GALLERY WATCH: Meet Annabelle Kienle, the curator behind the National Gallery of Canada’s Van Gogh blockbuster (opening May 25!)

GALLERY WATCH: Meet Annabelle Kienle, the curator behind the National Gallery of Canada’s Van Gogh blockbuster (opening May 25!)

ART STAR: When the National Gallery opens its blockbuster Van Gogh exhibit this month, visitors will see works that haven’t travelled in decades. PAUL GESSELL talks to Anabelle Kienle, the up-and-coming curator who made it happen



Photography by Joël Côté-Cright.

Two important National Gallery of Canada assets are featured in a short video that promotes the new Van Gogh: Up Close exhibit. One is the splendid painting Iris, created in 1889 when the artist lived in a lunatic asylum in Saint-Rémy, France. Acquired by the gallery in 1954, the piece played an important role in bringing the Van Gogh exhibit to fruition. The other asset in the video is Anabelle Kienle.

Polished and fresh-faced, Kienle discusses the importance of detail in Iris and other Van Gogh works and introduces the exhibit within the context of the artist’s life. Kienle is the junior, albeit self-described “audacious,” curator acquired from the St. Louis Art Museum in 2006. She was also instrumental in this summer’s blockbuster exhibit.

The show, which opens May 25, was conceived one day in late 2006, a month or so after Kienle arrived in Ottawa as the newly hired assistant curator of European and American art. (She has since been promoted to associate curator.)  The phone rang. It was Kienle’s former St. Louis boss, Cornelia Homburg, an internationally renowned Van Gogh expert.

Kienle and Homburg, who was by then living in France, chatted about their various projects, with the conversation eventually turning to the possibility of mounting an exhibition of Van Gogh paintings of extreme close-up views of nature — blades of grass, sheaves of wheat, and flowers — a prime example being that aforementioned painting of a blooming iris in the National Gallery’s collection. Luckily, Kienle did not lack chutzpah. Though new to the job and low on the totem pole, she immediately buttonholed David Franklin, the chief curator back then, to propose a Van Gogh exhibition. “It’s probably one of the most audacious things one could dream up,” Kienle says now.

Franklin and Pierre Théberge, the gallery director at the time, together with director of exhibitions Karen Colby-Stothart, wondered whether it was feasible. Kienle reassured them, and soon she and Homburg had drawn up a wish list of paintings and began travelling the globe, arm-twisting directors from some of the world’s great museums to loan their Van Goghs. One of Kienle’s destinations was the Honolulu Museum of Art, where she inked a deal to borrow Van Gogh’s Wheat Field With Sheaves.

In 2008, the Philadelphia Museum of Art signed on as a partner. The resulting exhibition of 45 Van Goghs — about half of the close-ups he painted in his lifetime — debuted in Philly this past winter to positive reviews. A New York Times rave about this “succinct, revelatory exhibition” highlighted Kienle’s research into Van Gogh’s voluminous correspondence. In the exhibition catalogue, Kienle points to letters by Van Gogh in which the artist reveals that he was able to calm himself by focusing his gaze and his art on such minute elements as a single blade of grass. Thanks to Kienle, the world is gaining new insight into one of the most analyzed and tortured minds in the history of art.

Kienle, 36, was raised in Stuttgart, Germany. As a child, she loved visiting museums. Initially, she says, she planned a career in organizing cultural events but “figured out very quickly that wasn’t my cup of tea.” Instead, while serving an internship at Vienna’s Museum of Modern Art, Kienle discovered her calling as a curator.

She obtained a PhD in 2005 from the University of Münster with a thesis on the German expressionist artist Max Beckmann. The thesis has been published as the German-language book Beckmann in Amerika. While writing her master’s thesis, she landed an internship working closely with Homburg — “my guiding spirit” — in St. Louis in 2001.

Kienle’s first visit to Canada was for her National Gallery job interview in 2006. Since then, she has spent many hours preparing the Van Gogh show, and this past winter she worked on the exhibit Icons of Modernism — which involved the likes of Picasso, Cézanne, and Duchamp — for the Alberta Museum of Art in Edmonton. “Canada has been a great place for me,” says Kienle. “As a young curator walking in and getting a Van Gogh project handed to you by an old friend and colleague and then having the gallery be supportive is extraordinary.”

A rising star at the National Gallery, Kienle managed to retain her job while some other, far more experienced curators were axed in a traumatic round of staff cuts undertaken over the past year. Paul Lang, Franklin’s replacement as chief curator, says the gallery must hire talented junior staff “to ensure the continuity of excellence” at the institution. “In the case of Anabelle Kienle, we have been very lucky and successful, as we can see in the result of her involvement in the Van Gogh exhibition,” he states. “She demonstrated not only the indispensable determination but also the required diplomacy and sensitivity to public relations.”

Lang particularly praised Kienle for her catalogue essay on Van Gogh’s letters and for securing “significant loans,” including the Van Gogh landscape View of Vessenots Near Auvers, from the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. Kienle, herself, is especially delighted by the fact that her team convinced the Kunsthalle Mannheim in Germany to loan the still-life painting Roses and Sunflowers — a work that has not travelled since the mid-1980s.

A curator must play detective to locate all the desired paintings. Then the diplomatic art of persuasion is necessary to secure loans. Personal contacts are mined. Every possible string is pulled. Says Kienle: “We went to great lengths to track down some important pictures — taking months to sometimes years.” There were also some disappointments. Kienle had desperately wanted the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles to lend Irises. Also done while the artist was at the asylum, it was loaned to Ottawa for a smaller Van Gogh show in 1999. But the painting has not travelled since, the picture being one of the most beloved works in the L.A. museum.

So what’s in store for Kienle? Well, this expectant mother is scheduled to begin a year of maternity leave in June. But the gallery has already expressed interest in having its rising star organize, shortly after her return, an exhibition on Beckmann. It would be the first ever show about a German expressionist at the National Gallery. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of last-minute details to iron out for the Ottawa opening of Van Gogh. Kienle describes the show as “one of the biggest endeavours” possible for a curator. “I’m giving birth to two babies this year,” she jokes.