Only peace and harmony

Leonard Cohen gallery features decades spanning art

gallery review by Alessia Faustini

If there were no paintings in the world/ Mine would be very important”. This statement, the opening line of a poem posted at the forefront of the TD Gallery Lounge, served as a disclaimer to all those walking in.  In true Leonard Cohen style, the eternally humble and self-deprecating poet, novelist and singer-songwriter introduces his exhibit. 

Before entering the gallery, a large leather-bound book is visible, sitting atop a table with laminated newspaper articles, all of which discuss the exhibition in question. The articles, as well as the inscriptions in the book by people who viewed Cohen’s drawings, offer much more praise than the artist allows himself. 

The pieces from the newspaper sing his praises, but the words from the people are what say the most. Roseanne Dion from Quebec City writes, “Dear Mr. Cohen, stay with us, stay… more than 100 years, because when you will be gone, you will bring a part of my heart with you. Thank you to be so…”

Leonard Cohen who in his own words says he “decorated his notebooks” with these drawings, demonstrates with this exhibit yet another facet of his boundless creativity. 

With 50 original pieces of artwork including self-portraits, nudes, and the odd landscape or drawing of familiar objects, Cohen’s drawings are overtly simple, entirely evocative and anything but pretentious. 

“The Living Poet”, one of many self-portraits seemingly scrawled hastily on paper, shows Cohen’s solemn face, deep-set lines and is accompanied by these words: “Takes children/ lost pussy/ wat constipation/ the living poet in his harness of beauty/ offers the day back to g-d”. 

With virtually every drawing,Cohen incorporates lines written by his internationally acclaimed hand. Every piece is reminiscent of a part of the famed Montrealer’s past. In keeping with the general focus of the rest of his body of work, from his songs and poetry to his novels, the pieces reflect people, mostly women that the artist has encountered throughout his life, as well as the places he has been. “Grecian woman”, regressing back to his days spent on the island of Hydra in Greece, “Montreal woman”, which reflects his hometown as he grew up in Westmount, and “My first wife”, are all nude portraits of the women who have passed through his life. 
The drawing which appears to be the strongest in the collection, “Dear Roshi”, is Cohen’s reflection on the five years he spent as a Zen Buddhist monk. The picture features a heavily ordained woman wearing jewellery of bright colours, and nothing else. The few lines that accompany it are made out to Roshi, the spiritual leader of the Cohen’s Buddhist studies at the Mt. Baldy monastery near Los Angeles. They read: “Dear Roshi, I’m sorry that I cannot help you now, because I met this woman. Please forgive my selfishness. I send you birthday greetings, deepest affection and respect. Jikan, the useless monk bows his head.” With this one simple illustration, Cohen succeeds in representing his entire life experience. His failure as a monk, his insatiable desire for women and his perpetual modesty are all represented in his letter, signed with his Buddhist name. 

Colours are sparse among this collection, with most pieces being entirely comprised of black charcoal on white paper visibly ripped straight from the artist’s Cohen’s notebook. The majority of the self-portraits incorporate a single colour, as with the seminal piece of the exhibition, “It was the hat”, which is the most accurate representation of the septuagenarian wearing a hat slightly shaded green. “Lost spectacles” is the one piece that seems out of place in the exhibit, with bright red, yellow and blue squares reminiscent of the 80s and seems sorely unrelated to the other pieces on display. 

In October of 2005, Cohen began a  legal battle with former manager, Kelley Lynch, who allegedly misappropriated over $5 million US from the singer’s retirement fund leaving him with only $150,000. Cohen was thrust into the spotlight because of his devastating financial woes and, as a result, was forced to begin touring again and sell his artworks, as with this exhibition. 

Despite having never intended to display his pieces, let alone sell them, the drawings perfectly encapsulate his body of work as a whole. Modest and unassuming, Leonard Cohen’s drawings are much like his songs. He has never claimed to be a good singer, nor a good artist for that matter. He is an artist who champions mediocrity and who nonetheless succeeds in creating beauty in the most simple of ways. While his artistic talent is minimal, and while Cohen’s drawings would likely go unnoticed in the art world were it not for his acclaim as a writer and singer, those who are familiar with the “Hallelujah” singer’s work, will appreciate the simplicity and stark beauty of every sketch. 

Once again, the humble artist describes himself in the closing lines of the poem at the forefront of the gallery and encompasses the essence of his artistic prowess and gives shape and life to his words: “The curator has called this exhibition/ Leonard Cohen Artworks/ I call my work/ Acceptable Decorations”. 

Visit Leonard Cohen’s Art Exhibiton until Feb. 28 at the Galerie TD Lounge of the Maison du Festival Rio Tinto Alcan. 

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