A Memory of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery

That trip to Fredericton, New Brunswick in fall 2019 was the last time I travelled out of my home province of Nova Scotia before the pandemic hit, and now when I think back on it, it has an especially poignant bizarre quality. The drive there was absolutely gorgeous, the conference at University of New Brunswick went smoothly, and on my last evening there, I separated from my little gang of colleagues, on a little private quest. 

For back in Nova Scotia, I had been told that there is a Salvador Dali collection in Fredericton, and I should check it out. And so I did.

It is so absolutely typical of small towns that there is no mention of Dali on the homepage for Beaverbrook Art Gallery or its entrance- if you didn’t know it was there, you would easily miss it. Case in point: I asked the lone woman at the admissions where the Dalis were, and a traveller who was just leaving the museum turned round, screamed “there’s a Dali in here?” and followed me back into the depth of the museum, muttering “excuse me- I just heard you ask about the Dali. I didn’t know”.

I have been privileged enough to see the works of several famous painters, but never in such quiet surroundings. Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is beset by throngs of passionate tourists, not so Dali’s Santiago El Grande, looming huge and blue in an empty dark hallway. The segmented sky and the powerful horse were completely engrossing, like no viewing I had ever done before. It was not what I associated with the painter of the melting clocks.

Dali’s Santiago El Grande
PHOTOGRAPH BY Shiva Nourpanah

The next painting, Equestrian Fantasy: Portrait of Lady Dunn (pictured at top) seemed like a conventional painting of British aristocracy. The high tilted head of the subject, the bird of prey perched delicately on her wrist, her arrogant expression and pose all conveying a sense of entitlement and superiority- belied by the sly sideways look of the horse, and more fantastically, the fact that the artist had given his subject three legs. Yes, under the rick dark velvet of her gown hanging down in a magnificent swoop on the gleaming side of the horse, three legs could be spotted. Possibly to add a light touch of his trademark whimsy in an otherwise serious painting, or to poke some gentle fun at his aristocratic client? Or both?

Dali had chosen to paint Lady Dunn’s husband in a Roman garb, a veritable Caeser wrapped in a shining golden toga, reclining against a deep blue sky and deep blue sea, with Romanesque scenery in the background. We get it, Dali. You had bills to pay, you needed to paint these glorified denizens of the upper-classes, fair enough. The husband and wife both look like deeply unpleasant people, and you were able to convey that, or maybe that is my wishful thinking and education superimposing on your artistic vision.

But Dali isn’t the only world-famous artist on displayed at Fredericton. Lord Beaverbrook knew his art- and oh my goodness! Is that a Matisse? In New Brunswick? A sketch, but still. An incomplete line drawing of Leda and the swan- small and faceless, but the swooping curved black lines rang strong and true, and the swan’s beak against the exposed breast looked like it hurt a lot.

Leda and the swan
PHOTOGRAPH BY Shiva Nourpanah

More exposed breasts- what collection of art is complete without? Ironically juxtaposed with a whole bunch of church-y paintings.

Madonna Whore
PHOTOGRAPH BY Shiva Nourpanah

“What does Virgo Inter Virgines mean?” I texted my Catholic-priest-manqué, Classics major boyfriend. “A virgin entering virgins?”

Virgo Inter Virgines
PHOTOGRAPH BY Shiva Nourpanah

-“A virgin amongst virgins” he texted back.

-“And Crucitixion via Dolorosa? There’s no translations!”

-“Grieving Through Crucifixion”

-“I never realised how useful it would be to have a boyfriend who knows Latin!” I quipped.

-“I knew it would come in handy one day” he responded.

Maybe one day I’ll have reason to visit Fredericton and the Beaverbrook Art gallery again, the silent near-empty hallways, the small but striking collection of masterpieces. Walking into museums is almost always a small suspension of time, but the Beaverbrook Art Gallery offered something a little skewed- not just a suspension of time, but of place too.

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Shiva Nourpanah

Shiva is a first-generation immigrant from Iran who made the beautiful province of Nova Scotia her home. She works for the Province, and prior to that, she worked for a community organization, the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia, for three years. She also teaches International Development Studies part-time at Saint Mary's University.

She holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from Dalhousie University (2017), and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Post-Doctoral Fellowship at the University of Guelph (2021).