‘Looking Glass’ – Rather than the Art We Consume, a Meditation on the Art that Consumes Us

By: Dahlia Labatte

Jun 3, 2022

With our show Looking Glass coming up in July, I figured it would be nice to write about pieces that if I had the chance would put in this show, or pieces that illustrate a concept that inspired the show. So here is a little peek into a curators mind: pieces from history that inspired the Looking Glass show.

Claude Monet, The Joint of Meat, 1862-1863

1. Claude Monet – The Joint of Meat

The first piece in this list is this still life by Monet. This piece is rather small, but it immediately caught my eye as I was walking through the Musee d’Orsay because of its subject matter. Usually I do not find still lives to be incredibly stimulating, but I’ve never seen a still life of a piece of raw meat before. Although very simple, it invites consideration because of its unusualness. Then it becomes even more interesting when you look at the panel next to the painting and realize it was painted by Monet. And when one sees Monet, the immediate thought is the water lilies, the pastel coloured garden paintings, not a slab of meat. This piece invites consideration and contemplation despite its simplicity.

Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch, 1654

2. Carel Fabritius – The Goldfinch

My introduction to this piece was through the book The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. So when thinking about how to approach the curation of Looking Glass, this painting came to mind because this small painting was able to inspire an entire story. The narrative of this painting seems simple, a little goldfinch sitting on a little bar, until you see the chain that attaches the bird’s foot to the bar. Then, suddenly, a narrative bursts through the frame; how did it get there? How long has it been there? Who put it there? How does this little bird feel? Is it sad? Is it lonely? The more you look at it, the harder it is to tear yourself from this little bird that you know hasn’t been able to fly since 1654 when it was painted.

“—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.”

― Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

Henry Toulouse-Lautrec, Le Lit, 1892-1893

3. Henry Toulouse-Lautrec – Le Lit

The story in this piece lies in the relationship between the 2 subjects as well as the subjects and the painter. The gaze between the subjects seems to be anything but impersonal and staged.

The painter of this piece spent a lot of time in brothels, living in one at one point, and became a companion of the women. This piece is part of a series of sixteen paintings. The subject of this painting and many other in this series are 2 women, in bed, often interpreted as, and likely to be, lesbian lovers. This series is beautiful because it was not done to cater towards male customers of the brothel and because Lautrec was accepted as a friend, he was able to observe and document, without fetishization, the intimacy and love between queer women.

Left: Henry Toulouse-Lautrec, Dans le lit, 1892
Right: Henry Toulouse-Lautrec, Au lit: le baiser, 1892

Left: Artist unknown, Ming dynasty, China, 1522-1566
Right: Artist unknown, Ming dynasty, China, 1522-1566

4. Chinese blue & white porcelain

Chinese blue and white porcelain is something I have loved for a long time. There is so much beauty in these items. This type of porcelain was perfected during the Ming dynasty in China, was one of their largest exports, and could’ve had multiple colours but the classic Ming porcelain is white and blue. I have seen Ming dynasty with rust-red colours and greens but the blue and white remains my favourite. Ming dynasty blue and white porcelain and the style of the designs draws you in because of its details, each piece is unique and I could  stare at them for hours. That was the original, base-line premise of this show – just because a piece is small in size, doesn’t mean there is less to look at and feel. Another beautiful thing that you find in pottery and ceramics throughout history, is they very frequently feature stories, myths, and a lot of symbolism; other examples include Asante funerary vessels and busts, and the next item on this list: Greek red and black figure pottery. These ideas were central to the curation and conceptualization of this show.

Ming dynasty porcelain also inspired the show in a very obvious way – through the work of Alyssa Goodman, and a piece we have by Mark Liam Smith.

Left: Pamphaios and Oltos, Athens, 4th quarter 6th century AD
Right: Painter of Pasithea, Athens, 1st quarter 4th century AD

5. Greek red & black figure pottery

Like I mentioned above: pottery throughout history often features stories & myths, as well as symbolism that pertains to the culture that it’s from. This remains true for Greek red and black figure pottery. Chinese Ming dynasty pottery depicts figures less and symmetrical floral designs more, whereas Greek pottery very frequently depicts figures. Greek pottery figures are not always depictions of gods and myths, but sometimes athletes and other figures as well. One of my favourite parts of Greek pottery is that the pose of the figures are always very large and gestural, because of their size the pose needs to read from further away while still maintaining their impact. The idea that such a large context and story, as well as impact, can be had by a small object was really important to the Looking Glass show.

François Boucher, Les Sabots, 1768

6. François Boucher – Les Sabots

The main focus and way that this piece inspired the Looking Glass show is the relationship between the subject, as well as the societal contexts that can be drawn from that. In this small frame Boucher has constructed a world and narrative. Boucher’s work is very characteristic of a lot of Rococo art – romance and depictions of aristocratic leisurely life. However typical it is, we still have the urge to go up close and examine the gaze between our two subjects. A lot of intricate detail on a small canvas draws the viewer into the painting and story; a key concept of the Looking Glass show.

Rudolf Koppitz, Bewegungsstudie (Movement Study), 1925

7. Rudolf Koppitz – Bewegungsstudie

This piece is so initially striking because of its contrast. Alongside the beautiful gestural pose of the figure in the foreground it draws the viewer in. This piece to me has a very potent energy, and I can’t discern why that is exactly. Maybe that is because of the inherent contrast in posing between the figures in the background to the figures in the foreground, the power behind the gesture in the foreground, the contrast between modesty and nudity, or some amalgamation of all of this plus the simple interest created by the unknown. Although the intended narrative of this piece is unclear it seems to be filled to the brim with possibilities. 

One of the strings that tie each of these pieces together is the ability to find stories within them, and through that we drag ourselves into that world. We can stand there and lose ourselves for a few seconds in the possibilities within that single piece. There is a difference between consuming art from outside-in, versus letting the art consume you and feeling it from the inside-out. We hope that through the Looking Glass show you will let yourself feel the difference.