The Art Gallery of Ontario is one the largest museums in all North America, with a massive collection of close to 95,000 pieces of art. As one of Toronto’s top tourist attractions it’s not what I would call off-the-beaten-path. But I’ve come to discover plenty of strange and unusual art and artifacts lurking in its corners.
My highlights are not the famous Masters but the kind of pieces that immortalize dark parts of history and culture from around the world. There’s even a tiny room dedicated to memento mori— antique funeral art.
So in honour of the Halloween season, and for anyone who wants to create their own spooky art crawl of the AGO at any time of year, here are my favourite death-themed or creepy highlights of the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Rodin’s Head of Pierre Wissant
In mid 14th-century France, the port city of Calais was under siege, and starving. As legend has it, King Edward III of England offered to spare the citizens if six of its leaders (aka burghers) volunteered to surrender to him – wearing nooses around their necks for no unnerving reason at all. Six men stepped forward, prepared to be executed. Their lives were actually spared (the King’s pregnant wife thought it would be bad luck for her unborn child to kill them), and they became known as the Six Burghers of Calais.
Famed French sculptor Auguste Rodin created several artworks to comemorate the event. The Art Gallery of Ontario owns a few of these pieces, including Head of Pierre Wissant, a terracotta sculpture cast in 1912. It’s displayed in a glass case in the middle of a painting gallery — not on a pedestal but laying on its side, eyelids closed and mouth open, as if decapitated.
The AGO also has full-size bronze Rodin sculptures of two other of the Burghers — despite having all their body parts intact, they don’t look any happier.
Screaming Faces by Manasiah Akpaliapik
Manasiah Akpaliapik’s Screaming Faces sculpture will stop you in your tracks – a pile of hooded faces carved from grey stone, with white ivory eyes and teeth, caught in a silent scream.
Akpaliakik is one of Canada’s most celebrated contemporary Inuit artists. Born in the far north, and forced into a residential school as a child, he suffered the death of his wife and two children in a fire when he was just 25. I have no information on how these tragedies may have informed the Screaming Faces sculpture, but it’s clear that he can convey raw pain with great artistic skill.
This piece is displayed in the Walker Court—a bright, clean, meditative space— and forces passers-by to confront the anguish of others.
Reliquary Guardian from Gabon
I’ve long been fascinated by religious relics and reliquary containers. (Maybe because I grew up near a “Martyr’s Shrine” with pieces of dead French Jesuit priests in its vaults.) But I’d never seen a Kota Reliquary before.
This wooden and metal figure dates from the late 1700s to early 1800s in Gabon, Central Africa. It was created to accompany the relics of dead ancestors, carried in baskets by nomadic farmers to help them stay connected with their loved ones on the Other Side.
The AGO has several such Guardians on display in the Murray Frum Gallery of African Art. But this one really caught my eye. The ornate metalwork, and the menacing mouth, with its sharp teeth, reminds me of ceremonial masks meant to ward off evil. But it wasn’t meant to scare anyone —the diamond-shaped legs would have been inside the basket, with the head figure as decoration on top, a display of wealth and symbol of pride.
Memento Mori Room
If you like death-themed art, this is the place for you. Just off to the side of the AGO’s main entrance is Room 108. It’s quite dark, all black walls and low lighting for the collection of religious artifacts and Medieval miniatures that make up part of the Thompson Collection.
Past the rows of crucifixes and the intricately carved diptychs, at the back of the room and around a corner, is the Memento Mori Roomette. This tiny section – only two people can comfortably view the collection up close at once — is packed with small funereal art from the 1600s-1900s.
Here’s just a sample of what you’ll see: gold coffin pendant with tiny skeleton inside; ivory sculpture of a naked cherub resting its head on a skull pillow; silver skull covered in snakes; skull pendants that open to reveal clockwork; a wooden sculpture of “Death Triumphant.” The list goes on…
These grim objects exist to remind us that we too shall pass. To stand and examine them, in this quiet, darkened place, is an invitation to think about our own mortality. For me, it’s a place to reflect on one of my favourite Latin phrases: “Ars longa, vita brevis.” Life is short, art is forever.
The sculptures of Bill Nasogaluak
There are plenty of horrific artworks in the AGO—gory portraits of John the Baptist’s head or Christ nailed to the cross, say. But none of them unsettled me like this simple glass sculpture by Bill Nasogaluak called Committing Suicide.
There’s no label on the bottle but it’s clear from the shape what it represents: alcohol. Then the stone figure, bent over and lifeless. Half the body rests inside the bottle, the other half slumped over what looks like a window. Just because there’s an escape route, doesn’t mean everyone is going to get out alive.
Most Canadians have or should have read the headlines by now of how alcoholism disproportionally affects Indigenous communities, still reeling from the effects of ongoing colonialism. But Nasogaluak, an Inuk artist from the Northwest Territories, has articulated it in an especially powerful way that needs no words at all.
The piece appears in a special solo exhibition of Nasogaluak’s work, within the AGO’s McLean Centre for Indigenous + Canadian Art, where visitors can see a variety of perspectives from first nations peoples of this land.
Portrait of Dr. Heinrich Stadelmann
OK sometimes even I just want a more light-hearted kind of creepy. One of my favourite oddball paintings in the AGO is this 1922 portrait of Dr. Heinrich Stadelmann — a German clinical psychiatrist who practised hypnotherapy.
There’s definitely something hypnotic about this painting – it reminds me of one of those haunted mansion portraits where the eyes follow you about the room. Artist Otto Dix uses vibrant colours reminiscent of a circus funhouse. And those eyes….don’t stare too long or you may get very sleepy…..
Obsidian installation by Jónsi
What’s it like inside a volcano? Icelandic multi-media artist Jónsi (best known from his band Sigur Ros) has created an installation meant to mimic the sound, feel, and even smell of this.
Hrafntinna (Obsidian) is a pitch-black space. As you approach the dark room, a sign indicates that Jónsi created the work after being feeling left out from visiting the Fagradalsfjall volcano eruption during the pandemic. (Same, Jónsi, same.) So I appreciated this opportunity to sit quietly and immerse myself in sound effects and ambient music – I admit I could not smell the “fossilized amber scent” promised — and think about laying down inside a volcano.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could make out the shape of speakers surrounding me, and allowed myself to get lost in the 16-channel sound installation, which lasts about 25 minutes before starting over again. Other artworks at the AGO show you darkness, but Obsidian really makes you feel it.
I hope you enjoyed these highlights of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Let me know your favourite pieces. And watch for more strange and unusual Toronto museum posts coming soon.
Know Before You Go
The Art Gallery of Ontario (aka the AGO) is located at 317 Dundas Street West in downtown Toronto, near Chinatown and Queen Street West. It’s open Tuesday to Sunday (closed most Mondays, except some holidays) – check the current hours here.
Admission is $25 for adults; an annual pass is $35. Anyone under 25 years old gets free admission, and Indigenous Peoples of any age are also free. Wednesday nights the permanent collections are free to all from 6pm to 9pm, but you have to book tickets online in advance now.
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