A peek in a philanthropist’s collection

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VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — A walk through Vancouver Art Gallery these days is like getting a personal invitation into the home of collector Michael Audain.

From now until the end of January, Audain, one of the city’s most prominent businessman and philanthropist, has his collection on exhibit. It is an outstanding look at west coast art over the past three centuries.

The Shore, Forest and Beyond: Art from the Audain Collection begins with the ceremonial objects from First Nations in B.C., which has long been considered by experts to be the most sophisticated of any Aboriginal people.

As Audain explained in interviews, he kept the First Nations masks he had accumulated over the years in his office and would feel them looking back at him as he worked. “I am in awe of these sacred objects that silently watch me as I type this message,” he wrote in an essay.

The masks, some dating back to the 1840s, are intricately carved from wood and pigmented in vibrant colours. “They are not frozen in time but temporarily resting from their mediation between the world of animals, spirits and human beings, people who in times gone by were so much closer to the natural rhythm of life than most of us today.”

Audain has said that he considers the 19th century Northwest Coast materials, which he repatriated from the United States and the Europe, as deserving respect as more than art objects. He has promised that these masks will never leave the coast again and will never appear on the market but will remain in museums.


As much as we stared at them in the exhibit seeking to understand, these masks are equally expressive in staring back at their curious visitors. There is something remarkably calming about being watched.

Audain, the chairman of Polygon Homes Lt., one of the province’s biggest home builders,  has deep roots in B.C. His grandchildren are seventh generation British Columbians and as a child, Audain lived in Victoria where he recalled seeing Emily Carr with her pet monkey.

In his youth, Audain said he didn’t like her art but decades later, when he saw her work at the Vancouver Art Gallery, he realized her landscapes were as good as any he had seen on the walls of the New York’s Museum of Modern Art. What Paul Gauguin had done for the landscape and people of Tahiti, Audian believes Emily Carr had done for the Northwest Coast.

Audain’s collection of Emily Carr is the largest private collection of her works in the world and VAG visitors will get the rare opportunity to see Carr’s vivid depictions of the west coast from her War Canoes at Alert Bay finished in 1912 to her majestic Quiet painted in 1942 of a dark and imposing forest.

From 19th century masks to Emily Carr, Lawren Harris and B.C. Modernists, the province’s timeline have been captured in single images viewed from the artist.

These snapshots, some mysterious, others oblique, all tell the story in some way of how the province has evolved. One of the more striking pieces appears to be just a blown-up photograph but the image lingers in the mind after the visitor walks away.

Against the backdrop of the Vancouver skyline, the view is of a position high among the other condos and buildings in downtown and in stone lettering the words Real Estate. The two figures are identified, Nancy Nishu, looking pensive, and Joe Ping Chau, who appears proud and certain. Thinking back now about that image, the two faces reflect something changing but what exactly is up to the visitor to decide and ponder at a later time.

Among the paintings in the Audain collection are works by Mexican masters including Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. As a university student, Audain travelled to Mexico to view the art of Mexican modernists. He was so interested as a teenager in the social relevance of Mexican art that he took a Greyhound bus to Mexico City to see the work of muralists.

The works Audain collected over the years, 18 paintings in all, is also on display as part of the Shore, Forest and Beyond exhibit and is the largest Canadian collection in existence, attracting worldwide attention.

Two years ago, Rivera’s 85-year-old daughter came to Vancouver and asked to see the paintings in the Audains’ home. One of the pieces on exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery moved Rivera’s daughter to tears. Her father’s self-portrait Autorretrato was a work she had never seen before and it brought back memories of her father.

Audain has said he was unsure about whether he wanted to publicly exhibit these pieces of art. “We have acquired our pictures one at a time, never having any grand plan of building a collection, let alone one that would be publicly exhibited. Our art is something we live with and relate to daily as opposed to being work on a museum wall that we may view occasionally with a fleeting glance.”

Until January 29, 2012, the public will also get a chance to get a fleeting glance at this collection before it goes back inside the Audain home at The Vancouver Art Gallery.

Vicky is the worldly publisher of Vacay.ca. 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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