The youngest woman ever to be appointed director of the 140-year-old institution talks Kandinsky, canoes, and how Matisse started her ‘obsession with flatness’
Sasha Suda began her career in the medieval department of the Met in New York, then returned to Canada to be curator of European art at the Art Gallery of Ontario. A highlight of her career was Small Wonders, an award-winning exhibition of carved boxwood beads and other devotional miniatures created in the Low Countries early in the 16th century.
‘They are impossible objects,’ she says, ‘and it seems inconceivable that a human being made them. I would love to meet the artists, and ask what secret superpowers they had.’ In February 2019, she was named the 11th director and CEO of Canada’s National Gallery in Ottowa.
I often went to New York as a kid, because I had an aunt there. My father would take me to the Met to see arms and armour, and also to the Guggenheim. During one visit, when I was nine or 10, I encountered a Kandinsky.
I don’t recall the exact picture, I just remember the angular forms and how they contrasted with the Guggenheim’s curved walkway. In some ways that painting made no sense, and in others it made all the sense in the world. I talked to my father about how an idea can take physical form in art, and how the idea can be enough. That was just profound.
The National Gallery of Canada is well over 100 years old, and it has the greatest collection of Old Masters and European art in Canada. Canadian art has always been an important area of collecting: figures such as the Group of Seven, and also French-Canadian work.
Only in the 1980s did we start covering the strand that we have been missing, which is the indigenous art of Canada. That’s where we are trying to fill significant gaps.
The Group of Seven travelled to northern Canada, painting the wildernesses in new ways. Among this early 20th-century school of painters are Lawren S. Harris and Franklin Carmichael. Tom Thomson, who died before the name was coined, is also considered one of their number. These artists painted en plein air, which was a break from the academy tradition here. Theirs are the works that Canadians expect to find when they walk into the National Gallery.
Canoes are a cornerstone of our society. Many cities grew up in portage sites, places where people were carrying canoes from small bodies of water to larger ones. And the canoe is thought by some indigenous communities to be a singular work of art, made by their chief craftsmen.
Halfway through the installation you will find a canoe sitting in front of a wall of 19th-century portraits and landscapes. The canoe in the gallery is about the same age as the pictures on the wall above it. Indigenous art is displayed alongside the Canadian art at the National Gallery of Canada. Under my predecessor, Marc Mayer, the institution wove together the art histories of our indigenous cultures and our Canadian painters.
At least once a week I spend a few minutes with a gorgeous Bronzino portrait, Pierantonio Bandini. There are so many other stunning pictures here; one particular highlight from my field is Rubens’s Entombment. Then there is Klimt’s Hope I and Van Gogh’s Irises.
I would say the world is looking to us in Canada. We are exploring new chapters of tolerance, welcoming refugees, reconciling with our indigenous partners on this land — and that is a wonderful mess of a conversation. There are many fascinating aspects to running a national institution, to telling the national story.
I am a medievalist by training, but I am also happy to look beyond the canonical narratives. My contemporaries tend to have a flexible style. It surprised some people when I was given the job, because of my relatively young age, but I think my appointment was an attempt to tap into the new generation of museology.
We were all very excited about Beautiful Monsters. It’s an exhibition of imaginary creatures from our collection of early European prints, among them works by Goltzius, Dürer and Schongauer. It’s a fun dive into the collection, but it also looks at society’s fascination with the way that monstrosity can take human form, and what that can unleash. It runs until 29 March.
I get a lot of pleasure out of the Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell. She is one of the great colourists. I recently saw an extraordinary painting of hers at the Modern in Fort Worth. History has its reasons, and for women artists things sometimes become clearer decades later, when they are represented by the work alone. In that gallery, 50 years after her time, Mitchell was completely holding her own against the male painters of the same era.
The work I’d love to own is Matisse’s The Piano Lesson at MoMA. I have never wavered since I saw it for the first time, in the late 1990s. It depicts a young man sitting at a piano by a window in a beautiful home. The muted colours are glorious: dove-grey, light greens, pinks, yellows, orange. There is a flatness to the painting that, ironically, is one of the reasons I ended up being a medievalist: Matisse was the start of my obsession with flatness. But that is the one work I would love to live with. It evokes all the best things in life.