A feast for the eyes

Stroll through the downtown campus and you’ll have the opportunity to drink in works of art by some of Quebec’s top talents and some of the world’s most influential masters.

Text by Daniel McCabe, BA’89
Photos by Claudio Calligaris

Over the course of its long history, McGill has quietly put together one of the largest and most eclectic collections of artwork in Montreal, ranging from course-based sketches and watercolours by generations of architecture students, to seminal works by members of the fabled Group of Seven. The University boasts an overall collection of about 1,800 works, dozens of which are on public display.

While McGill regularly commemorates the contributions of each principal, chancellor and board of governors’ chair with a commissioned portrait, “we haven’t been able to secure a significant budget for the acquisition of other forms of art,” says David Covo, BSc(Arch)’71, BArch’74, an associate professor of architecture and the chair of McGill’s visual arts committee. “And yet, the University has managed over time to put together a very impressive collection.”

Most of the works in McGill’s collection have been the product of generous and often unexpected donations. In more recent years, a Quebec government program promoting public art has augmented the collection by sponsoring the creation of new works to enrich the public spaces of buildings constructed with government support. Ondes, Marie-France Brière’s black marble rendering of a sound wave that sits outside the New Music Building on Sherbrooke Street, is one of the works acquired by McGill in this manner.

Covo is fond of the 80 or so sculptures in McGill’s collection. Some of these pieces have become beloved campus icons. “There is always something going on around the James McGill statue,” notes Covo, whether it’s red balloons being attached to his wrist to mark Valentine’s Day, or newly minted graduates lining up to have their photos taken with the University’s founder during convocation.

Not every piece is uniformly admired. Covo has heard his share of criticisms about several works—one colleague offered to blow up a particular piece that irked him. Strong reactions to the works don’t faze Covo. “That’s the nature of art. I’m more concerned when a new installation fails to inspire any sort of reaction at all,” he says. “A significant work encourages you to spend a little time with it and challenges you to understand it; it invites you to read your surroundings in a different light.”


This is one of two untitled paintings by celebrated Montreal artist Jean McEwen on display in the Nahum Gelber Law Library. Known for his mastery of texture and his bold use of colour, McEwen was a protégé of abstract artist Paul-Émile Borduas, one of the most influential figures in Canadian art history. Fittingly, McEwen was awarded Quebec’s highest honour for achievement in visual arts —the Prix Paul-Émile Borduas— in 1998.



Did Paul Bunyan drop his keys? This work, by Montreal sculptor Jacek Jarnuszkiewicz, adorns the staircase to the M.H. Wong Building, home to the Departments of Chemical Engineering and Mining and Metallurgical Engineering. Constructed of brass, copper and stainless steel (all materials of interest to the researchers inside the building), the work represents the keys to knowledge and the serrated edge along one key evokes the streetscapes of Plateau Mont-Royal. Other works by Jarnuszkiewicz are located at Atwater Market, the Pointe-à-Calliere museum in Old Montreal and the Cartier metro station.


British sculptor Barbara Hepworth was a major figure in the modernist movement and her work is displayed at the United Nations headquarters in New York, the University of Oxford’s St. Catherine’s College, and Britain’s Tate Gallery. Her bronze piece Square Forms and Circles will be one of four works highlighted in a new sculpture garden, an initiative of former vice-principal (administration and finance) François Roy. Another work that will be included in the new James Square, which will be officially opened at the end of May near the James Administration Building, is Fenêtres sur l’avenir, by Marcel Barbeau, one of the leaders of Quebec’s highly influential automatistes, a group of abstract artists that also included Paul-Émile Borduas and Jean Paul Riopelle.

Enter the atrium of the Francesco Bellini Life Sciences Building, and there is no way you can miss Stéphanie Béliveau’s stark Des soleils et des cellules, a work that manages to evoke both stars being born and cells coming under assault. A visual artist and illustrator, Béliveau received the City of Montreal’s Prix Pierre-Ayot for outstanding young artists in 1997.




Montreal-born, France-based sculptor Robert Roussil’s La Danse de paix was originally commissioned in 1953 by architect Fred Lebensold (a co-founder of ARCOP, one of Canada’s leading architectural firms, Lebensold co-designed Place des Arts and the National Arts Centre) for the exterior of a Westmount home he had designed. The work eventually made its way to McGill where the stainless steel, copper and tin creation—one of the first large-scale outdoor murals in Canada—is now on display inside the Brown Student Services Building.

One of the giants of the pop art movement that both celebrated and satirized pop culture, Roy Lichtenstein was among the most prominent American artists of the 20th century. Many of his most vivid works drew their inspiration from comic books and advertising. Lichtenstein’s tapestry Abstraction is located on the ground floor of the Arts Building, close to where it intersects with the Stephen Leacock Building. The work was a gift from Regina Slatkin, BA’29, an art dealer and collector who also donated several other significant works to McGill, including another tapestry by master minimalist Frank Stella.

Mary Filer, BFA’50, is an award-winning glass sculptor with a unique connection to the Montreal Neurological Institute where her work, Neuressence, co-created with Marcus Sabathil, is exhibited inside the Brain Tumour Research Centre. Having been a Neuro nurse for several years, Filer has firsthand knowledge of the work that goes on there. She was still nursing when she first took up art seriously under the tutelage of the Group of Seven’s Arthur Lismer in the forties. Today her glass works and paintings are included in the collections of the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and Simon Fraser University. A mural by Filer, depicting the history of neurology, hangs in the Neuro’s main boardroom.

The statue of Queen Victoria that maintains its majestic vigil in front of the Strathcona Music Building has a royal pedigree that extends beyond its subject matter. Unveiled in 1900 at what was then the Royal Victoria College residence for female students, the work was created by Princess Louise, Victoria’s daughter and, for a brief period, a resident of Rideau Hall when her husband served as Canada’s governor general (Alberta’s Lake Louise is named in her honour as is the province itself—her full name was Louisa Caroline Alberta). Another of her sculptures, also of Victoria, is prominently displayed on the grounds of Kensington Palace.


Abitibi artist Luc Boyer’s Le Retour is located outside the Cancer Research Building, home to the Rosalind and Morris Goodman Cancer Centre. The rusted finish and the organic forms refer to both the disease and the treatments under study by the researchers inside the building, says Covo. “It’s a very powerful piece, even aggressive,” says Covo, something that he finds entirely appropriate given the subject matter. The work’s strong verticality is an expression of optimism and develops a nice fit with the trees on site and the nearby woods of Mount Royal.




There are always plenty of reasons to visit McGill’s Redpath Museum, where you’ll find everything from mummies to meteorite fragments. One of the more unusual residents of the museum can be spotted soaring near the ceiling—an origami pteranodon with a 16-foot wingspan. Created from a single 4.5 m x 4.5 m sheet of paper, the pteranodon is the work of American physicist Robert Lang, a pioneer in computational origami, whose creations have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and featured in the New Yorker and Wired.


Catherine Widgery’s Icarus, created in 1983, provides its own unique take on the classic Greek myth for visitors to the Leacock Building. David Covo says the steel and wood mobile is one of his favourite works of art at McGill. “It’s a wonderful interpretation of the myth,” says Covo. “It constantly reconfigures itself as you walk towards it, underneath it, or around it.” Widgery, a sculptor and mixed-media artist who divides her time between Montreal, Massachusetts and Guatemala, has created more than 30 site-specific public art projects in Canada and the United States. Her work garnered international attention in 1998 as the result of a major exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum and it has been featured on the covers of several art magazines.

The varied achievements of R. Tait McKenzie, MDCM1892, are difficult to summarize in a few lines. As a doctor and medical educator (he taught anatomy at McGill for several years), McKenzie became a trailblazing figure in the fields of military and rehabilitative medicine and his book, Reclaiming the Maimed, became an official manual of the United States Army and Navy. He served, for a time, as the personal physician to the Governor General of Canada. McKenzie was also a pioneer in the field of physical education, arguing that regular exercise was essential to good health. McKenzie himself was an accomplished athlete, earning a Canadian intercollegiate championship in the high jump during his McGill studies. His interest in both athletics and anatomy drew him to sculpting. While art critics were initially scornful of the moonlighting doctor’s efforts, the anatomical precision and gracefulness of McKenzie’s work soon drew praise. His much-copied sculpture The Ideal Scout was commissioned for the headquarters of the Boy Scouts of America, while a statuette, The Sprinter, sat on U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt’s White House desk. Some of McKenzie’s works are displayed at McGill, including The Falcon, a bronze statue located outside the McLennan Library, and Brothers of the Wind, a bas-relief located inside the Currie Gym.



One of the early pioneers of the modern poster was French painter Jules Chéret. Among his works was a poster heralding the 1889 opening of the famous Parisian cabaret, the Moulin Rouge. Chéret’s approach to posters quickly became the norm. Colourful illustrations become their dominant feature while the use of text became much more restricted – just a handful of explanatory words were used in his designs. A master of lithography, Chéret popularized its use. His posters, which advertised everything from major theatrical performances to hat shops to cosmetics, became a defining element of Paris during la Belle Époque. Two of Chéret’s paintings, L’Enfant prodigue and La Patineuse, both maquettes for posters, are displayed inside the Strathcona Music Building, near its entranceway.