The passing of a great voice for art

Obituaries for Shirley Thomson, the former director of the National Gallery of Canada, inevitably make much of her role in buying and defending Voice of Fire, the controversial acquisition that marked her most public moment as one of the most influential figures on Canada’s fine arts scene. (Here‘s one from the Ottawa Citizen.)

That’s appropriate, up to a point. In fact, the last time I had the singular pleasure of interviewing Thomson, back in January, about a month before her 80th birthday, it was to ask her, yet again, about buying Barnett Newman’s three-striped canvass, for a story on the 20th anniversary of the Voice debate. The fuss over the cost of that painting, and whether it was really any good, allowed Thomson’s winning way of talking about art—an uncommon blend of down-to-earth and deadly serious—to fully work its magic.

But we shouldn’t let that one fun episode cast a red-and-blue shadow over everything else. There were all those memorable exhibitions during her tenure at the National Gallery. Highlights of her 10-year run as director included 1988’s Dégas, 1990’s Emily Carr, 1996’s Corot (not a marquee name, but what a show), and 1997’s Renoir crowd-pleaser. She oversaw a lot of great purchases, too, including a Rothko abstract brazenly bought in the wake of the Voice uproar.

When I talked with her eight months ago, she was in fine form. Reliving how Voice sparked such an impassioned public discussion, she wondered why we so rarely bother to talk much about painting and sculpture.  “There’s a certain lack of critical intensity,” she said. “Maybe we’re more articulate in the field of literature. Maybe it’s too hard to talk about art.”

She sure could. We’ll miss her voice.

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