By Paul Gessell
Just a few days before his 86th birthday on May 5, Arnaud Maggs sauntered into the National Gallery of Canada. He was lithe, animated, and exceedingly dapper, dressed all in black, including a spiffy black pork-pie hat.
“Everybody asks me about the hat,” he says. Everybody wants to know where he bought it. He refuses to tell, except that it was purchased in Toronto, where he lives.
Maggs has a thing about hats. His many photographic self-portraits show him wearing the oddest collection of hats this side of Cirque du Soleil. But those are just a tiny percentage of his largely photo-based work.
The National Gallery has just unveiled a new solo show of Maggs’s work. It’s a survey show rather than a full restrospective. And it is long overdue.
The Montreal-born Maggs started rather late in the art business, being 47 when he decided to give up fashion photography and graphic design for the life of an artiste, a conceptual artiste at that. So, that means everyone will not “get” his art. No worry. Maggs’s work can be viewed on different levels. There’s an aspect to his work best appreciated by those who live in the land of artspeak. Others can appreciate Maggs for his rather unique abilities as a kind of archaeologist.
The National Gallery exhibition called Arnaud Maggs: Identification contains framed photographs of the pages of personal diaries, handwritten bills for articles of clothing purchased by Parisian high society, and a massive wall of enlargements of black-edged envelopes from the late 19th century announcing the death of a loved one.
These are the scraps of paper that tell the personal stories of days gone by and the people who lived in those times. They are like ancient artifacts from the Egyptians or Assyrians except they are far more recent and they are, in a way, as much a portrait of these people as are the many photographs Maggs takes of friends and acquaintance so he can line them up in a grid pattern and you, the viewer, can see the many different shapes of heads that comprise humanity.
Arnaud Maggs: Identification continues at the National Gallery until Sept. 16.