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Inside the Art Gallery of Ontario's summer show Drama & Desire

The Art Gallery of Ontario has never done anything quite like Drama & Desire: Artists and the Theatre, its big summer exhibition.

The novelty has nothing to do with theme (the AGO has hosted plenty of themed shows), ambition or size (more than 150 works displayed in 10 rooms on the second-floor Zacks Pavilion). What's new is the sheer theatricality of the display. Drama & Desireisn't so much presented as staged, its motherlode of dramatic paintings, by masters such as Jacques-Louis David, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, supplemented and surrounded by props, models, special effects and live performances. It's all very, well . . . playful, an acting-out of the ways that gesture and pose, decor and lighting, incident and character onstage have informed imagery on canvas, and vice-versa.

Drama and Desire was conceived years ago by Guy Cogeval during his eight-year tenure as the director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Cogeval has long been intrigued by the "century and a half of European art that was besotted by the lure of the stage" and by a desire to "draw attention to a theatrical dimension in the long march towards the modern." But it was only after leaving Montreal, in 2006, first to join the Institut national d'histoire de l'art in France, then in 2008 to head the illustrious Musée d'Orsay in Paris, that his conception achieved fruition.

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Toronto is actually the third (and final) venue for Drama and Desire, but its only North American stop. The show made its debut last October at the Musée Cantini in Marseille, moving in February this year to the Museo d'arte moderna e contemporanea in Rovereto, Italy. That's where AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum and Katharine Lochnan, the AGO's deputy director of research and curator of prints and drawings, caught up with it.

The presentation at Rovereto, Teitelbaum recalled, "was sort of a strolling kind of an exhibition . . . a few paintings here and few paintings there. It went more or less chronologically but there were no evident groupings of material even though they seemed to exist within the exhibition."

Right away he and Lochnan agreed the AGO presentation would have more "coherence" and "narrative . . . like chapters to a book," with "moments of destination." Not only would the art be organized around specific historical epochs or genres (neoclassicism, symbolism and so on), there would be rooms devoted to what they saw as four key artists - Henry Fuseli, Edgar Degas, Aubrey Beardsley and Edouard Vuillard .

In addition, Teitelbaum and Lochnan thought there should be "moments of real experience" as the audience moves from room to room. Theatre, after all, was the TV and movies of what Lochnan calls "the long 19th century," when impresarios mounted effects-laden spectacles that would put Andrew Lloyd Webber to shame.

Back in Canada, they met with Gerard Gauci, set designer for Opera Atelier, a Toronto company specializing in Baroque repertoire. "It was Gerard," said Teitelbaum, "who got us to the idea that if you're really interested in the notion of the theatre, why don't we make the exhibition into a staging and a stage as much as just a neutral space in which to see a few paintings?"

Hence, the fake draperies and enfilade of Ionic columns (made of plywood), that serve as the entrance to the show, and the real chandeliers, red curtains and the pink plush chaise in the Degas room - for Gauci, "a little private space at the Paris Opera where a dancer might entertain her patron." For fans of interactivity, there are wind and rain machines to hand-crank alongside The Storm, Antigonus Pursued by the Bear, Joseph Wright's epic 1790 recreation in oil of a scene from Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Horror buffs, in turn, will appreciate the severed head of John the Baptist (actually a prop lent by the Canadian Opera Company) resting in a tray of blood in the Beardsley room (which features a rare complete set of the notorious black-and-white illustrations Beardsley did for Oscar Wilde's Salomé).

All this - and the dancers and actors from Opera Atelier and Toronto's Dream in High Park who will appear from time to time throughout the exhibition's three-month stay - may seem slightly frivolous, Lochnan acknowledges. "But if you look back to the theatre of the time, it is appropriate because [theatre]was fun back then. It wasn't a kind of religious experience where everyone sat in silence and watched in awe.... People ate their popcorn or whatever and roared with laughter and talked throughout."

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Lochnan thinks these theatrical flourishes also will make what could be a rather abstruse subject more palatable to today's viewer. "On one level, this is a big-theme, serious academic show," she notes. Unadorned, its depictions of myths and lore - such as the tragedy of Paolo and Francesca or the solemn oath of the Horatii - likely would make a full, fine feast for classics and Renaissance scholars. But for the rest of us? Perhaps not so much. "I wanted to keep undermining the seriousness of the art," Lochnan observed. "Because we can't forget the plays we're dealing with were designed as entertainment. People in the late 18th century largely went to the theatre to have a laugh."

Drama and Desire: Artists and the Theatre opens Saturday at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario and continues until Sept. 26 ( ).

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