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Talking to a Portrait: Tales of An Art Curator

Book Review by Rachel Gotlieb

Magazine Issue: Fall/Winter 2020

Cover of the book Talking to a Portrait: Tales of an Art Curator.
Talking to a Portrait. Published by Montreal: Véhicule Press, 2020.

In her new book Talking to a Portrait: Tales of An Art Curator, Rosalind M. Pepall, long-time curator of Canadian art and decorative arts at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), shares her insights into select paintings and objects that resonated with her during her illustrious thirty-year career. Pepall presents fifteen concise chapters on such objects and spaces as Edwin Holgate’s poBrtrait of a young girl, Ludivine; a small domestic oratory from a Drummond Street stately house; Shrine of the Báb, designed by Montreal architect William S. Maxwell in Haifa; a Christopher Dresser teapot; and the Stanley Cup.

In this way, Pepall’s narrative structure largely reflects the popular material culture approach that prioritizes the agency of

objects by unlocking the social relations of objects through uncovering their multiple lives. Some call this method object biographies. The thinking behind it recognizes that value is not only inherent within the works themselves, but also comes from their exchange and circulation within society.

For example, Edmund de Waal’s bestselling family history, The Hare with the Amber Eyes, chronicles three sets of distant relatives in three distant times and places, all told through the filter of a collection of Japanese netsuke. Paula Byrne, in her biography The Real Life of Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, shows that contrary to common belief, Austen led a worldly life as evidenced by her personal items, including an East Indian Kashmir shawl. Similarly, Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum, published “biographies” of 100 objects from the museum’s collection.

If the lives of objects and donors make up the weft of Pepall’s essays, then the warp is her curatorial practice. Throughout the book, she discusses the highpoints and disappointments she encountered while organizing exhibitions or making important acquisitions for the permanent collection. A good curator begins planning an exhibition, no matter its size, with an object wish list. This list helps to steer the content, but it often becomes a source of regret when a work proves to be elusive. For me, it was a beaver brooch fashioned in the Scandinavian style by Quebec jeweler, Maurice Brault. Although its drawing inspired the premise of my exhibition Beaver Tales: Canadian Art and Design, I never found the original piece.

Pepall describes similar quests. For the MMFA show The 1920s: Age of Metropolis, she sought to include a unique masterpiece by French furniture designer Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann. Custom designed for the official residence of the president of France, this piece turned out to be inaccessible, but the search led to a great find: a rare Beauvais tapestry with scenes of the Eiffel Tower by Raoul Duffy. For the retrospective on Canadian-Danish silversmith Carl Petersen, Pepall requested the iconic Stanley Cup, his best-known design, but its rock-star status made it available for only a three-hour guest appearance during the opening.

Pepall recounts the complicated ins and outs of obtaining a permit to borrow or import objects in accordance with the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). One episode concerned the loan of art deco furniture accented with ivory, now an illegal trade material. The museum cleverly designated as American territory the gallery displaying the banned furniture.

As well, Pepall worked with the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board (CCPERB) to successfully prevent a Tiffany peacock-shaped table lamp and a Christopher Dresser silver-plated teapot, discovered in Trois-Rivières, Quebec no less, from leaving the country. Both are now safely housed in the MMFA. The latter rescue is particularly is impressive, since the Sheffield manufacturer of James Dixon & Sons produced very few of the famed Victorian designer’s diamond-shaped teapot: there is only one other known example, which is currently housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Many curators have their day annoyingly interrupted by members of the public who drop by unexpectedly to offer a work for donation or request to see something in storage. Duty calls, however, and one of Pepall’s unannounced visitors was the great-grandson of Georges Clemenceau, the French statesman known as “The Tiger.”

In the 1960s, a Montreal shipping magnate donated Clemenceau’s collection of 3,000 kogos (small ceramic incense boxes modelled in delightful animal and plant shapes) to the MMFA. This collection languished in storage for the next decade—a common plight in large museums with extensive reserves—until an associate curator of Asian art rediscovered it. Pepall’s impromptu meeting and private tour paid off, helping to shed further light on the collection’s unusual provenance. Joseph Simard, who ran Marine Industries, purchased the collection from Clemenceau’s son as part of a larger strategy to secure the contract to sell warships to France in the 1930s—a wonderful example of power and politics intersecting with the art world.

Pepall’s research is extensive, and for readers there is much to enjoy and discover. For example, Pepall tells how Clara Driscoll, an important artist behind the great Louis Comfort Tiffany, is now finally getting her due, and we discover the little-known Quebec metalsmith Paul Bais, who wrought exquisite ironwork for the Houses of Parliament in Ottawa. It is also impressive to learn how Pepall managed to champion Canadian content throughout her career. Fortunately, she saved Prudence Heward’s A Day at the Theatre when her non-Canadian co-curators wanted it cut at the last moment from the international exhibition Age of Metropolis due to limited exhibition space.

However, I can’t help wondering if Pepall’s method of curating is, for better or worse, in the past. For now, the COVID-19 pandemic has curtailed travelling exhibitions and courier trips (where curators accompany their institution’s objects for security). Even the rules of CCPERB have become more complex and nuanced, requiring that any work temporarily stayed for possible patriation must demonstrate that it contributes significantly to Canadian culture and history above and beyond aesthetics.

Iris bleus, jardin du Petit Gennevilliers by Gustave Caillebotte almost slipped out of the country in 2018 because a federal court agreed with Heffel Fine Art that it was not central to Canadian cultural heritage, which permitted its sale outside the country. Thankfully, the ruling was overturned and the Art Gallery of Ontario purchased the painting. Would the Trois-Rivières Dresser teapot with an unknown provenance be so lucky? How, when, and why it came to Canada is a story that still needs to be told.

The pressing issues challenging all museums in the world today are the need for greater inclusivity and transparency, both in the workplace (from board to staff members) and in programming to meet the concerns of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour). How do these current critical objectives fit with conventional curatorial strategies? What is more, museums are increasingly under fire about large disparities in salaries among staff and workplace harassment. Pepall’s own museum is in the spotlight because of the dismissal of long-term director Natalie Bondil and the accusations against her for creating a toxic workplace environment. As Pepall herself states in her preface, she worked under five different museum directors. Given the seismic shifts occurring in museum practice today, more insights into the lives of curators and workplace dynamics and changing museum mandates and policies would be valuable to address.

Dr. Rachel Gotlieb has curated over twenty exhibitions and published extensively on design and craft. Her work has received awards from the Canadian Museums Association, Ontario Association of Art Galleries and Craft Ontario. Since 2015, she has taught design history at Sheridan College. She is also adjunct curator at the Gardiner Museum where she was previously Chief Curator and Interim Executive Director. She is the founding curator of the Design Exchange, Canada’s former design museum.


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