The Claire and Michael Bourgie Pavilion seen from inside the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion. ©Julia Pelish Photography

The best museum in Canada — and it’s free

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Story courtesy of Adrian Brijbassi

MONTREAL — Even before its newest wing, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts offered visitors an excellent review of Canadian and international painting. What the two-week-old Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion of Quebec and Canadian Art accomplishes, however, is so tremendous it hoists this attraction to the top, making it the best museum in Canada. Hands-down.

The Pavilion, named after its donors, should stoke a stronger interest in Canadian art within this country’s borders because its 600-piece collection gives us all a fantastic gift: It shows that the great art movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries did not happen without us. For so long we have looked abroad to gape at the work of Surrealists, Impressionists, Dadaists, Realists and every other foreign -ist you can think of that it fed into the inferiority complex Canadians tend to have about our cultural contribution to the world. The Pavilion helps rectify that perception by galvanizing the work of artists who its exhibit rightly points out should be more heralded.

From a salle devoted to Jean-Paul Riopelle to works by Jean Dallaire and Paul-Emilé Borduas, we see just how richly intertwined Canadian artists from Quebec were with the surrealist and abstract movements of the last century. Some of Riopelle’s work is similar to pieces by Jackson Pollock while you could mistake creations from Dallaire and Borduas for those by Joan Miro and Salvador Dali. For proof, just look at the paintings by those European masters on display in the museum’s main building across the street. The Quebec-born Automatistes movement influenced numerous famous artists from the early half of the 1900s, a fact that we don’t hear enough about in our schools and media.

Along with the modernists, the Pavilion features some beautiful 19th-century landscapes. “High Tide at Dieppe”, a bleak 1886 piece, depicts tattered sailboats and a burning frigate in the French harbour, an image that resonates because of what took place there nearly 60 years after James MacDonald Barnsley’s painting debuted. If you ever wondered what Hamilton looked like without smokestacks, Robert Reginald Whale’s “View of Lake Ontario from Dundas” will tell you as it shows the burgeoning village along the shore. There’s early Canadian work from the likes of Paul Kane and still-life paintings from Cornelius Krieghoff that starkly resemble the work of the Dutch masters who are celebrated in the Louvre and the Hermitage. You’ll also see paintings from the Group of Seven, including “Morning, Lake Superior” from Lawren Harris.

The Pavilion encompasses six levels of galleries housed in the former Erskine & American United Church, a circa 1894 building that was purchased in 2008 for the museum’s use. A 444-seat concert hall was part of the $42.4-million expansion project that made sure to preserve plenty of the historic church. All six floors of the Pavilion are easy to enjoy, with small floor plans on each level giving the maximum impact to the high quality of the artwork. The top floor features Inuit art, including some eye-catching sculptures from contemporary artists, while the next four levels down are devoted primarily to canvasses. Although Alex Colville’s wonderful “Church and Horse” is a highlight of the bottom floor, that lowest level also features sculptures and contemporary installations on a path that leads you to the underground passages connecting the Pavilion with the museum’s two other buildings.

Entry to all three buildings of the museum is free. So there’s no excuse. Every Canadian should see it. Chances are, you’ll be proud you did.


TRAVEL TIP: Devote at least 90 minutes to see all three buildings.
1380 Sherbrooke Street West
Located between Avenue du Musée and Bishop Street. The closest Metro stop is Guy-Concordia on the Angrignon/Honoré -Beaugrand line (once you exit the station, head northeast toward Sherbrooke Street and the museum).
Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Mondays.

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Vicky is the worldly publisher of Having graduated from McGill University in Montreal, she has set about building a talented team of travel experts to deliver to you words and images of the very best places to see and experience in Canada. Based in Yorkville in Toronto, Vicky regularly jet sets around Canada — be sure to catch up with her when she's in your part of the country.

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