Exhibition depicts Canada’s prime ministers with majesty and mischief

HALIFAX – It’s John Diefenbaker as you’ve never seen him — standing on a chair, an intricate miniature statue of the 13th prime minister in a quirky exhibition that captures 150 years of Canadian political history.

Canada’s 23 prime ministers are presented with both majesty and mischief at the exhibit at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia to mark the country’s 150th birthday. It features artwork in a variety of mediums — from paintings and engraved stamps to editorial cartoons and statues and even cash money.

“I really fear that kids today don’t get much history,” said Dianne O’Neill, a curator at the gallery. “This exhibit at least gives people an introduction to Canada’s prime ministers and maybe suggests some of the excitement that is in our past.”

The gallery largely relied on its own collection, but got creative with prime ministers in the 20th century “simply because the formal drawings and prints just don’t happen anymore,” said O’Neill.

One piece is something you can find in your wallet: a $50 banknote. The bill bears the face of William Lyon Mackenzie King, the country’s 10th prime minister who served on-and-off between 1921 and 1948.

“Art takes many forms,” said O’Neill.

The collection begins with a lithograph of the iconic 1864 scene from Charlottetown, when delegates — including future prime ministers Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Charles Tupper — met to discuss Confederation.

“It seemed logical to build an exhibition around this piece,” said O’Neill, adding that Robert Harris’s original painting “The Fathers of Confederation” burned in a fire on Parliament Hill in 1916.

The gallery was given the lithograph a few years ago and has been trying to think of a way to build an exhibition around it ever since, she said. Given that this year marks the sesquicentennial of Confederation, it made sense to recall the country’s leaders and to offer them up in a mixture of artistic styles, she said.

“I’ve always said I could produce an exhibition on any topic — it’s just a way of twisting it. Confederation as a theme, I couldn’t do. But prime ministers are an integral part of it.”

Nearby is an editorial cartoon of Canada’s 11th prime minister: Richard Bedford Bennett, who was in office in the early 1930s.

Bennett, who was perceived by many to be a one-man show, is depicted a number of times in the 1931 cartoon by Arch Dale. Five separate Bennetts are shown seated around a table with one exclaiming: “There are too many of us. We must cut ourselves down by four!”

Among some of the exhibit’s other oddities are two sets of engraved stamps. Arthur Meighen’s face is shown 100 times on a blue stamp sheet of the 9th prime minister, who served two brief terms in the 1920s. Each stamp is marked five cents.

There are also four engraved stamps of Sir John Abbott, the country’s first native-born prime minister, who accepted the role of Canada’s third leader reluctantly in 1891 when Macdonald died.

The exhibit features a large wooden statue by Walter Cook of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau and two Joe Fafard statues: One of Diefenbaker standing on a red chair and another of Sir John Thompson — Canada’s fourth prime minister — sitting with his hat resting on his knee and his left hand stroking a dog.

Art of Canada’s prime ministers from the last two decades are mostly editorial cartoons, one of which features Canada’s 19th and only woman prime minister Kim Campbell, who was in office from June to November 1993.

In it, artist Bruce MacKinnon evokes an iconic and controversial 1990 portrait of Campbell by Barbara Woodley, in which she stands bare-shouldered holding her Queen’s Counsel robes in front of her on a hanger. For the cartoon, she wears a helmet and holds camouflage fatigues.

But standing out amongst the hand-drawn cartoons of Canada’s more recent prime ministers is a large wooden painting of Jean Chretien. The work by Chris Lloyd shows the 20th prime minister among a crowd of mostly faceless people with the phrase “‘Cananada is my life,’ PM says'” at the bottom.

It was a piece O’Neill was somewhat reluctant to include.

“I did have some concern that the artist is mocking his speech problems,” she said. “But it’s a nice, powerful image, so it seemed like the best one to use.”

The exhibition ends with an editorial cartoon of Canada’s current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, shown standing next to his father Pierre.

Artist Bruce MacKinnon draws the elder Trudeau with a rose pinned to his suit jacket and the son with a marijuana leaf, reflecting the family’s political history and Justin Trudeau’s plans to legalize marijuana.

“I thought, from a historical sense, this cartoon was the most apt,” said O’Neill.

“In the States, they had the two Adams and the two Bushes. In England they had the two Pitts and the two Grenvilles. But this is the first time we’ve had a father-son combination.

“I would think that in 100 years, that’s the fact that’s always going to be remembered. And here MacKinnon has captured that awareness of history.”

The exhibition runs until March 26.

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