AGO exhibition aims for an ‘intimate conversation’ on Leonard Cohen’s creative life

A photo titled, “Leonard Cohen, Self-Portrait, 1979” is shown in this handout. The Art Gallery of Ontario opens “Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows,” an exhibition showcasing more than 200 artworks and objects. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Leonard Cohen Family Trust

While much is known about Leonard Cohen’s legacy as a writer, singer and artist, a new exhibition offers a more intimate reflection on his creative process.

This week the Art Gallery of Ontario opens “Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows,” a showcase of more than 200 artworks and objects such as archival notebooks, letters, lyrics, as well as photographs, and drawings.

It also features rare concert footage that is shown in two large-scale multimedia installations.

The exhibition opens to AGO members on Wednesday and to the public on Saturday.

It incorporates a symbolic use of shadow and light, with striking blue wall accents, to reflect Cohen’s deep connection to Quebec, Israel and Greece.

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Stephen Jost, director of the AGO, says visitors can expect to dive deeper into the complexities and unique aspects of Cohen’s life through the photography and artifacts on display.

“I think you’ll be really struck by how beautiful the show is, how much care is in the details, but also that the show has kind of an emotional range,” he said. “From when he starts to the very last video, which is him reciting a prayer in Jerusalem, it’s emotionally beautiful.”

The exhibition, curated by Julian Cox, the AGO’s deputy director and chief curator, includes extensive loans from the Leonard Cohen Family Trust, complemented by loans from the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, Stephen Bulger Gallery and the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.

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Cox says the exhibition takes a chronological arc, exploring Cohen’s early life in Montreal as well as his adjustment to fatherhood in the early 1970s. Cox also says the artifacts detail the way Cohen’s creative ideas evolved.

“It’s a kind of kaleidoscopic view of Cohen,” he said. “We also are making it clear that from the very beginning, the activity of drawing and doodling was very important to him.”

He also notes Cohen’s passion for photography and taking his own photos, creating an album from 1968 to 1969. In the exhibit, it’s titled “Tennessee Notebook.”

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“He understood its power, and its ability to shape how his persona was experienced publicly,” Cox said.

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Anchoring the exhibition are two large-scale multi-channel works from Montreal-based artists Kara Blake and George Fok, commissioned by the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.

Blake’s “Offerings,” commissioned in 2017, is a five-screen video compilation inviting visitors to hear Cohen reflect on his own writing and songs. Fok’s 56-minute-long multiscreen video installation “Passing Through,” also commissioned in 2017, presents a collage of performances culled from four decades.

Blake says while making her piece, her goal was to present Cohen in his own words and delve into his artistic process starting with his influences as a child.

“I was drawn to certain themes and was trying to create a space where people could come in and engage in this sort of intimate conversation with Cohen,” she said.

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Fok says his piece is an immersive experience that celebrates Cohen, who died in 2016 at age 82, as a singer-songwriter and performer. He says he wants visitors to experience the equivalent of time travel in the space.

“It contains a lot of emotional experiences that are nostalgic, romantic, and reflect his personal identity,” he said.

The exhibition runs until April 10, 2023.

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