Chagall’s La Tour Eiffel Inspires Hope for Humanity

As tulips bloomed in the Capital, National Gallery of Canada director Marc Mayer tip-toed on a minefield of public contempt as news leaked that the Gallery planned to sell a painting from its permanent collection.  The work, The Eiffel Tower, by European modernist master Marc Chagall has been in the collection since 1956. The Gallery said the sale of the Chagall would help finance the purchase of what they cryptically called a work of “ national heritage.”  Two weeks later, it emerged that the work was Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment, by French neo-classical artist Jacques-Louis David owned by a Catholic Church group in Quebec City.

More than a month passed with the Gallery and two Quebec art institutions engaged in a kind of Deal or No Deal with the National Gallery the biggest game show loser as the David painting stayed in Quebec.  The painting was granted heritage status by the province’s Minister of Culture and therefore off the market.  Despite this and the Gallery’s own rationale for selling the Chagall, Mayer and the Board’s chair Françoise Lyon were adamant the sale of the Chagall would proceed as planned at Christie’s, New York Impressionist and Modern auction on May 15th auction. But as public outrage intensified, the Gallery backed down and cancelled the sale. 

Selling art in the collection is not part of the Gallery’s mandate. As stated in the Gallery’s mission statement, “The collection must be expanded, preserved, interpreted, and used extensively by the public for pleasure and understanding, for research and the advancement of knowledge.”

But a Disposition Policy approved by the Gallery’s Board of Trustees in March 2017 opened the door to the potential deaccession of the Chagall and makes the collection vulnerable to future sell offs. 

This troubles Bryna Cohen, the Ottawa artist who initiated one of the petitions to halt the sale of the Chagall work.  Cohen worked as an education guide at the National Gallery for more than a decade, leaving in 2000.

Ottawa Life: What prompted you to take action in starting a petition and letter writing campaign?

Bryna Cohen: What prompted me was the need to take  immediate action to block the sale at Christie’s and to alert the public to what had occurred in such secrecy. The CBC broke the story in the first week of April. Unbeknown to most Canadians the painting appeared in the online catalogue of Christie’s April 1 ,2018. There remained 6 short weeks to May 15 ,the date slated for Christie’s auction and no time for delay. The thought of La Tour Eiffel hanging in a private collection was inconceivable to me. The facile manner in which the motion to deaccession was authorized by Heritage Canada and the secrecy surrounding the sale without any consultation with NGC Membership was inexcusable. The fact that the Gallery thought no one would care made me wonder who was serving whom? Given the excuse that the Gallery needed funding to acquire another work of importance, did not justify selling this painting. There were many rumblings of discontent or surprise on the internet because those of us who have been familiar with the policies of the NGC knew this was unprecedented.

How successful were those efforts in overturning the decision to halt the sale of the Chagall?

Our efforts were very successful, and we have been triumphant. Support grew widely to include an impressive roster of curators, museum representatives and the grandchildren of Chagall. The public must be vigilant to protect our collections and not take them for granted. This must never happen again. I believe the NGC has lost a lot of credibility.

As a guide at the National Gallery, do you recall speaking to groups about the Chagall work?

I did speak about the Chagall as it captured viewers’ attention; it is rich in fantasy and love of humanity. The Gallery owns copyrights to all works in the Permanent Collection and so as guides we encouraged the public to only photograph art works in the Permanent Collection, as they belonged to all Canadians.

Do you think the public outcry over the potential sale of the Chagall would have been as intense had it been a different painting from the collection?

I cannot say for certain that this would have been the case. Perhaps there would still have been an outcry because the NGC had changed its’ age-old policy. The Board of Trustees had voted to deaccession an art work in the Permanent Collection. This was previously unthinkable. The NGC has worked hard to acquire and collect its pieces. In my opinion, it is not in the business of selling art. Its’ focus should be on fostering patrons to support the arts through generous donations.

Why is the Chagall painting an important part of the collection? What makes it special?

The Chagall painting is well liked for its’ themes of fantasy, beauty, hope, freedom, love and for its radiating warm colours.  It is both grounding in the female figure resting on the green earth under the Eiffel Tower, whimsical or surreal as represented by the rooster playing the violin, and spiritual as represented by the angel fluttering its’ wings in the sunlight. Altogether Chagall’s La Tour Eiffel inspires hope for humanity.

Bryna Cohen’s work is part of a group drawing exhibition titled UNSCRIPTED at Enriched Bread Artists Studio opening June 1 in coordination with Open Doors Ottawa and curated by Tami Ellis. The exhibition runs for two consecutive weekends June 1-3 and June 9-10.

Bryna Cohen is represented by Galerie St-Laurent +Hill since 1985.