Toronto: AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario)

Years ago, I was reading a magazine and there was an article about Toronto. At the time I knew nothing about the city, and wasn’t interested — until I spotted a photo of the giant floating staircase at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and then I thought, “I want to see that someday.”

Floating spiraling staircase at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Strangely enough, I didn’t visit the museum until yesterday, even though we’ve had ample opportunity. We almost went in during our first weekend in Toronto; I got free passes from the library during our second week or so; the museum offered life drawing once a week in the very courtyard pictured above (yet I never went). Go figure.

Curved wood-and-glass wall, AGO

I think it’s fortunate I waited on the AGO until I’d gone to the Royal Ontario Museum (the ROM) first. When I went to the ROM a week or two ago, I was tired and hot and my backpack was heavy, but since I’d paid $15 for admission I felt like I had to see the whole thing. That was a mistake. Three hours later I left the museum, totally overwhelmed and still feeling like I hadn’t seen anything.

I realized yesterday that large museums require a slower approach: more of a relationship, rather than an exhaustive and exhausting drive-by encounter. With that in mind, I took my time at the AGO, spending more time with individual works and galleries, and not feeling bad if I had to skip whole floors because of sensory overload. I carried a smaller bag, made sure I sat often and drank a lot of water, and took time out of the galleries to look outside (an easy task in a museum with many windows, skylights, and staircases).

View of Toronto from the south staircase of the AGO

Naturally, I didn’t see everything, and I left after only two hours because I couldn’t absorb  any more. (Then I had Cantonese food and went to a free sitting meditation session. Good call.) But I had a very good time, and “met” a lot of interesting works of art. Here are some of my favorites.

Aelbert Cuyp, View of Dordrecht, c. 1655. This was in a lovely gallery of 17th-century paintings from the Netherlands. You know the scene in CS Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader where the painting seems to come to life? When I gazed at this painting I felt I could see the birds moving through the air. Image from (the AGO has a tumblr!).

Anthony Van Dyck, Daedalus and Icarus, c.1620

Anthony Van Dyck, Daedalus and Icarus, c.1620. From the same gallery as the above. I love how Icarus is all, “Whatever Dad, I’m young, I’m beautiful, your day is done.” Image from

Berenice Abbott, "Hands of Jean Cocteau. Paris, 1927"

Berenice Abbott, “Hands of Jean Cocteau. Paris, 1927.” There was a whole exhibit of Berenice Abbott’s wonderful photos: portraits of James Joyce and Isamu Noguchi, New York City night scenes, rural America. She was an American who went to Europe to study sculpture; around age 25 she began working as an assistant to Man Ray, and after that took to photography. Image from

Henri Le Sidaner, "House by the River in Full Moon," 1920

Henri Le Sidaner, “House by the River in Full Moon,” 1920. I don’t think this is the painting I saw at the AGO — that one was called “The White Chapel, Falaise” — but if it’s not the same one, it’s similar (and from the same year). I felt like I could see the dusky shadows moving. Image from

Franklin Carmichael, "North Shore, Lake Superior," 1927

Franklin Carmichael, “North Shore, Lake Superior,” 1927. The AGO has a fantastic collection of landscapes from a 20th-century group of Canadian painters known as the Group of Seven. I walked into a gallery and saw this piece and just gaped. I also really loved the similarly bold, colorful, evocative paintings of Lawren Harris (another of the Group of Seven). I was too tired at this point to spend much time with the paintings, but just walking through the galleries was a joy. Image from

Zhang Huan, "Airplanes"

Zhang Huan, “Airplanes,” painting made from incense ash collected from Buddhist temples in the Shanghai area. The Zhang Huan exhibit was fabulous — photorealistic ash paintings and “memory doors” made by affixing BW photos (many of them Cultural Revolution-era) to antique wooden doors from Northern Chinese country houses, then carving away parts of the photos. Image from