fauve colour and a playful and elegant use of line.

And personality is what predominates in Chaim Soutine's expressive Paysage a Ceret. Painted in 1919 in Ceret, a small town in the Pyrenees, Soutine's trees, houses and mountains are ripped apart as if in an explosion or earthquake. The artist, who shares an affinity with the German Expressionists and tormented geniuses such as van Gogh, was born into a poor Russian-Jewish family. Never feeling sure of himself, or his work, he constantly destroyed or reworked his early paintings. The landscapes from Ceret survive because 100 of them were purchased in 1923 by Dr. Albert Barnes for the famous Barnes Foundation. In this example, Soutine saturates his canvas in a bloody red paint. His trees are set on fire and the effect is passionate, visceral and disturbing.

The series of prints on view include engravings, etchings, mezzotints and drypoints. They are framed by — what else? — two woodcuts. The earliest work, a Lucas Cranach representation of the Judgment of Paris features three stylishly chapeaued nudes in an idyllic setting complete with equally elegant, stylized trees. And at the other end of the timeline is a razor sharp 1914 interpretation of a Russian wood, by Karl Schmidt-Rotluff.

The lone photograph on view is, appropriately, Hamish Fulton's wonderfully evocative document of a walk in the woods. And the sculpture on display? David Nashes' Cuilliere en Chene(Oak Spoon), carved by Nash in 1988 for the refectory of the Abbey of Tournus from two nearby condemned trees. I suppose that if someone was fond of terrible puns, it might be called a “tree-spoon.” But there's certainly no one like that around here.

“Arboretum” will be on view until Aug. 20.