Long before she rediscovered one of the most talented lithographers of the 19th century and curated an international blockbuster featuring his work, Katharine Lochnan had dreamt of taking a trip to Ireland to explore her roots. When she finally found room in her busy schedule as Deputy Director of Research and The R. Fraser Elliott Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Gallery of Ontario, her timing was impeccable. Unbeknownst to her, the trip to County Clare to look into archival records coincided with a rare event in her ancestral line: the second ever reunion of the ‘Ui Lochlainn’ clan and the first in a decade. “To arrive there at that moment was extraordinary synchronicity,” she told me when we sat down in her office at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Warmly welcomed by the group, Lochnan found the trip to be both personally and professionally propitious. Clambering over the rocky countryside, she fell in love with the landscape. “I just had the feeling of something greater than ourselves,” she said. “I felt that it held the mysteries of my own existence back to the dawn of time.”
When she returned to Toronto, Lochnan embarked on another journey. Though raised a Catholic, she had left the Church after Vatican II. Nonetheless, she registered for courses in the spiritual direction program Regis College, a Jesuit Institute associated with the University of Toronto. Following a year of intense study with a group of like-minded individuals, she informed her classmates that she was thinking of retiring from the Art Gallery of Ontario to devote herself to ministry. But their response was not what she expected. “They told me ‘there’s a problem: you’re already in your ministry. It’s curating’. I said curating isn’t a ministry. Oh yes, they said, it is,” Lochnan told me. “My teacher said we feel you are already in your ministry and you still have something else to do.”
So Lochnan stayed on at the AGO. And she didn’t have to wait too long to find her calling. Later that year, while attending a conference in New York City, she visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I always go to look at paintings at the MET. This time I found myself wondering if there was such a thing as a mystical landscape. And all of a sudden I began to see the 19th century pictures as if for the first time. I thought ‘Oh my God! Monet is doing it! Van Gogh is doing it! Gauguin is doing it! And I knew I was onto something.”
At dinner later that night, Paul Lang, the new Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the National Gallery of Canada asked her if she had any ideas for exhibitions. “I told him I’m really interested in mysticism and landscape. To my surprise, he said ‘that’s a brilliant idea. I’ll support you’.” Lochnan recalls that from that moment on “doors just kept opening”. When she approached her colleagues at the AGO, though normally hesitant about religious subjects, they supported her idea. “I made it clear that this was about the spiritual, that mysticism was at the root of all religions.”
Lochnan then flew to Paris to meet with the Director of the Musée d’Orsay. She was on a mission to convince him to lend her key pictures from the collection. “Not only did he say that I could I borrow them,” Lochnan said. “But he told me he wanted the show.”
Thrilled, Lochnan invited colleagues, award-winning author and curator Roald Nasgaard and one of the leading world experts in Van Gogh, art historian Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, to work with her as guest curators. The group began to select which images would ultimately be included. There was one problem. “As art historians, we couldn’t articulate the mystical,” said Lochnan. “Frankly, I felt that we were on holy ground and needed some help.” So Lochnan assembled a group of theologians and the team began to form a common language. “Together we focused on and identified the characteristics of what we called mystical landscapes. Historians and scientists joined us and we had the most extraordinary conversations.”
Charles Marie Dulac, a little-known late nineteenth century French lithographer, became central to the concept of the show. Considered by some to be a mystic, Dulac explored themes and aesthetic principles that guided the committee’s search. “Once we had spent time with his work and we understood the qualities that were inherent in it, we found it easier to identify the mystical qualities in other people’s work. So he became a kind of a litmus test.”
Lochnan had first discovered Dulac in the 1980s. “I was at Fred Mulder’s gallery in Hampstead. Fred was an art dealer from Saskatchewan who specialized in 19th century French prints. When I saw this portfolio of lithographs called Paysages, I thought that it was simply gorgeous. And I asked Fred ‘Who is this guy? His work is beautiful’.”
Though he received recognition in his own time, by the late 20th century, Dulac had largely been forgotten. Born in Paris in 1866, Dulac worked as a commercial artist, supporting himself by painting stage sets and apartment interiors, and working in the wallpaper industry. In his early twenties, he was diagnosed with lead poisoning, having absorbed lead through the white paint he worked with. Knowing that he had only a short time left to live, Dulac entered a Franciscan convent in Vézelay, Burgundy. There, he had a conversion experience. He dedicated the rest of his life to making works of art that were devotional in nature. Unable to become a monk because of his poor health, when Dulac died in 1898 at age 32, he became a tertiary, a member of the lay Third Order, and was buried wearing a Franciscan monk’s robe.
Dulac worked extensively in lithography. As a medium, it was beginning to be adopted by fine artists like James McNeill Whistler and Édouard Vuillard. Dulac demonstrated a sophisticated mastery of the form that surpassed his peers. “Perhaps because of his applied art background, he was able to combine stones with zinc plates, use many colors and incredibly subtle colors, and superimpose things and register them,” said Lochnan. “His palette is very understated, very subtle, and very idiosyncratic. He knew how to work in a way that gives an illusion of three dimensions but is also two-dimensional. He would often play with the same image, changing only the colors that he used.
Lochnan fell in love with his work. “I began to buy Dulac hand over fist,” she said. Work quickly spread in the art world that she was collecting him. Lochnan recalls that every summer a dealer from New York would arrive in Toronto with prints to sell. “He began to look for stuff for me. He brought me drawings and pastels and then the ten variations of the same plate, which were ultimately in the exhibition. And,” she added with some satisfaction, “they sold me those at a discount.”
She soon discovered she had an ally in former diplomat and ambassador to the United States, Allan Gotlieb. A great lover of 19th century French prints, Gotlieb had amassed an extensive private collection, which included work by Dulac. “When he saw that I was buying Dulac, he offered us some beautiful prints from his private collection,” Lochnan told me. “It is thanks to Alan that we have the variations on some of the plates in our portfolios.”
Lochnan was determined that the AGO become the North American institute of record for Dulac, an objective she ultimately achieved. From the research done to date, it appears that Dulac created two major series of prints (otherwise known as portfolios). Suite de Paysages has eight original lithographs and zincographs and Le Cantique des Creatures has nine impressions. He died before he was able to compete his final series, Credo. It contains only three prints. Lochnan was able to assemble two of these portfolios, the Suite de Paysages and Le Cantique des Creatures, in addition to many variations on individual prints. It is that collection that lies at the heart of Mystical Landscapes. At the AGO installation, Dulac was the sole artist to have his own exhibition room. Entering through a doorway from the main hall into an intimate rectangular salon, I had the sensation of being in a place of worship or chapel. This effect was quite deliberate. “We wanted to create a chapel like setting and a kind of sacred space. A sanctuary,” Lochnan confirmed.
Dulac’s plate The Canticle of Creatures is perhaps his most famous and impressive. Lochnan hung the ten variations of the print along one wall so that viewers could understand how he conveyed meaning through repetition and variation of colour and saturation. “The Canticle of St Francis’ is a hymn to nature as the great work of art of the creator,” Lochnan explained. “Dulac depicts a man plowing a field, creating the furrows in which to do the planting. And there is a little chapel there, dedicated to St. Barbara, who is the patron saint of storms. We see that the chapel is protected by this huge and wonderful tree.”
A historian on her team discovered that the Lord’s Prayer was penciled in the margin of one of the proof impressions of La Chapelle a Minerville. “Knowing this, we realized that Dulac is inspired by the first line from the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’.” But because his work is so evocative, Lochnan believes that the viewer can feel his intention that without having to know the Catholic liturgy. “The beauty of his prints is that they hint at something rather than trying and explain it fully,” explains Lochnan. “If you’re trying to deal in the realm of the transcendent you don’t want to be too explicit.”
Dulac didn’t paint many pictures and the five paintings that are found in the exhibition are among the few that survive. Four of them depict a sun setting over the Tiber Valley and were painted when Dulac visited Assisi, the home of St. Francis. These paintings are emblematic of a mystical union, according to Lochnan. “The sun has three rays coming out of it, which are Trinitarian. The notion of the Trinity (God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) is very important in Franciscan theology. All the colors are running together, creating a sense of unity where the landscape quietly disappears as the sun sets. I think that these sunsets, where the last rays of light are disappearing, is Dulac’s way of coming towards mystical unity and harmony.”
Unexpectedly for Lochnan, the Dulac room became a personal place of sanctuary and comfort. As she was in the midst of the final preparation for the opening in Toronto, Lochnan’s husband of forty years, the architect George Yost, suddenly died. Overcome with grief, she debated taking time off but ultimately continued to work. “My colleagues didn’t know it at the time but sometimes I would slip into the Dulac room and cry. Then I would pull myself together and go out and carry on.”
Five years in the making, Mystical Landscapes was a critical and popular success, boasting capacity crowds. After five months, it closed in February 2017 and was reinstalled at the Musée d’Orsay, where it opened last month. Lochnan travelled to Paris to supervise the installation and attend the opening. “The opening at Orsay was overwhelming,” Lochnan told me. “There were literally thousands of people either in the galleries or waiting outside to enter the museum.” The exhibition is so popular that the numbers of viewers in Paris is exceeding previous records at Orsay. Projected attendance by the time the exhibition closes is close to half a million visitors. “It is so popular that they have to restrict entrants to 4,500 per day for the safety of the art works.”
And after forty-seven years at the AGO, Lochnan recently stepped down as Senior Curator of International Exhibitions, and now holds the title of Senior Curator Emeritus. Not one to retire, she envisions curating a solo show that would give Dulac his due. “I think he is a fascinating artist and he’s become very important to me. I don’t know if the Gallery would ever want to do a Dulac exhibition but we have the material,” she says with pride. “You know, nobody’s really looked at this before. And it is ripe for further development. Maybe that is what I’ll be doing from now on with my team: continuing to develop what we’ve begun.”
Au-delà des étoiles, le paysage mystique, de Monet à Kandinsky (Mystical Landscapes) is running at the Musée d’Orsay until June 25, 2017.